By Lonnie Wilkey
Baptist and Reflector
Phelps said it did not take long for him to discover that Caney Ford was known in the Midtown community as the “family chapel or family church.”
And, for some people in the community that reputation was negative because they felt they could never be a part of the church because they had not grown up in it.
Phelps, who came from a similar church in Virginia, came to Caney Ford with the mindset, “You can’t extinguish a former reputation, but you can construct a new one.”
And, with God’s direction and the help of members who saw the need for change, they are well on the way.
“We are now known as a church for families,” Phelps said.
In order to change their reputation, the church intentionally began new ministries designed to attract younger families who were moving into the area. One of the first ministries established was a “diaper ministry,” he recalled.
“We have given out more than 10,000 diapers in four years and the ministry is still going,” Phelps noted.
The church also started a program called “Caney Kids” on Wednesday nights that focuses on missions and discipleship. As those kids aged, they were able to establish “Caney Teens” this fall to continue their growth and development, the pastor said.
The church also established a relationship with Midtown Elementary School. Phelps noted the irony of the relationship. After arriving in the area, he learned that Midtown Elementary considered itself a school without a community and that Caney Ford members felt they were a church without a community.
Phelps worked to develop relationships with the principal and the school. Church members adopted teachers at the school and began to send them small gifts each month. Those relationships helped establish a Bible Release Program that enables second graders to come to Caney Ford once a month (with permission of parents) for Bible study and snacks.
In addition, the church sponsored “Trunk or Treat” on Oct. 30 at the school for the children.
The pastor said that the community has noticed the change in the church. Attendance has grown to about 55 people each Sunday with several new families with young children, he said. And, he added, the increase has come while several members of the church have died recently or are no longer able to attend due to health issues.
And, though most of the growth has come from younger families, Phelps has not forgotten the senior adults. He organized the senior adults into the SONSHINERS and they not only fellowship together, they are involved in ministry as well.
Randy Roper, director of missions for Big Emory Baptist Association, has seen a change in the rural congregation since Phelps arrived.
He observed that Phelps has strategically led Caney Ford Baptist Church “in a successful and intentional in-house revitalization.
“The church has had to make some tough decisions along this journey but the evidence is clear that God is blessing those decisions,” Roper said.
The DOM added that Phelps “is a no nonsense, biblical pastor with the patience of Job. The church is seeing spiritual and numerical growth due to the cooperation between the pulpit and the pew.”
Phelps has the personality and gifts that naturally lead to being a successful revitalization pastor.
Roper is a firm believer in church revitalization. He noted that Phelps is one of 10 to 12 pastors in the association who meet each month “for the sole purpose of ” seeing God grow their congregations both spiritually and numerically.”
He encourages other Baptist associations to consider starting similar groups if they don’t have one already. “These pastors pray together, help one another and build relationships outside of the group.”
In the meantime, Phelps is comfortable with his role of helping revitalize traditional churches.
Phelps observed that keys to church revitalization are identifying problems, praying about a vision, focus all efforts on the vision and get outside the walls of the church.
“God’s not through with traditional churches,” he affirmed. B&R