SBC Life Articles

Rural Setting Does Not Preclude Church Growth: Two Churches Explode the Myth

It seemed like a dream come true. Gold was discovered in 1986 on property owned by Sawney's Creek Baptist Church in Ridgeway, S.C. The church suddenly had money to fulfill several of its dreams.

Proceeds from the sale of the church property helped the congregation relocate and build a new sanctuary, education building, family life center, and parsonage.

But extra money, by itself, cannot guarantee growth, says the church's pastor, Richard Humphries. Even after the discovery of gold, the small church's attendance plummeted from 59 to a low of 40 in 1989.

It was only after the church became desperate and broadened its vision that the climate became right for growth, Humphries indicated.

"One of the deacons got up and said, 'We're dying. There's death all around us, but there's life out there somewhere,'" Humphries noted. "The life just happened to be beyond the border that they had kind of hemmed themselves into."

For years, the church had seen itself as primarily a congregation for Ridgeway. But Humphries helped the members of the congregation broaden their scope of outreach and concern. They began to see themselves more as the regional church that they are today.

"Our church is between two towns and near the edge of Columbia, which is the state capital," said Humphries, who came to the church in May 1994. "They had always ministered mainly just to Ridgeway. But when they started going out to these other areas, that really sparked the growth."

As the church grew to its present size — 90-100 in Sunday School and close to 150 in morning worship – Humphries found several other factors that helped spark church growth:

The pastor's trust of the people. "If you're not willing to take your thumb off and trust your people, you can't experience growth. I've pastored churches and – like other pastors – I said, 'We need to do this or that program.' When I went out the door, the program died. It's better if you can plant the idea in someone else. I want something to live beyond me. It's got to belong to the church, not just to me. It's got to be their dream."

The church members' trust of new people. "The original core group here has been willing to hand over power, and that's a key to any church's growth," Humphries stated. "We've assimilated the new people who have come into our fellowship as full participants."

Creative persistence in outreach. "This congregation has bulldog tenacity. We have church members who help us find new residents who rent a post office box or apply for a driver's license," Humphries said. "Other members will see a house that has just sold, and we'll go visit them on Monday night.

"I've heard the saying about the law of ten touches – that you can reach a family that you touch in ten different ways. That's not true here. You've got to keep on knocking on that door. I've never yet had a family tell us 'don't come back.' We just keep on going and ministering," Humphries said. He added newcomers are sometimes contacted by church members who take them jelly or homemade bread, along with a Sunday School quarterly.

Fellowship across generational lines. "You are sometimes told in seminary to break people down into age groups, but I think there's something powerful about everybody playing together. Our activities committee did a back-to-school party. We called it 'Going Bananas Over Back to School.' It was all built around bananas: bobbing for bananas, a banana relay, and a banana beauty contest. It was neat to see a 65-year-old man and 10-year-old kid running the relay together."

Pastoral leadership. "The apostles led and fed. The pastor's role is to feed the sheep, to motivate them, and to lead. If you can't motivate people, you can have the best plan in the world and still fail. They've got to see the fire burning in your belly. If they don't see the fire burning in you, they're not going to catch it either."

Growth and ownership in church finances. "When you reach people, you reach their money, too. If you reach the people, you can build the church budget," said Humphries, who serves as a stewardship consultant for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

Humphries was asked if newer, younger members were less likely to tithe. "It's not true here," he said. "We do some creative things in that area to give people ownership. If a budget committee cranks out a budget without consulting the people, often there's little feeling of ownership."

During a "Great Challenge Budget Banquet" — a program of the South Carolina Convention — Sawney's Creek Church members were asked to vote for "an existing ministry they want to see grow or a ministry they want to see created."

The result included decisions to buy a new church van, increase funds for the church's senior adult ministry, begin paying the church's instrumentalists, and purchase new sound equipment.

"We know theologically that it's the Lord's church," Humphries said. "But the people have a lot of pride in feeling that it's their church. To me, that's another secret of growth: ownership in missions in their church."



Dead End Does Not Mean Dead

When 22-year-old Mark Harris came to Center Grove Baptist Church in 1989, the prospects for dramatic growth seemed dim. The small congregation in Clemmons, N.C., met on the dead end of a dead-end road.

