By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
BLAINE — Attendance at Mouth of Richland Baptist Church in Blaine, one of the oldest churches in the Tennessee Baptist Convention and in Grainger County, had dwindled to under 20 people in the summer of 2018 and the congregation was searching for a pastor.
Meanwhile, Nick Wright and Brad Bales, two ministers and lifelong friends, were looking for a new place of service. Having grown up in the general area, the two “20-somethings” met with leadership at Mouth of Richland and suggested they consider hiring both of them, an idea that must have seemed impossible for such a small church.
But the church was looking for a pastor to lead them through some tough times, Wright recalled, adding that they told the church they were confident that they “could come together to revitalize the church.”
Bill Ramsey, a deacon at Mouth of Richland, was one of the deacons who interviewed the two friends. He acknowledged the church had not planned to hire two ministers. “It was a new experience for us,” he said.
Ramsey and the others knew, however, that something had to happen. “Most of our members were 70 years old or older,” he said. “We knew if we kept going in the same direction we would eventually have to close our doors.”
The two ministers even suggested that the church give them a year and a half and then they could reevaluate if things were not working out.
The church, which at the time was financially stable, agreed, calling Wright as pastor and Bales as executive pastor.
“But we didn’t need a year and a half,” Wright said. By Christmas the church had more than tripled in both giving and attendance, he recalled.
“The Lord just blessed us,” Wright said, noting they immediately reached out to the community.
Bales said they also established structure within the church and tried to offer something for every age group. The fact that both men are in their 20s and have young children also was a plus. As the church offered more activities for children, younger families began to join.
“We went from having no kids to about 15 children in about a year’s time,” Wright added. “That’s so cool and I think it is because we can relate to them as young families.”
In addition, the church also has between 15 to 20 middle and high school students that meet on Wednesday nights, said Bales, who leads the youth ministry in addition to other responsibilities.
Over the past two years about 60 people have joined and around 20 people have been baptized, the two ministers recounted.
But that’s not all, Bales said. Some former members have returned to the church and are seeking to serve and walk with the Lord, he noted.
Wright agreed. “When we came here, we obviously had to grow financially and numerically to survive as a church. But our goal has never been just to count numbers.
“We’ve said from the beginning that if we are going to be a successful church, we have to be spiritually revitalized just as much as numerically and financially revitalized,” he continued.
“So, when Brad says that we’ve seen people saved and seen older members rekindle their love for the Lord, that right there has been the greatest thing to witness,” the pastor affirmed.
At the beginning of 2020 attendance had reached about 100 weekly, then COVID struck in March. “That stopped everything for everybody,” Bales said.
Mouth of Richland shut down services for two months before restarting in May, the two men said. Bales said a positive that came out of COVID was that “it put us in a position to minister effectively and to love on people from a distance.”
Wright agreed, noting that church members developed a ministry by making lasagna and taking meals to not only shut-ins of the church but others in the community. “We’re just trying to do different things because they didn’t teach us in seminary how to minister to people during a pandemic,” he laughed.
In recent weeks, attendance has climbed back to around 70 each week, but some of the church’s older members and especially those with health issues are cautious about returning.
The ministers are continuing their desire to see the church revitalized spiritually by stressing to them that “church isn’t just about coming and sitting in the seat,” Wright said, noting that Mouth of Richland’s mission statement is “To Know Christ and to Make Him Known.”
They had planned to focus on discipleship during 2020 but COVID “threw a wrench into that,” Wright said. He is hopeful that members will be able to gather together and study more during 2021.
“It’s about living your life in obedience to Christ and in submission to Him. That has definitely taken more time,” he acknowledged, but he is confident that when church members get to the point they “definitely know Christ enough, they will make Him known.”
Eddie Holbrook Jr., director of missions for Grainger Baptist Association, observed that Wright and Bales “are really working hard with outreach in the community and with other churches.”
The church has done a good job of reaching younger families, Holbrook added. Noting that Mouth of Richland used to be one of the strongest churches in the community, he is excited that the church is growing again.
The DOM also is appreciative that both ministers are involved in the life of the association “Nick is the vice moderator this year and will serve as moderator next year while Brad is on our youth advisory council,” Holbrook said.
“They are two great young men. I see a lot of good years ahead of them,” he said.
Ramsey noted Wright and Bales came in with some new ideas, such as introducing social media to the church. As a result, younger families with children began to attend. The community was growing but before they came, people were not coming to the church, Ramsey said.
Ramsey knows that God was present during the process. “They have really worked and done a good job.” B&R