By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
BRISTOL — Robbie Carty is living proof that patience pays off.
When he became pastor of Sunset Village Baptist Church, Bristol, seven years ago he readily admits the congregation “was stuck in a rut.”
Members of Sunset Village did not want to change, he observed. They were content with maintaining the “status quo,” Carty related.
“It took me six years to get them to realize that change is going to happen — not by our accord but by God’s accord,” said Carty, a bivocational pastor.
Carty began learning more about the process of church revitalization through Holston Baptist Association. He also contacted Bob Brown, church revitalization specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Church revitalization is one of the Five Objectives adopted by TBC messengers as long-range goals to be accomplished by 2024. The goal for church revitalization is to see at least 500 TBC churches revitalized by then.
The church officially began its efforts to change in January. Carty preached a 13-week sermon series on church revitalization provided by the TBC. As part of the sermon series, the evening services focus on what was preached that morning.
“The thing that has been working for us has been the town hall meetings (on Sunday nights),” Carty said. “Those have been a key to the process,” he affirmed.
A church revitalization team with people of all ages was formed at Sunset Village. “Some people were afraid of that term, including myself,” Carty admitted. “I didn’t know how the Lord would use it.”
One of the first things the church did was to redo its visitation program. Four teams were established using the GROW (God Rewards Our Work) program which involves calling people, sending letters, and visiting people in their homes. Carty is heavily involved in the visitation effort as are other staff and key leaders in the church.
The visitation program has worked as they recently “reclaimed” a couple who had left the church but decided to return. That couple is now very active, Carty said.
The church also realized it had to become more involved in its community. The church building is located in the center of an older neighborhood in Bristol. “We wanted to reach our community,” the pastor said.
Realizing that many people in the community had prayer needs even though they did not attend, the church established a Community Prayer Box. Area residents can drop their prayer requests into the box which is locked. The box is checked three days a week, including Sunday mornings.
It has proven to be quite a success, Carty said. In slightly more than two months, the church has received 226 prayer requests. The person who submits the request is placed on a prospect list and receives a visit within a week, Carty said.
He also noted that each week he goes out to the prayer box and prays at the site. “We want them to know that we’re praying for the needs of the community and that we are here for them.”
In addition, the church has sponsored a community picnic and other events. The church also provides a food pantry to assist with needs in the area. A coat ministry will be offered in September to provide coats for the winter months, Carty said.
The increased emphasis in the community seems to be working, he noted. “We have seen a change.”
The efforts also are translating into increased attendance. Sunday School attendance has increased by 25 percent, he estimated. Worship attendance also has increased with a number of visitors. On a recent Sunday the church had 17 visitors. The church also has baptized three people since it began the revitalization process.
Carty observed that he had to “build trust” among the congregation in order for them to grab hold of church revitalization. The key components have been prayer, visitation, and discipleship, he stressed. “During the process we reevaluated ourselves and our tasks.”
Though things are going smoothly at this point, Carty is well aware that “the devil will throw curves” to get the church off track.
He encourages teams to bathe the process in prayer and to be open to everyone’s input. “The pastor must lead and be excited and supportive, but he can’t be the ‘Lone Ranger,’ ” Carty stressed.
The church also must continually look to God for guidance, he added. “The key before we do anything is that we have to get back to doing the things God wants us to do if we are going to survive for the next century,” he said.