The month of October afforded me a number of opportunities to fellowship with local church pastors from various states and even countries. Though I have written on the local church a lot this year, I want to relate the blessing that I received from my fellowship with these men and also to enhance our appreciation for the ministry of smaller local churches around us.
I grew up in and around large Baptist churches in the 50s and 60s and I loved everything about them. I was saved at Lockland Baptist Church in Cincinnati, John Rawlings, pastor, a church of thousands. In the summers I attended church with my grandparents at High Street Baptist Church in Springfield, MO, Bill Dowell, pastor, and later David Cavin (when it was still on High Street) a church of thousands. I was saved at 11 years old and baptized when I was 16. God called me to preach at 18 under the ministry of Dr. Rawlings. I also served as his youth pastor a couple years after school. I say this only to relate that I have nothing against large churches and, in fact, am the result of their ministries. I will also admit that these men were extraordinary men who were gifted in many ways. Dr. Rawlings still called me from time to time and asked about my family.
Yet my experience in ministry has been with and around churches of hundreds, not thousands, and sometimes with less than a hundred. I have also noticed that pastors of these smaller churches are usually capable of more responsibility and this is a great advantage for these churches. This is also an advantage for the pastor if he truly desires and loves to pastor people. There will always be those extraordinary men whose ministries grow larger scripturally, and may God increase their number.
Smaller local churches are and have been the backbone of our country. We have all been blessed driving through the country-side or city and seeing the steeples of church buildings rise above the roof tops. I know that towns often seem crowded with the churches, but, given the denominational differences and the populations, it usually works out fine. I have known a number of Baptist churches in very small towns whose Sunday attendance exceeded the town’s population, reminding me that there are people living everywhere. The pastors of these churches are unsung heroes. They are jewels on the rough edges of our culture. They are the boots on the ground of ministry. They and their churches blanket our country with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let me tell you about four experiences I have had with small church pastors in the last six months that greatly encouraged me.
In July I attended (and brought the evening messages for) a pastors’ retreat called Shepherd’s Camp in Ontario, Canada. This camp is sponsored by Berean Baptist Church, International Falls, MN, pastor Ross Crowe, and by Victory Baptist Church, Ft. Frances, Ontario, pastor Shane Belding. The retreat was attended by pastors from Ontario, Minnesota, and Iowa. I wish I had the space to name all the men and their churches (with all four of my experiences!). What a blessing it was to interact with these men all week and to hear the stories of their local ministries! These men pastor in small towns which are filled with difficult challenges concerning drugs, homelessness, single mothers, and more. I no longer think of small town America as Andy and Barney in Mayberry. These are rough places to minister and it takes a special kind of person to do it. The pay is minimal and often demands a bi-vocational situation. The living situation is tough on families. There is little to no recognition and yet many of these men spend their whole lives in one church and community. But the blessing of the week was hearing the many stories of conversions, the rescue of broken homes and lives, and the struggles with a sparse living condition.
It was my second year at this camp. These guys love to fish and I have gotten my poles wet again for sure. The eagles fly everywhere. The camp has no electricity or running water—which tells you why it is a men only camp, although they do youth camps throughout the summer. Maybe those northern kids are tougher than we know. My most memorable moment this summer was when a bald eagle dived for a Northern Pike we had thrown out of the boat and splashed in the water 10 feet from the boat! A spectacular moment for sure! My reward, however, was getting to know great pastors like these men. You’ll never hear from them or read about them in the denominational paper. They will go about their business unsung. But don’t feel sorry for them. They are doing the greatest and most rewarding work and the blessing is all theirs.
I pastor Faith Baptist Church in Smithville, MO, north of Kansas City. We are four years old this year and had our fourth annual Bible Conference this fall. This year instead of having a single speaker for the conference, I invited four local pastors from the Kansas City area to speak, one each night, on the four nights of our conference. As an added bonus for our small church, the men brought special music each evening from their church. Our church family prepared a meal each evening before the service. I wanted our folks to get to know the pastors and churches that I know and fellowship with in the area. It was a great success.
