Fishing in a Small Pond

Nestled in the Texas Hill Country an hour north of San Antonio is a small community of 1,100 people. It is a town poised for revival because one apostolic church is full of people dedicated to making that happen, undeterred by the size of their field of labor.

Pastored since 1993 by Bro. Greg Steele and his wife, LaKay, who heads their vibrant music department, the House of Mercy Evangelism Church of Johnson City draws primarily from four small communities within a radius of 35 miles in a county of only 9,000 people. Their new building, just over three years old, stands on the highway through town as a beacon, not just notable in size but also in ministry to the community.

The Steele’s three young adult children and spouses are also heavily involved in the church ministries, as are others in both their extended families. This is a family that knows God is at work here.

Keys in Church Growth

Bro. Steele believes prayer is the major key to revival in any church. This church has been a church of prayer since it was birthed 50 years ago. We’ve also always had a major desire to see the lost saved. That comes from the prayer life. But coupled with that has to be a method. Prayer is the spiritual side of it, but the mechanical part of it is what a lot of us have a hard time getting our hands on and making it happen.

The church has a history of effectively using Bible studies and continues to rely on them as a key in church growth and soul winning. Primarily, we use three, said Bro. Steele. One is a qualifier, a one-day Bible Study, Into His Marvelous Light. Next, we use a five-lesson Bible study by Bro. James Jackson, Salvation Made Simple. It’s very powerful and easy to teach. Then, we use Search for Truth II, not necessarily to initially get people plugged into the gospel and get them to salvation, but as a tool to continue their salvation experience and give them some grounding and discipleship.

Small Town Mindset

Concerned about the rate of people dropping away even after going through Bible studies and receiving the Holy Ghost, Bro. Steele said, we found out we were having babies born, but we didn’t know how to take care of them. Our nursery wasn’t prepared.

At first, our delivery room was a problem too, because we didn’t believe it could happen in a small town. You hear a lot about revival in larger cities, but when it comes to a small town, you only have so many fish in a pond. That was a mindset we had to get over. Prayer and fasting plus positive preaching of the Word of God helped change that. Our mindset changed to, you know what, we can grow; we can have something happen here!

Growing as Pastor

Bro. Steele admitted that one of the first steps was to realize that he didn’t have a clue. Recognizing that not growing personally and as a pastor would hinder the church; he looked for leadership materials and seminars to attend. I went all over our district getting my hands on any nuts and bolts of things I could do to make myself personally better and pass on to the church. I became a student of church growth and of leadership. I’m still a student. I still haven’t got it all figured out. But I know more today than I did yesterday.

Growing Leaders

With personal growth came the desire to grow others. As I began to grow personally, I wanted to build our leadership, said Pastor Steele. If you build people, they’ll build other people.

Hearing John Maxwell at a Because of the Times conference was inspiring. I began to see the principles, not necessarily that they were real spiritual, but you could apply them spiritually. You could take a lot of things he was saying and apply those leadership principles to start building people.

Having key people in leadership roles was important. I still have those same key people today, he said. Incredible people! They have been a main ingredient in our church growth. When the leadership began to catch the vision, it stimulated a hunger for growth. These leadership principles that we were teaching and being mentored in didn’t just affect us in the church, he said. They affected us everywhere, in our families and our businesses. Suddenly, we were seeing people begin to make so much more money because of these principles. They were taking them back to their businesses and applying them there, too.

Bro. Steele brought Dr. Fred Childs in for the church’s first leadership seminar that gave them prototype methods on teamwork, synergy and unity. It was just incredible, he said. We began to take off with that. We were just so excited; we could have tackled hell with a water pistol!

Growing the Church

By the time Bro. Steele was elected pastor, he had already been a part of the congregation for 20 years. Raised under the ministry of the founding pastor, Sis. Billie Fluitt, who also became his mother-in-law, he assisted her for 10 years prior to her retirement in 1983. He assisted the three pastors that followed for another 10 years. Needing a pastor again, the church of around 60 people voted him in 14 years ago.

The steps and principles outlined in Tim Massengales book, Let My People Grow, motivated Bro. Steele. I brought to the church a five-year growth plan called It Takes Five To Survive. I preached, if we don’t have godly growth, souls being saved and retention at the same time, within five years, we’re going to die. We have to grow. If you don’t grow, you are dying. I laid out Bro. Massengales book and we just did that.

