The statistics from four small-town churches stood out in our 2017 Christian Standard survey. But numbers never tell the whole story. What were the real reasons for their growth in baptisms, attendance, and giving?
By Kelly Carr
“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes—how do you measure, measure a year?” These are lyrics from “Seasons of Love,” a song from the Broadway show Rent. Church leaders may find themselves asking the same question when they reflect back on a year of ministry at their church:
How do you measure a year or season of ministry?
You often measure ministry in numbers. And those numbers could give leaders a pat on the back or a burden to bear. As all good church leaders know, every number represents a life, whether you live in thriving metropolises or small towns, whether a church is small or large. So, leaders care about numbers. But when numbers go up or numbers go down, that swaying identity can offer the temptation toward unnecessary pride or unnecessary strife in the hearts of church staff, elders, and other leaders.
What is the true measure of a ministry?
Look behind the numbers: How did God move in the church and in the community in a year? How did people grow in their relationships with Jesus and with one another in a year? Behind each statistic is a story.
When the number measured is an abundance of baptisms in a year, the story behind it expresses both the culmination of God working on hearts and the beginning of a new season of discipleship. The following four small-town churches have such stories to share:
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Risky Church Business
First Capital Christian Church in Corydon, Indiana
Randy Kirk, senior minister
Randy Kirk was excited not only about the number of people who were baptized at First Capital Christian Church during 2017, but the number of people who did the baptizing. Kirk explained the church’s discipleship mentality: “If you bring them in, you baptize them, and then they’re yours to come alongside and help.”
At First Capital, 61 different people baptized others last year. Kirk and his team are thrilled to see that their perspective on discipleship is taking root. While learning about the Bible is an important part of teaching others about Christ, “We don’t believe it’s about how much you know,” Kirk said. “It’s about asking, ‘Are you willing to take risks to meet God?’”
In 2017, Kirk and First Capital examined faith catalysts.
“A faith catalyst is when God meets you outside of your comfort zone—you have opportunity where there is a risk, and in taking that risk you have to rely upon God. And he meets you there,” he said.
As people in Corydon experienced faith catalysts in their personal lives, they had mature believers walking beside them, guiding them toward Christ. Thus, each baptism was a beautiful visual of discipleship—one person taking a risk to share Jesus with someone they care about, and the other person taking a risk on a new life of faith.
This year, First Capital leaders have their own faith catalyst, and it’s a journey they didn’t see coming—developing their online campus. The church put their worship services online about a year and a half ago, and since then, “It’s exploded,” Kirk said.
As with any new endeavor, some people were hesitant. When it came to an online worship experience, “I was the first one to be negative about it,” Kirk admitted. “I didn’t want people to have an excuse to stay home in their pajamas instead of coming to church.”
But then he began to hear the stories:
• A family showed up and said they had been watching for six weeks at home to try out First Capital before coming in person. More and more people have been visiting first online.
• A member of the First Capital worship team has a sister in California who tuned in to watch her sibling sing. She enjoyed it so much, she now gathers friends each week on the West Coast, and they watch the Indiana service together.
• A group of men from the church take the online service into the local men’s prison, and a group of women do the same for a women’s prison. Everyone watches together, and then they break into small groups to discuss, pray, and answer questions.
• Other church members use the weekly online service to minister in nursing homes, after-school programs, and among those experiencing homelessness.
First Capital has staff and volunteers who are available to answer questions from people who are participating in the service remotely. When people ask about baptism, the online ministers work to connect those folks to a Christian church in their area where they can get locally involved and be baptized in their community.
Kirk is thankful creative arts minister Tyler Sansom had vision and know-how for pastoring online. Sansom believed that even a church in rural Indiana could minister to needs beyond their zip code—and God is bringing fruit to that effort.
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Community Christian Fellowship in Siloam Springs, Arkansas
Pat Callahan, senior pastor
“We continue to ask people, ‘Are you more like Jesus today?’” said Pat Callahan. “Discipleship is walking in footsteps of our Savior, abiding in him,” he tells the church body. This challenge is at the heart of Community Christian’s mission.
Callahan and his team spent 2017 focusing on next steps—what is the next step you need to take to live for Jesus? This manifested itself in two beautiful stories: Community Christian had the most baptisms in church history last year, and the church had their highest giving to missions in history.
But baptism and offering weren’t the center of conversation every week. The message was about committing to Jesus and living generously.
Callahan loves using sports metaphors: “Salvation is joining the team, and baptism is putting on the jersey.” As the year progressed, the church leaders realized that a lot of people were stepping forward to put on the jersey—the number of baptisms was slowly adding up. “We simply talk about the things we value,” he said. “It’s a God thing.”
Community Christian also demonstrates generosity and expresses gratitude when their members give. They began with basic things: thanking people each week for being generous, sending handwritten letters to first-time givers, letting the congregation know that their money goes to true kingdom purposes.
“Our church began to give like crazy,” Callahan said. “I just say thank you a lot.”
Community Christian’s next-steps emphasis this year has focused on Journey groups, designed to help people “become self-feeders in the Word and understand what it means to abide in Christ as the highest priority in life,” Callahan explained. “When you get there, you come to a point of total surrender and absolute trust in Jesus. These groups have been a powerful thing for our church.”