We were privileged to hear pastor Webster Frowner, First Regular Baptist Church, Kansas City, MO; pastor Bruce Anderson, Olivet Baptist Church, Kansas City, KS; pastor Chuck Brocka, missionary pastor at Fair Haven Baptist Church, Kansas City, KS; and pastor Tom Hamilton, Stony Point Baptist Church, Kansas City, KS. These men pastor average size churches around the KC metropolitan area. They are not nationally known speakers but they speak as pastors to church people. They related familiar stories about their ministries that our people understood. It didn’t have to be professional. We moved tables and chairs, we had piano and hymn singing, we recorded each sermon and put it on our web site, we greeted and talked late after each service.
Though we have always had wonderful men of God speak to us at our conferences, many of our folks said that this was one of their favorite conferences because it made them realize that there are many other churches like ours which struggle with the same things in the same city-wide area. Sometimes there are great things in our own back yard.
I often attend the western Missouri, eastern Kansas Regular Baptist Association meetings. They (we) have a prayer meeting each month and bi-annual meetings each year. This fall the conference was in Wichita at Westlink Baptist Church with pastor Dick Smith. Dick has been there since Noah got off the ark and has a great ministry and is well known in the community. The conference speaker was pastor Stan Lightfoot from Rustic Hills Baptist Church, Colorado Springs, CO. I have known Stan for years dating back to my many years in Colorado. Stan brought timely messages on the homosexual problems that now challenge our churches and communities. It was very informative and brought us all up to speed on this important issue.
The men who attended this conference were also pastors of small and often rural churches. One pastor who spoke went to a church of about a dozen people and has seen it grow to over 100. There are many of these churches around our states that are without pastors and which are looking for men and families who will make the sacrifice to come to a smaller area. There are retired pastors from the Kansas City area who travel every weekend to assist and preach for these churches. When these pastors get together they have a great time telling stories, enjoying the meals provided by the church, praying with one another, and learning from one another. Departing time seems to be sweet sorrow.
This last month I was privileged to speak at a men’s retreat at Higher Ground Baptist Bible Camp in Soldotna, Alaska to the men from various churches of the Alaska Baptist Association. It was a great group of pastors and laymen, some from the local Kenai peninsula, and some from as far north as Fairbanks. I don’t have to tell you that these men are hunters and fishermen, maybe even mushers. One afternoon’s enjoyment was skeet shooting which I enjoyed because I don’t do that much in my back yard in Kansas City. The moose walked all over the camp grounds and the eagles flew over head.
In addition to the activities and sessions, several ladies and young people from the area provided meals which were absolutely delicious. Many of these young people grow up serving in their churches and in various outreach opportunities. The harsher outdoors culture seems to make them tough but disciplined. Even younger children (some were my grandchildren) ran around doing chores, often in shirt sleeves in the cold air.
During the week I once again heard stories of great but unknown men and churches. A few of the older men were virtual pioneers to this “last frontier” state and had seen several generations of pastors and families come and go. It’s not an easy place to come and stay if you’re not acclimated to the Alaska weather. These churches have struggles as any other churches: finances, building issues, shortages of help, discouragement. But they are more of our great unsung heroes of the faith.
Persuading young men
Perhaps we can persuade more young couples to go to the smaller churches in rural areas or inner cities and accept the smaller works. It is a tough time. Our graduates have heavy debt loads, wages in churches are not a lot, there is no notoriety in those places. But if God has ordered it, He will pay for it, now or in eternity. Let’s pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers.