Harris, then a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was the single staff member of a church with total membership of 213 which averaged 50 in Sunday School, 60 in morning worship, and offerings of $939 weekly.

But six years and 387 baptisms later, the church's previous statistics stand in stark contrast to today's figures: total membership of 1,100 and averages of 532 in Sunday School attendance, 710 in worship attendance, and offerings of $22,000 weekly.

"We probably had one of the worst locations in terms of visibility," said Harris, now 29 years old. "Also, the church was sort of a family church that was founded in 1914. In 1989, they were still worshipping in the same sanctuary that held about 90 people."

Harris acknowledges that a key part of the church's growth was the growth of the surrounding area. "One factor, if you examine demographics, is that the area has grown. Clemmons has gone from what would be considered a farming rural community to suburban life at its best.

"Families are moving out here, housing developments are going up. A survey a couple of years ago found that there had already been granted 400 building permits within a seven-mile radius of our church," Harris said.

Since not every church in a growing community thrives, Harris was asked about other factors that helped bring about the increase. "We have made a very solid commitment to preaching the Bible as the inerrant, infallible Word of God," he noted. "I think this has been a big part of what is drawing people. We are a very conservative, evangelical, Southern Baptist church."

As Harris preached biblical messages and often taught doctrinal studies on Wednesday nights, the word spread about a church and its pastor who believed the Bible.

"Preach the Word," Harris advises fellow pastors. "Let folks know that you believe God's Word is the answer to life's problems. There's no problem that we face on earth as human beings that God has not given us direction for in His inerrant Word. If people know we believe it, live it, and preach it with intensity, that breeds enthusiasm in them."

In addition to emphasizing conservative doctrine, Harris said he has also seen other factors help the church grow:

Creative use of scarce resources. In the early years, when attendance began to increase, Harris led the church to offer two morning worship services — well before the church decided to build new buildings.

"Rural churches are concerned about the bottom line. They've had to live tight and be careful about the money that comes in. I tried to show them things that don't cost money," Harris explained. "When you go to a second service, who really has to work double? The preacher. He's willing to say, 'I believe in this enough.' When I did this, I didn't ask for a raise because I was going to be preaching twice."

Visitation of likely prospects. Harris said his congregation hasn't found time for a consistent program of "cold calling" on houses door-to-door. "Our visitation and outreach is toward folks who have visited here or specific prospects we have had referred to us. We make telephone calls and set up appointments to see them. It's all we can do to get appointments and see all those people."

Occasional neighborhood blitzes. Each year, during the church's spring revival, Center Grove targets specific neighborhoods and communities for canvassing. Similar to the witnessing emphases prior to national SBC meetings, the church has sponsored "Crossover Clemmons" and "Crossover Lewisville" for a nearby town.

"People go out in pairs, knocking on doors. We don't do surveys. We say in a non-threatening way that we are from the Center Grove Baptist Church and that we are having a crusade," Harris said. "We don't get a huge immediate response out of that. Yet we do see response sooner or later — even if not during the crusade. People remember."

Fruitful partnerships and mentoring with other churches and pastors. Harris found a friend and counselor in Mark Corts, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in nearby Winston-Salem. Two years ago, the two churches entered a six-year covenant agreement to provide a Christian school for Clemmons, with Center Grove providing the facilities and Calvary providing staff and other resources.

"Mark has been a real mentor of mine since I got into the ministry," said Harris, adding that the Center Grove Church is planning to relocate and is currently in the midst of a $5 million building program.

Long-term pastorate. "A lot of times, we as pastors have an idea that a small church is a temporary situation. I had a lot of guys ask me in seminary, 'What are your plans after seminary?' I would say, 'My plans are to pastor Center Grove full-time.'

"There have been opportunities to move to larger churches, but God has never really given me a peace to make that move. As I get older, I'm learning that consistency is a significant part of success.

"Don't get discouraged as a pastor. Be willing to plant your feet — and know that if that's where God has called you, you're going to preach God's Word."

    About the Author

  • Keith Hinson