By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
CHAPEL HILL — When Tony Cansler was called to be pastor at Caney Spring Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, he walked into a situation with contrasting themes.
The church’s attendance was alarming. The church’s attitude was encouraging.
And as it turns out, the latter part of that equation overcame the former.
During the past year, Caney Spring has essentially quadrupled in size, and is now averaging about 75 attendees on Sunday mornings.
The church has baptized 14 new believers since March of last year, compared to only 10 baptisms in the previous five years combined.
“There is a tremendous move of the Lord going on here, and things have really taken off,” said Cansler, who is bivocational. “And it is not me, and it is not the church; it’s something greater than all of that. It’s Jesus.”
Caney Spring was facing a bleak situation when Cansler arrived in February of 2017.
The church’s average attendance had dropped to 20 or less on Sunday mornings, and to single digits on Sunday nights and Wednesday nights.
Now, though, the church is experiencing new life.
Steve Holt, church revitalization specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, said Caney Spring’s transformation is a testament to God’s desire to see churches thrive.
“Most all churches will eventually go through seasons of difficulty and even decline, but because they are ultimately Christ’s possession, He often miraculously restores them to fruitfulness,” said Holt. “Caney Spring is another example of Christ’s gracious love for His Bride.”
Cansler said the undying faith and determination of the members has helped the church regain its purpose.
“The church had been in a period of decline,” he said. “But the church never gave up, they never lost faith. They continued to claim and believe Proverbs 3:5-6. (‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy path).”
The recent growth at Caney Spring has led to the expansion of the church’s clothing ministry, which is making a tremendous impact in Chapel Hill and well beyond. (See related story about the ministry).
ANSWERING THE CALL
Prior to coming to Caney Spring, Cansler had served as the bivocational pastor at Union Grove Baptist Church in Tellico Plains for 12 years. During the week, he would commute to Franklin for his job at Optum Technologies. It was during those daily commutes in the summer of 2017 that the Lord began to lay on Cansler’s heart that He had something big in store.
“What transpired is that the Lord began to really speak to me on that long drive, and I began to pray,” said Cansler. “And after a month, I felt that He was leading me to completely migrate to Middle Tennessee.
“So, my wife and I prayed about it together for another month, and at that point, we knew with absolute certainty that’s what He wanted,” added Cansler. “So, I told my church. I worked out a month in August there, and resigned.”
Through continued prayer, Cansler said he felt a very clear calling: “God was telling me that He wanted me to be open to anywhere on the 840 corridor,” he said.
Cansler contacted the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, and spoke with TBMB president and executive director Randy C. Davis. Soon, Cansler also began communicating with several members of the TBMB team, including bivocational ministry specialist John Parrot, church planting specialist Lewis McMullen and Holt.
Then, through a series of God-ordained developments, the door came open for Cansler to become the pastor at Caney Spring. It was a perfect example of God’s perfect timing, Holt said.
“When Caney Spring was at the point of desperation, God sent them a pastor who was exactly what they needed,” said Holt.
Cansler and Holt have remained in contact throughout the past year.
“Steve has kind of been an unofficial mentor to me,” said Cansler. “I would call him periodically and ask him questions for guidance on decisions and stuff like that. The Lord had a plan in mind in terms of using Steve to play a key part in helping make this connection.”
When Cansler arrived at Caney Spring, he prayed the Lord would help him develop a formula for the church. And God faithfully answered his prayer.
“The Lord laid a vision on my heart of three things we needed to do as a church,” said Cansler. “First and foremost, exalt the Savior. Second, edify the saints, and then third, evangelize the sinners.”
Cansler said that if a church isn’t meeting the “exalting the Savior” objective, all of the other ministries are in vain.
“I told the church that we need to make sure that we put Christ above everything else and that we pray and listen to what He says for us to do and follow Him,” said Cansler. “When I first arrived, I began to continue to emphasize prayer — and prayer has been the key to our church being the church that God has purposed it to be and Jesus plans for it to be. I stress the fact that no matter how many church revitalization meetings or seminars I attend, Jesus has a specific message for our church.”
Cansler said he believed Caney Spring — like many other churches — needed to focus more on discipleship and outreach.
“I’ve noticed that we (as Baptists) don’t, in my opinion, do as good a job in discipleship,” he said. “We leave it to just Sunday School alone, and to me, that’s not enough. We really need to dig deeper.”
“So, we also launched a women’s ministry and men’s ministry (among other new things) to help that spiritual growth of the believers and the edification of the believers.”
As for evangelism, Cansler said his church is incorporating new ideas to reach the spiritually lost.
“What we do is we are very intentional in trying to reach the unchurched people of Tennessee,” he said.
Cansler said Caney Spring’s revitalization has been energizing for all involved, and he believes the optimism can be felt by newcomers at the church.
“Our church is very excited when we have first-time visitors, and we’ve had a steady flow of them,” Cansler said. “We average two to five first-time visitors every Sunday.”
The Caney Spring members have responded to the church’s revitalization by enthusiastically sharing Jesus with others.
“I’m hearing stories from our people about witnessing to others in their daily life — whether it’s a waiter or somebody they ran into at Walmart, or just all different areas,” he said. “Our people are sharing their faith, sharing Christ. We also are praying for our neighbors, and as soon as we pray for them, we send them cards letting them know that we prayed for them.”
Cansler said the community has sensed the excitement of the church and its open-arms message.
“The feedback I’m hearing is that the church is welcoming,” he said. “That it’s non-judgmental, and it’s loving.”
Cansler said the secret to the church’s revitalization is no secret at all: Jesus.
“He’s the one responsible for the growth of our church and the transition of our church,” he said.