One of the things I believe has been a key to our growth is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If somebody else has something going and we can tweak it and make it fit our own thing or save me 25 years of putting things together, why not do it?
At the end of the five-year plan he proposed, the church had not completely reached its total vision, but was a long way down the road. They had 125 people and were out of room.

What they had learned and implemented from Bro. Childs was so effective that Pastor Steele asked him back a second time for vision building. It was also hands-on with action items, he said. There are some actions that you’ve got to take to make it happen. It wasn’t the spirituality of our church that was the problem. The organizational structure just wasn’t there.

Growing the Structure

With Bro. Childs help, the church took on a model and structure they have been developing and refining for the past two years.
We had a strategy team group come together and meet every two weeks to think and pray and plan and organize, said Pastor Steele. We put together a model that moves people. They adopted a special kind of model, rather than the more traditional organizational chart. Ours is totally different because it’s made up of three concentric circles.

In this model, people enter the church in the outside circle. When they come in, we try to move them into the center bulls eye called the point of origin, explained the pastor. This point of origin is the basic doctrinal foundation truths of scripture. We want everybody to be a part of that because if we ever get them there, they’re going to make it.

Focusing first on connection, they work to connect people to the church, its people and programs. Recognizing that almost 100% of their church ministries are about connecting people, they started teaching from this perspective. We’ve got to get every one of our ministries to think, I’m the connect point of every person who comes into this church. I have something to do with connection by the way they see me dressed on Sunday mornings, to the way the parking lot looks, to the way we handle ourselves as hosts and hostesses, and so on All this is connection. It’s a mindset.

After the initial connections that lead, ideally, to receiving the Holy Ghost and being baptized, the model takes them to the next area of training and equipping. We do Bible studies, new convert classes, and mentoring so we don’t lose track of them, explained Pastor Steele. Then, the next step in the model is involvement. We want to get everyone involved in a ministry somewhere as we keep on moving them toward the center circle.

Not only is the core or center circle made up of the apostolic doctrinal truths, it also contains the church’s mission statement and set of values. We have six or seven values that we prize very highly in this church. We want everybody to learn those values, our mission statement and our vision. These are brought before the church regularly in different venues, including the weekly bulletin and media during services.

Also in development is a system of measurement that involves creating a spiritual profile on everyone in the church. We want to know everything about those people, said the pastor. Are they growing? If not, what’s the problem? Did they skip a step? Did they not have a Bible study? Oh, let’s go back and teach them a Bible study. Were they not mentored by someone? Well, let’s do that. Whatever it takes.

We’re seeing incredible things happening. But it’s also a process of change. Some people don’t want to be measured; some people don’t want to get involved; and some people don’t want to have values placed in their lives. And, if people don’t want that, it’s going to be an automatic separation. Some would rather go and sit at someone’s table, eat, then leave and never have to get involved. That’s not our deal here. We want everybody involved. I believe this process will take us from superficial growth to good, solid, consistent revival growth.

Now the strategy team of six members meets monthly. They work in pairs and each is responsible for several ministries. Every team member also meets monthly with the ministry leaders they oversee. Bro. Steele does not have an assistant or associate pastor but points to the strategy team as the administrator of the church. It’s a team; it’s not just one person, he said. So there are six people carrying the ball instead of one.

The Ripple Effect

Bro. Steele is convinced that being in a small town or community doesn’t have to limit anybody. Last year they averaged around 186 in attendance. The different things we practice and do here, anybody can do, he said. It just takes a God mindset. God is big and He thinks big. When we went into this new building, we went from zero payment to $7,500 a month. It was a huge leap of faith. We didn’t know where the money was going to come from and, to this day, we still don’t know how we’re doing it. God makes up the difference.

But what’s incredible is what God has done for us in our thinking since we’ve been here. A lot of key people have caught the principle of scripture that says, Give and it shall be given and they have gone from being good givers to great and supernatural givers.

If there’s anything I have learned in this process, it is that whatever we do, we’ve got to learn the power of giving. Giving makes the Kingdom of God grow. The way were going to have growth is to give. The Lord says, if you give, I’m going to open up the windows of heaven and you cannot contain and that’s huge! That’s a key that always works. You just can’t out give God. You give and God will give back.