Interview with Ben Merold

By Brad Dupray

Ben Merold has been one of the most beloved leaders in Christian churches and churches of Christ over the past half-century. He began preaching in 1948, and beyond leading churches in four states, he has preached the gospel in 47 states and seven foreign countries. He received his education at Johnson Bible College, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College, and among his many roles of Restoration Movement leadership, served as president of the 1978 North American Christian Convention. Ben has been senior minister at Harvester Christian Church, St. Charles, Missouri, for 16 years. He and Pat recently celebrated 58 years of marriage.

How does a young Marine end up in the ministry?

I went to church in Florida and I had an uncle, Leroy Trulock, a great steward and businessman. He later became vice president of Lincoln Christian College. I went to church in Florida after World War II, and he taught the midweek service. I went forward and had to learn to go to church on Sunday morning after that. So he led me into the ministry as well as leading me to Christ.

You have quite a legacy. How would you like to be known?

I used to think I’d like to be known as an evangelist, because I held a lot of revival meetings (we stopped counting at 500). Today it would be more as a church builder and a friend of the small church.

How have you expressed that friendship?

I hold a lot of seminars for small churches, and sometimes groups of small churches go together, and I try to keep in touch with them and be an encourager to small-church preachers—they have hard times.

What are some of the “hard times” the small church preacher faces?

He often faces a lack of leadership, he faces discouragement; he faces resistance to change—and a part of that resistance to change is the small church is locked into memories. They don’t want to change anything that would destroy their memories. “Aunt Martha’s funeral was held in the church building and her casket was in front of the Communion table, so you can’t move that Communion table.” He faces the problem of a great desire for social intimacy, which often crowds out new people.

How do you encourage them to face those challenges?

I tell them to be patient. Change doesn’t happen immediately in the smaller church. The larger church, as a general rule, can bring change about faster than the smaller church. I tell them to strive for small victories—that it will strengthen the faith of the people to see that they can do something. I tell them to strive to be a turnaround church—a church that has been stagnant and now grows 10 or 15 percent a year.

Has Harvester exceeded your expectations?

Yes it has. Greatly. We don’t know what the attendance was for the year before I came, but it was probably a little less than 200. I was 65 years old at the time. I had a vision of getting the church up to 600 to 700, and now we’re averaging close to 3,500—it’s been pretty good for a “country church.”

What were some keys to making that happen?

One key is that as we hired staff we chose the right people. A second key is that Doyle Roth was the youth minister and I made him the associate minister and then executive minister. Other keys were that we put an emphasis on evangelism and followed the basic principles of church growth.

What makes Harvester a great church?

Its greatness may be a little different than some so-called megachurches. One facet of her greatness is the local benevolence program. Harvester takes care of people. It’s an attitude with the congregation. It’s an attitude with the elders. Benevolence becomes a part of evangelistic outreach. I’m really sold on that. You don’t always win the people that you help, but you win people that want to be a part of church that is helping people.

Is there too great of a fixation today with numbers, or do numbers tell a greater story?

I don’t think numbers tell the story today as much as they did 15 or 20 years ago. So many times the church works toward the Sunday morning service and that’s all we know about. Sometimes great Sunday morning services can be built without an emphasis on Christian education and discipleship. I’m a little fearful of numbers today. But I still believe, with Bob Russell, that numbers still tell you more about what’s happening in the church than any one thing—I just don’t want to get locked into numbers alone.

Have churches today given in too much to fit in with the culture?

I think that’s a trend. I wouldn’t say churches in general. The apostle Paul certainly knew the culture, but he didn’t fit in too well. That passage in 2 Corinthians 11 wouldn’t be there if he did. He was always in trouble.

How does a church meet the culture without selling out to the culture?

I think you find out how to reach the culture with the true gospel. That’s what evangelism is. Not giving in to the culture but knowing the culture well enough to know what approach to take in preaching and teaching the gospel.

What do you see as the future of the megachurch?

There will always be megachurches. And there may be more than there are now, but I believe there will be an emphasis on the midsize church where people can perhaps know each other better, and not get lost in the crowd. It may have to be one size in a highly urban area and another size in a rural area.

What is the primary difference between the small church and the large church?

That’s hard to answer. Megachurches are for the most part somewhat of an exception. They have exceptional leadership, exceptional talent, and maybe an exceptional preacher—someone who knows how to communicate with a large group of people. A small church may be located in an area where it can never have that. The small church can be strong and influential even though it may not be located in a place where it has a chance to be a megachurch.

Can a small church be a great church?

Yes. It just has to get out of the rut it’s in. It has to start doing things in and for the community instead of just taking care of itself. Many small churches are looking inwardly, content to hold their own. They have to seek unusual ways to be evangelistic in their community.

What would be an unusual way for a church to be evangelistic?

I know of a church made up of elderly people who decided they wanted to do something to get young people in the congregation. They were located in an area where zoning laws were not too stringent, so they built a steel building as a family life center and opened it to the community three nights a week. Now this church of 35 is running 140, and the youth of the community actually asked to have their postprom party in the building.

How would you describe the difference between “old school” and newer-thinking churches?

One of the first differences will be the preaching. The old school thinking may preach the Bible, and may do it well, but it usually does a poor job of applying that to the people who are listening. The old school churches will not take advantage of helps available today. For example, we have such a visual society today it’s a mistake not to use visuals. The old school churches talk a lot about evangelism and think they’re evangelistic because they offer an invitation, but they don’t seek ways to have evangelistic outreach other than presenting the Bible in church where there are few unsaved people to hear the message. Things have to be done to bring people in. They pay no attention to outreach in the community at all.

You’ve always got a great “Here’s an idea” up your sleeve. What’s your best idea?

The best idea is the one that hits you at the time. One of my best ideas for small-church preachers is to prepare their Sunday night service first in the week. Get it done well, because we’re always going to give good attention to Sunday morning. One of my best ideas was to light up the church building at Christmastime. Why don’t we light up our buildings? It’s a great time to advertise.

What does the future hold for Ben Merold?

I don’t know. I have just had my 81st birthday and I’m feeling a deterioration of energy. I’m finding it more difficult to preach Saturday night and three times on Sunday morning. If the right man would come along to replace me I wouldn’t mind taking a small church again, providing my health remains good. Other than that I’ll probably step out in the near future and make myself available to small churches for interim periods.

You’re a notorious ice cream lover. Is ice cream your absolute favorite?

<Laughs> It comes second to steak.

What’s your favorite ice cream?

Vanilla. I’m pretty much vanilla in my entire life.

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