Our Situation is not unique: We are a Church that needs to grow

The situation we find ourselves in at Victory Baptist Church (VBC) is not a unique one. The fact that we are talking about moving forward failure of which might results in the death of the church in a few couple of decades is not something unique to VBC. Thousands of churches within the SBC are facing the same situation across the country. The fact that we have many faithful men and women who can look back and see how much time, emotions, and resources they have invested in the place many of us now call a church home is not unique to us. The truth that these faithful men and women can see and feel a lot of memories; loving memories, exciting memories, thrilling memories, and sometimes sad ones; that too is again not unique to our church. In fact, it is not unique to any given church. The bitter truth is that churches stop growing, plateau, decline, and at the very worse die - cease to exist. That is what we do not what to happen to VBC, at least not in our own life time. In the last three years I have been doing a lot of reading on the topic of plateaued, declining, and dying churches. One thing that keeps coming up is the difficulty of facing reality in the face and dealing with it. The reality is that change cannot be avoided by churches that have stopped growing. In other words, in other for the church to rebound and grow and attract a younger generation and people from diverse backgrounds, those who have been around longer need to accept change and support it. Unless those of us who have been around for some time accept change and throw our weight behind it we can talk about change all we care, things will find a way to stay as they have always been. May be this true story can help us understand the difficulty, yet the necessity of change better. The story is taken from Hammett and Pierce’s book Reaching People under 40 while keeping People over 60: Being a Church for All Generations.

My maternal grandmother was a member at my home church in South Carolina, a little mill village church. My mother went back to work when I was four years old, and I stayed with my grandmother. She cared for and nurtured me. There was deep love between us. When I was about seventeen years of age, I accepted the call to ministry. I didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time, but I knew God was doing something in my life. I had been involved in church life, raised in a Christian family. I didn’t feel called to be a preacher. I had no idea what a minister of education or other staff person was because we didn’t have staff ministers in my small church, but I went forward and said to my congregation, “I really believe I’m supposed to go to college and I’m supposed to study ministry,” and that was all I said. The motto of my church became, “Let Eddie do it.” Anything that needed to be done, let Eddie do it. And I tried to do whatever they asked me to do. (I was a people pleaser during those days.) Right before college when I was as green as a gourd and didn’t know anything except what I had seen lived out in front of me, they asked me to join the staff to “help our Sunday School grow.” They just gave me an assignment “help our Sunday School grow.”

I said OK and got to work. The small salary they were giving me would help me in my first year at Furman, and I saw the practical experience of fitting in with my plans to major in religion. Then the pastor told me that one step in helping the church grow was to provide more space for babies. To reach young families in our area, we needed a bigger preschool area. The way he saw it, I needed to move my grandmother’s group out of their customized Sunday School class so the babies could have that room. That was my assignment - to move my grandmother’s Sunday School class that has been meeting in the same place for about twenty years. She was in her sixties at the time, and hers was the last class before heaven in our church. It was pretty sparse in membership, but they had a nice big room, pictures on the wall of those who had gone before. They had little chairs with cushions that they had all made and had their name on them. They had put carpet down and put wallpaper on the walls. It was a nice little mausoleum for them. I was stupid enough to walk into that room one Sunday morning with those ladies, most of whom had diapered me in the church nursery, and say: We’ve got a lot of new babies coming into our church. The nursery is packed, and your room is bigger than their room. We would like to swap rooms.”

It made good sense to me but not to them. Those five women were ready to kill me. Before we got out of church that Sunday morning, the whole community knew that Montese’s grandson had upset older women’s Sunday School class. That was long before cell phones. I don’t know how they got the word out, but it was terrible. During that week I went in and out of stores in the community, and wherever I went I would see people pointing to me. I knew they were talking about what an awful person I was to upset that bunch of old ladies and to try to take away the room they had worked so hard to call their own.

