By David Smith
“Just stay around long enough to get a little experience and then move on to ‘greener pastures.’” That statement, among others, was what I heard when I moved to Moreland, Kentucky, in 1993 to start a ministry with Moreland Christian Church. What that actually means is, put in a little time, and then move to a more “reputable” church in our brotherhood with a higher salary.
Well, 23 years later, God is still blessing our little church in the cornfield. In fact, after building a multipurpose building in 1999 and a new sanctuary in 2014, we bought that cornfield and are now planning multiple athletic fields for church and community. In 1993, we averaged 62 in attendance. In 2015 we averaged around 185, and occasionally reach 240.
I could go on with numbers and statistics—preachers like to talk about them when they are very positive. But are numbers and statistics what make Moreland, or any church, successful? I have read and heard many of the megachurch stories—about how a handful of people has grown into thousands. I love those stories. They are very inspiring. But are those churches more successful because their large numbers seem to dwarf the old, traditional, rural church that has grown by maybe a couple of hundred in 23 years?
Discouragement, Anger, Depression
I used to think so. In fact, when I was ministering in a 100-year-old church, and we didn’t see any movement for 15 years—I couldn’t wait to get to “greener pastures.” It takes incredible patience and determination to stay around when nothing seems to be happening in your ministry. Discouragement would often set in, then resentment for the very people I loved dearly. Sometimes anger would bare its ugly teeth.
But nothing prepared me for the depression that hit me in 2009. I was ready to throw in the towel and walk away from the church I loved and the church that loved me. For most of that year, I just went through the motions of preaching and worshipping, but my heart was not in it.
But here is the kicker: In my frailty and depression and self-pity, God would not allow the church to be hurt. In fact, Moreland Christian really began to get traction and grow to where we are today during that dark time in my life.
It opened my eyes and helped me see that no matter where I am ministering, whether in a church of 2,000 or 200, or even 50, God provides the increase. Success does not lie with the preacher, however dynamic and charismatic and determined he might be.
What I Know
Here is what I know: It is not the purpose of every church to grow into the thousands (unless God so wills it, of course). Our purpose (and it took a long time for me to accept this) is to grow where we are and at the rate God wants us to grow. Just as Esther was elevated to royal position “for such a time as this,” our church is right where we need to be at this time in history.
I have been asked many times how a little church in a cornfield in Kentucky has grown and remained healthy while many rural churches have either stopped growing and become stagnant or have closed their doors altogether. I never have a good answer except to say we truly love one another, we are patient with one another, and we fulfill the Great Commission to the best of our ability. That is it.
People want to know what kind of programs we have, and I must admit to them, we really don’t have any. Not in the sense of what some churches are doing or what many church growth books push as their “magic pill.” We simply love one another, and that has become contagious. Always understand—if people know you love them and are concerned for their well-being, they will trust you to lead them and teach them.
How do I define success in the small-numbered church? Changed lives. Remember the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus? He always wanted to be somewhere else, someone more important, but in the end realized he had changed countless lives. It has taken many years for me to accept that MCC is my opus.
And in the end, that is all I have ever wanted—to see lives changed. That is a successful ministry. God decides your context. It is up to you to fulfill your calling.
David Smith serves as preaching minister with Moreland (Kentucky) Christian Church.