Observations to be made
- Most New Testament churches were small churches. We are never told the actual attendance numbers of the churches in New Testament times but it doesn’t seem to be that they were large churches. The Jerusalem church was the exception. It started out with about 120 people and grew to 3000, then 5000, and perhaps more. The reasons for its phenomenal growth, however, were not repeated: It experienced the day of Pentecost; it had twelve apostles ministering in it; it saw the first great miracles done by the apostles; it was in the religious center of Judeo-Christian activity; and it was the only church in existence at that time. As the first century progressed and the New Testament was revealed, we see smaller, struggling churches spotted throughout the Roman Empire.
- Most churches throughout the age of grace have been small. There were exceptions to this as well, but believers everywhere gathered together on the Lord’s Day wherever they lived with the believers in that area. I have seen the roll of John Bunyan’s and William Carey’s churches in England and they were fewer than 100 people. I have looked at the history of pastors such as Andrew Fuller, John Sutcliffe, and John Rylands with the same result. Even in the early days of Spurgeon’s church with famous pastors (Benjamin Keach, John Gill, John Rippon) it was not a large church. Spurgeon became its notable exception.
- Most of our Baptist churches today are relatively small. I have been to many mission fields with missionaries and the great majority of them have been very small churches. There have been more popular times when our churches were larger and maybe they will come again. But noses and nickels are not our objective per se. We are to be faithful to God, preach the Word, and win souls to Him. The Bema Seat will reveal “how” not “how much.” Perhaps we have passed through a time when we only honored success by the size of the ministry and young men get discouraged in lesser works. Too many seminars teach us to build up, step up, add to, spread out, and increase. That is all well and good in its place. But so is faithfulness and godliness with contentment.
- Many small churches may do more in a city than one large church. This may depend on a number of factors, but wouldn’t ten locations be better than one? Wouldn’t ten visitation programs be better than one? Wouldn’t ten youth programs and children’s ministries be better than one? Wouldn’t a hundred Sunday School teachers be better than ten? And wouldn’t we teach God’s people more about normal Christianity? I said in the beginning of this article that I am not opposed to large churches. Praise God when growth happens. I am only arguing also for the integrity of the smaller ministry which is the norm for most pastors and churches.
- Only the Lord knows the days that are ahead for His churches. We are not the same America of two hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago. We kill human children as soon as they are able to be born, cut them to pieces as one would a chicken, and sell them to the highest bidder. We teach our children to seek a homosexual and fornicative lifestyle and deny the way God made humans male and female. We legalize drugs faster than we fight them, and wonder why young criminals are nearly super-human and out of control. We undress more than we dress up. We sing profanity more than we learn grammar. And we have again turned God’s house of prayer into an emporium of selfishness.
I preach the soon return of Jesus Christ for a pretribulational rapture of His church. If I really believe we could be living in those days, I also must believe that we may see darker days ahead. If so, we are going to need Christianity and local church life that is serious, reverent, uncompromising, and filled with the joy of the Lord, not the love of the world. This is going to take churches that are personal, face to face, with pastoral relationships for every member, worship that can appreciate the simple truths of the faith in prayer, song, and sermon. Our local New Testament Baptist churches are tailor made for that need. If the local church was the divine instrument for the pagan first century, it is also for the pagan twenty first century.
And so . . .
Charles Ryrie has written, “Indeed, one receives the impression from the New Testament that the Lord preferred to have many smaller congregations rather than one large group in any given place. And there seemed to be no lack of power that stemmed from lack of bigness.”1
In addition, Rolland McCune has written, “The ‘household of God,’ the ‘church of the living God’ is, in context of the Pastoral Epistles and I Timothy 3, the local church of the New Testament. It is the ‘pillar and support of the truth’. To that institution has been committed the fate of revealed truth in this dispensation.”2
These things being true, our support and involvement in the local churches in our time, not just the larger and well-known ones but the smaller and less-known ones, is a Biblical imperative.
- Charles Ryrie, Balancing The Christian Life (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994) 20.
- Rolland McCune, Promise Unfulfilled (Greenville: Ambassador International, 2004) 74-75.