Also this year, Community Christian has expanded its giving to meet more local needs. Last year, in addition to regular offerings, the church gave $100,000 toward missions around the world. But Callahan and another staff member both felt a burden to reach out to their own community of Siloam Springs in a fresh way.
In their #ForSiloam initiative, each month the church chooses a different segment of their community to thank. During the school year, they lift up teachers; during tax season, they offer food and encouragement to tax workers; in December, they will bake cookies and drop them off all over town. Many college students attend Community Christian during the school year, and they are itching to serve locally—#ForSiloam offers them a chance to get more involved in both the church and the neighborhood.
“This is not a strategy to grow the church,” Callahan said. “We’re part of our community, and we’re supposed to be in our community. We’re doing it because it’s the call of God.”
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The Best Baptisms I Didn’t Do
Journey Christian Church in Apopka, Florida
John Hampton, lead pastor
“People have romantic ideas that they’d like to live in Florida,” said John Hampton. “With the heat, we see quickly if people will make it or not—you either like it or you don’t.”
That describes in a nutshell the challenges Hampton and his team face at Journey Christian Church. People are always coming and going. Two-thirds of Florida residents aren’t Florida natives. It makes for a different type of ministry environment.
In Apopka you’ll find a lot of young families who are dechurched—they used to be in church but aren’t connected anymore. Others are cultural Catholics—their family background is Catholic, but they never actively practice. This is Journey’s mission field. So when the church celebrated an anniversary and 130 people came to be baptized, it was a joyous weekend.
While the church is now almost 50 years old, in 2002 the congregation relocated and changed its name from Lakeview Christian Church to Journey Christian Church. Last year the church celebrated its 15th anniversary as Journey.
In the weeks leading up to the anniversary weekend, Hampton said he preached a series of messages from Colossians called “All In.” Hampton and his team repeatedly explained baptism throughout this series, pointing the church toward the final week’s focal point: “All In by Going All Under in Christ.” Hampton said it was the most memorable baptismal service in which he has participated. But it began with a troubling feeling he couldn’t shake.
The worship area was set up with different ministers standing by the baptistery and the three portable pools that had been brought in. People came forward and chose a baptismal space and a person to do the baptizing. Saturday night was slow. Not many people came forward, and those who did all went to Hampton to baptize them.
“That bothered me,” Hampton said. “So I decided not to baptize anyone Sunday. At the end of Sunday’s message, I said, ‘Come up, and I’m going to pray, worship, and cheer you on.’ Other pastors did the baptizing. I was the chief cheerleader—I went to each pool and cheered people on. I prayed with people. It was the most fun I’ve had at a baptism weekend, and I didn’t baptize anyone that Sunday!”
The joy of that weekend flowed over into 2018. With so many people new to the faith, it was fitting God had already guided Journey’s fall 2018 plans to be centered on discipleship. Journey’s staff, elders, and key volunteers went through “Rooted” earlier this year, and now the entire church is joining in.
“We’re excited to ground people in the big themes of what it means to follow Jesus,” Hampton said.
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Life at the Beach
Oak Park Christian Church in Grover Beach, California
Mike Gunderson, lead pastor
Last year was hopeful for Oak Park Christian Church. After four years of little growth, even decline, Oak Park saw 18 people baptized and added 32 active and excited members who are ready to serve.
That brought encouragement to Mike Gunderson, as he has experienced two distinct seasons in this ministry: several years of growth and then several years of decline.
Halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Grover Beach is “a hidden gem,” Gunderson said, “high in tourism, agriculture, and early retirees.” While living anywhere on the West Coast is pricey, he said, “Real estate is ridiculously expensive here. Yesterday gas was $3.77, and that was a good deal!”
Between 2008 and 2012 there was a steady influx of people to Grover Beach, and the church grew along with it. But while the town was first insulated from the nation’s economic downturn, a two-year lag hit in 2013. During that period, Oak Park lost 130 church members due to singles, young families, and seniors moving away—they could no longer afford to live in the area.
But by the end of 2016 and into 2017, new people at various stages of faith began to arrive. Gunderson said he has an amazing group of elders who are true shepherds; they call on people and counsel people and are involved in the lives of families at the church, including the new arrivals at Oak Park. Gunderson noted that six or seven of the baptisms last year resulted from a recovery ministry that one of the elders oversees.
This year has brought a search for a children’s/family life pastor. With the expensive cost of living, finding staff can be a challenge, Gunderson said. The expense also affects the neighborhood, as they watch people in town become homeless or turn to substance abuse to cope with the pressure. Another challenge comes from the culture surrounding the area, where people get politics confused with faith and erect unnecessary barriers.
“It’s getting harder and harder to communicate to people that God can heal, God can give you hope . . . come to Jesus,” Gunderson said.
While some people might view such challenges with dread, Gunderson sees a mission field: “Research says we have the third-highest percentage of never-churched people in the U.S. It’s a great opportunity if we can get inroads.” And he is certainly aware that their church has plenty for which to be thankful. “We live at the beach—life is pretty nice!”
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How is your 2018 ministry looking thus far? Take time to share with us the stories behind your statistics. Email them to [email protected].
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Kelly Carr, former editor of The Lookout, enjoys sharing and shaping people’s stories as a writing and editing consultant in Cincinnati, Ohio (EditorOfLife.com).