The first book I seriously ever worked on was one written by Dr. Elmer Towns, “The 100 Fastest Growing Churches in America.” Dr. Towns went on to be the dean of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and was a good friend to Dr. Jerry Falwell, but Dr. and Mrs. Towns were originally from Savannah, Ga., and in fact lived in the beautiful home once owned by the legendary Johnny Mercer, who wrote “Moon River” and many other hits. Dr. Towns enjoyed taking his boat out in the rich marshes around Savannah and crabbing for the evening meal. My husband and I visited the Towns several times in Savannah, a beautiful old coastal city, rich in history and fun things to do. They, in turn, visited our home near Atlanta.
I worked for the largest church in the Georgia at that time and my pastor “loaned” me to Dr. Towns to take the book off of cassette tape. I learned a lot about writing and editing from this brilliant man, and my education would come to serve me over the years. Our church, Forrest Hills Baptist in Decatur, was listed among the fastest growing churches in America for many years, and we won the top honor for several years. We were also awarded the honor of being “America’s Fastest Growing Sunday School” for some three years running, which brought a lot of attention to the local church.
Later in working for an international ministry out of Murfreesboro, Tenn., it became my job to visit in many local churches scattered across the nation. I mention these facts simply to let the reader know that I love the local church, invested many years of my life in teaching, organizing areas of ministry, writing, publishing, attending all of the scheduled services, and giving to our home church. I was married to a preacher for over a quarter of a century, my brother is a pastor, and my only son is a busy pastor of a large and growing church in St. Petersburg, Fla., as I write this column.
I’ve seen great churches, good churches and terrible churches. If Jesus visited some of the churches conducting services today, neither He nor His disciples would be welcome. Some are so far from biblical standards and the things Christ taught that He likely would not even recognize them as being about His work (except that He knows all things).
Churches do tend to take on the personality and vision of the man or woman who leads them. If a man is a go-getter, a soul winner, interested in evangelism, preaches about winning the lost, and helps to energize his congregation to do the work of the ministry, his church will most likely follow suit. If a leader is a deeper life Christian and studies the Word often and long, teaches about knowing the Word of God, and encourages his members to stay in the Word of God, that church will most likely be a deeper life church with little attention paid to evangelism. Others are missionary minded and send almost all of their income to the foreign field while letting those around die without a witness from the church.
The most difficult thing for any ministry today or in the past is to remain balanced. We must have soul winning, bringing in new converts, teaching the new believers the Word of God, and loving them through tragedy, difficulty, missteps and pain. Our churches cannot lean either way without giving up something from the other side of the coin. Our members need the daily blessing of fellow believers, and they need to know that they have a core fellowship who will remain their friends no matter what may come.
The church is not the place for “big dogs” and “little puppies.” Every single human being is important to God and should be to each of us that call ourselves Christian. Everyone should be welcome, no matter the age or standing in the community. And we must realize quickly that we have believers of every age, not necessarily in years but in growth in the Christian life. “Keep it on the bottom shelf so every believer can reach the gospel,” is a good quote to keep in the forefront of church building.
The one thing that turns folks off when visiting a prospective church is to realize that no matter the size and stature of the membership, its location, and the pastor and staff, there are still cliques and “favorite people” among the congregation. The pastor or church often defer to the very wealthy because the ministry needs money to operate. Sometimes, it is the family of the pastor or his wife that gets the special treatment. Often, the more a person can give to the ministry, the better his or her station is in the group. God help us to see people as Jesus sees them and to reach out to them to give them a home base of friends and fellow Christians to help them along life’s path. It is difficult for everyone to make it without love, respect, appreciation and inclusion.
We may not all agree on what the local church should be, but these few things are necessary, in my opinion, to grow a faithful church. The Bible is still the Word of God. The gospel still changes lives. Small groups or individual participation is vital. The mission field still needs workers, but we begin at home. Prayer is still powerful. Hurting people still need ministry, (perhaps more than ever right now), and most of all, God is still in control.
Brenda Cannon Henley can be reached at (409) 781-8788 or brendacannonhenley [at] yahoo [dot] com.