Our family used to go to my grandmother’s house after church for Sunday dinner. She told me that Sunday not to come - no more fried chicken. It crushed me. I don’t know which was worse, no fried chicken or knowing that my grandmother was mad at me. And I couldn’t even understand what the problem was. I thought they’d want more babies in the church. I thought they liked babies. I couldn’t believe those women were so mean. However, I came to understand through great pain and suffering over an eight-month period that those women were family for one another. That classroom was a sacred space for them. I didn’t understand any of that at the time, and I had to do some confessing and repenting to my grandmother through the years as I gained a better understanding of what I, in my innocence, had done.

My grandmother and I loved each other so much that we covenanted to talk once a week, pray together once a week, and study Scripture together once a week until we could find some sense of reconciliation in this broken relationship. It was very painful. I can’t tell you how painful it was for both of us. After about eight months of these weekly dialogues, she called me one afternoon and said, “I want you to come over here.” It was not an appointed hour that we had agreed upon previously, but I said OK and went immediately to her house. When I got there, she sat me down in the same little place we used to sit when I was four and five years old, on the front stoop of the porch. She put her arm around me and said, “You’ve told me about some mistakes you’ve made as a young and inexperienced minister of education. But I’ve been praying a lot and studying a lot and have been talking to some of my class members. God has convicted me of my position in this matter. I have come to understand that my personal comfort is not as important as this church’s mission.” She shifted and said, “I’m going to walk into class on Sunday morning” - her Sunday School class that was still meeting in that self-made “mausoleum”, and “I’m going to tell those ladies, not ask, that we need to move down the hall; and I want you to be with me.”

I looked her in the eyes and said, “There’s no way I’m going back in that class. I love you, Grandma, but I’m not going back in there again.” She said, “Well, at least stand outside the door.” So I stood out of the other woman’s sight outside the door. I listened to my grandmother, and I got my first lesson of what a powerbroker looks like in a Baptist Church. My grandmother was one. I didn’t know it until then. She walked in and said to those other four women: “Ladies, I’ve come to understand that our personal comfort is not as important as this church’s mission and its future. I want us to move today to the class down the hall, and I want us to take a little money out of our kitty (which was bigger than the church budget), and I want us to fix our new room. But I also want us to fix up this room that we are leaving for the new babies that are coming in. I want it to be nice, and I want us to start an adopt-a-grandchild ministry in this church for all these new families coming in that don’t have grandmas and grandpas locally. I want us to learn to love these babies. We need them as much as they need us, and I want us to be part of the future of this church instead of the stumbling block to keep it where it is.” Then she picked up her chair and walked down the hall, and every one of those women followed her. They didn’t say a word. They didn’t ask a question. They followed their leader . . .

My grandmother eventually went into a nursing home as an Alzheimer’s patient. I preached at her funeral last year. As a result of her decision, her courage, her leadership, and her spiritual maturity and conviction, not only does my little mill village church have a thriving children’s ministry today; they have a brand-new children’s building because of her. Not that she gave the money, but she gave the leadership to reach that generation . . . I told this story at her funeral. After the service five women came down to speak to me. They were form different churches. I didn’t know any of them. They stood at the end of the casket as we were trying to put it in the hearse. They said, “Son, we don’t know you, but we knew her. Your story today is going to help our churches because we’ve been a roadblock in our churches, and we didn’t know until today.”[1]

Listen to how this pastor ends his story. “I love church, but we church people are killing many of our churches to preserve our comfort. My challenge for you: Are you trying to preserve the church for yourself and your generation, or are you trying to do church in a way that reaches out to a new generation?[2]

As you read this true story of a real church prayerfully ask God to convict you of anything in your or other’s life that may stop us as a church from accepting, adopting, and leading the kind of change that would make the VBC a hospital for sinners and not a hotel for saints. Amen!

 

[1]Hammett, Edward H, and Pierce, James R. Reaching People under 40 while keeping people over 60: Being Church for All Generations, (Danvers, MA: Chalice Press, 2007), 38-42.

[2]Ibid., 42.

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