Growing in a No-Growth Town
Realistic Help for Churches Facing Seemingly Impossible Odds.
By Charles Yarborough
Growth in this little church seemed impossible. First Christian Church in Albany, Kentucky, was started by sixteen people in 1834. The original church .wilding was destroyed by fire on March 20, 1926. The congregation, broke and in despair, made its own bricks, built a new church, and moved into it November 6, 1927. I t is still in that building today.
The church suffered a split in the late 1950s. By the late 1980s, attendance had dropped to an average of twenty. Sunday school attendance was in the low teens. The youth program had two members: a 12-year-old girl and a 5-week-ol boy. Most members were retired.
This small church is in Albany (pop.: 2,500), a non-growth town in south central Kentucky. While the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful, the county has little industry. Unemployment is high. The nearest medium-size city is fifty-five mil s away. Almost all young people leave town after they graduate from Clinton County High School.
I asked church members how long it had been since the last family moved into the area. No one could remember. This church was only two or three funerals away from closing.
My assessment of this church’s potential needed to factor in the power of the Spirit of God. That power touched the small group of mostly senior citizens in the Albany church. They decided to grow.
In our first four years of effort, we added fifty-seven members. We keep struggling to maintain our growth, hoping and praying for just one more new member. They keep coming. It’s not a mad rush, but growth is steady. Sunday worship attendance is now in the fifties rather than at twenty. There are twenty young people active today, rather than two. The congregation purchased a new Allen organ and new choir robes. An old garage next to the church will be renovated and connected to the church building.
Ours is not a rags-to-riches story of church growth. It is a story of small church that struggled to stay alive under the leadership of a new but aged pastor who should have been thinking about retiring instead of leading a small church in a no growth town. For what it’s worth, I’d like to pass along some ideas that put our church into action and broke the bonds that held us back.
Draw on History
Three weeks after I arrived, I was looking through some old church files when I found some old record books. I read that “Raccoon” John Smith, one of the founding fathers of our denomination, had preached in this church. He and fifteen others founded the church. His grandson helped make the Communion table and pulpit, which are still used every Sunday.
I could not believe that this great church, a community landmark since 1834, was so close to closing its doors. I wasn’t sure I had the energy to lead the people in a church growth program. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking: It just doesn’t seem right that this church should close its doors. If it is closed, who will have the dubious honor? Me? One of the relatives of the founders?
Through an afternoon of tears and prayer, I came up with the sermon I needed. That Sunday I preached on, “Who’s going to turn off the lights in First Christian Church?”
During the sermon, I read this statement from the display case downstairs: “From the beginning it was a church of vision, a church that tried and succeeded in living out the gospel as Jesus set forth. They lived through some of the toughest times in American history. They survived. Their flames may have flickered as the winds of the Civil War blew around them, but the light remained bright, and has continued to burn.”
Then I said, “We will not say to our children, ‘The last one out, blow out the lamp and sell the building. It’s all over.’ Let us never let that happen. Instead, let us say to them, ‘Take this lamp and handle it well, because it will light your way as it has for those before you.’ Let history record these words, ‘In 1989, a small group of servants known as First Christian Church in Albany, Kentucky, fought back. Because of them, the flame of the lamp glows brighter than ever!”
When we sang the hymn of commitment, “O Jesus, I Have Promised to Serve Thee to the End,” nine people came forward, saying, “We will never close this church.” The first to come forward were the descendants of our founders. We found hope for the future in the church’s history.
Most small congregations feel threatened by growth. They fear they may lose their identity if they get bigger. They ask, “Do we want these new people coming in here and taking over?” Or, “If we grow, I may have to give more money and do more work.” Some people are just opposed to change. We did what we could not to hurt people who resisted change, but we also insisted that we had to build Christ’s church. I tried to help people see what will happen if they didn’t grow. “Church growth is a lot more fun than turning off the lights in your church,” I said.
I did a modern adaptation of Luke 5:17-20 to encourage people to be like the four friends who brought their neighbor on a stretcher to the feet of Jesus I tried to help people see the positive motivation for church growth—to bring others into an encounter with Christ. That has become our theme.
Before your church can grow, you must have prospects, and you cannot get prospects if you don’t have a friendly church. Visitors who come to a cold, unfriendly church are not likely to return.
Most small churches are quick to tell you, “Why, we’re the friendliest little church in town.” Most are friendly to their own members, but in truth, they often ignore the lonely visitor. They’re so busy being neighborly to their neighbor that they pay no attention to others. For some reason, many small church members are afraid they are going to bother the guests.
To break the ice, we asked people to greet others during worship. Following the opening hymn, I said, “Would you please remain standing and greet those around you, especially our guests?” The first Sunday I tried this, people just looked at one another. No one moved. So I stepped down from the pulpit and greeted two people in the second row (my mother-in-law and father-in-law, who were visiting with us).
The next Sunday I again asked people to greet each other. My wife, Linda, greeted someone, then two choir members and members of the congregation joined in. We were off and running. Now people look forward to this time of greeting.
I’ve learned that if you don’t have a record of your visitors, you can’t follow up on your best church-growth possibility. Many small churches use a guest register, which is a great idea for funerals and weddings but a total failure in churches. I know how beautiful the gold-lettered guest book is (and it was given in memory of Aunt Ada), but many guests walk past the register and never see it. Those who do sign it usually list just their name and city.
So we asked deacons and ushers to pass out visitor cards and pencils during the time of welcome. The cards ask for a guest’s full address, ages of children, and more. We follow up on visitors with what we call “pie evangelism”—taking them a pie, cake, cookies, or home-baked bread. We don’t let the person who baked the pie take it to the visitor, however. Instead, specially trained delivery people do that.
The delivery people say, “Hi, we’re John and Kathy from First Christian Church. We just wanted to stop by and tell you how happy we are to have you visit our church. We keep saying we’re the friendliest church in the world, and to prove it we brought you a delicious apple pie.” People say thank you, which gives our delivery people their opening. “I’m just the delivery person,” one will say. “Mrs. So-and-so baked tasty pie for you. I’ll be happy to point her out to you next Sunday.” That way, the prospect meets two church members rather than one.
That approach has helped us reach prospects who visit our church more than once. It has also helped us to build friendliness, which is the foundation for growth.
Hold Special Events
Anytime you have a crowd in a small-town church, it’s a big deal. It gives you a positive appearance in the community.
One event that helped us was Friend Day. We used the program from Church Growth Institute (800-553-GROW). At first, I had my doubts about the program, but that one day (and the follow up) did more for our growth than any single event.
A committee of our best workers met every Monday night for eight weeks, prior to the target day of April 1. After the first meeting, I announced to the congregation that we were going to have a Friend Day on April 1. They all smiled; they had heard this kind of thing before. The next week, I said that our goal for Friend Day was ninety people. One lady said, “You’ll never get ninety people in here.” I agreed with her that we should change the goal. We upped it to 110.
Every Sunday I began to read letters from the town’s VIPs—the mayor, county judge, school principal, and bank vice-president—who were accepting invitations to Friend Day. The program began to gain credibility. On Friend Day Sunday, our attendance, which had been twenty-nine people for nine months, shot up to 151. We followed up Friend Day by making seven contacts with each prospect within seven days.
Challenge Members to Reach Neighbors
Most people don’t feel comfortable evangelizing their neighbors. I’m often told, “Pastor, he’s my neighbor, and he’s definitely not interested in being a member of our church.” We have tried to relieve that pressure by teaching people how to bring their neighbor to an encounter with Christ. We say to them: “Just bring people you know. You will be most effective in reaching your mother, father, brother, sister son, daughter, cousin, co-worker, or friend. No one in the world can reach this group as well as you.”
The process takes time. We have found that it takes an average of thirteen months for a visitor to unite with our church. Foothills people are slow about making commitments.
We also teach people to ask a simple but specific question: “Do you attend any particular church on a regular basis?” The last four words are key. We don’t ask, “Do you belong to a church?” or “Do you go to church anywhere?” Most people belong to some church, even if they haven’t attended it in the past forty years. When a person responds, on a regular basis? No, we don’t attend church very much,” you can talk about your church.
Pay Attention to Young People
On my first Sunday evening service at First Christian Church, I asked our congregation, “What changes do you want to see in this church?”
The majority said, “We want more young people.”
I then asked, “Who will work with them?”
Their excitement crashed. No one, including the preacher, wanted to take on the role of youth leader. I had served a large church as minister of music and youth, but that was twenty-two years ago. I then realized our problem is not a lack of leadership, our real problem is finding young people.
There is one sure way to get young people: take them on a trip. Albany is about five hours from the beautiful Smoky Mountains, so we decided to hold a youth retreat in the Smokies. I’m still not sure where they came from, but six teenagers came to our retreat. Following the retreat, all six were baptized and received into the church.
In addition, we added a children’s sermon to the worship service. We’ve found that parents go to a church where their children are happiest.
Reaching young people has been our most difficult task. But over time, things have happened. We now have youth activities, three children’s Sunday school classes, and a nursery.
Improve the Music
A well-prepared organist truly lifts the spirit of worship. Yet so often, we try to get by with a person who can’t play. The music program is stuck until he or she is replaced.
We also continue to use incompetent musicians because of relationships. “Aunt Ada has played organ for us for sixty-five years. She was good enough for us in the past when nobody else would help us, so why not now? She would never think of charging us to play. Now you want to spend all this money by paying an outsider when we could continue using Aunt Ada for free?”
We need people like Aunt Ada. We should never make a dedicated servant like her feel unwanted. Still, sometimes a pianist or organist is simply not musically or physically able to continue. Hiring a pianist could solve the problem. Use organ and piano together. Select choral music that will challenge an older musician to work harder.
One of two things will happen. The extra practicing will make Aunt Ada a better
musician or she will decide it’s time to retire. If she makes that decision, host a church-wide retirement dinner in her honor. Award her with a certificate of appreciation and a nice gift. If she has played free for many years, the church owes her a great debt of gratitude.
Here are some ways to make a small choir sound great:
— Start singing simple unison music, if need be.
— Hold a music school to teach people who can’t read music. This could be held immediately following choir rehearsal for about six weeks.
— When the music calls for a soprano solo, and you don’t have a soloist, use all the sopranos, or all the women, to sing it.
— Select music that encourages a big sound. It’s easier to sing out on “Onward Christian Soldiers” than on “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Motivation for Growth
The growth committees in our church include people in their eighties, in their fifties, and a few younger. But all are dedicated to the goal of bringing others to have an encounter with Christ. Although some people in our church are opposed to change, almost everyone has enjoyed seeing our congregation come alive and grow—even those who were originally opposed to it. People from other churches are enthusiastic about our growth, too. The talk around Albany is, “First Christian is really on the move.” That has given our people a lift. It’s pretty encouraging for a small church in a no-growth town.
—Charles L. Yarborough recently retired as minister of First Christian Church in Albany, Kentucky.
Adapted by permission from Jump Starting the Small Church by
C. L. Yarborough, 104 Church Street, Hookerton, NC 28538
“Hope in a No-Growth Town,” LEADERSHIP, Summer 199 VoI.XVII, No.3, Page 79
Copyright © 2004 • CHRISTIANITY TODAY INTERNATIONAL
“This article may not have been written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”