By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
HERMITAGE — If a person attends or serves a church in Tennessee, chances are that church is either plateaued or declining because 90 percent of churches are, said Joe Sorah, compassion ministry specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, at the Church Revitalization Conference: Giving Hope for Change.
The conference was held Aug. 31 – Sept. 1 at Hermitage Hills Baptist Church by the Tennessee Baptist Convention in partnership with LifeWay Christian Resources and Nashville Baptist Association.
First, churches should realize that revitalization is a sovereign work of God, said Sorah. “There are no silver bullets or magic pills to bring about revitalization,” he explained.
Even as they turn to God, most struggling churches try to recover in four ways, noted Sorah, who led the breakout session, “Turning the Tide Through Compassion Ministries.” Churches make policy changes, make personnel changes, adopt new programs, and clarify their purpose. He referred to the book, To Dream Again by Robert Dale.
Instead they should become outward-focused, noted Sorah. One way is through compassion ministries.
On the point of making personnel changes as a solution for a struggling church, many people believe this is the solution including George Barna who suggested this in Turnaround Churches. In fact, Barna wrote that it is impossible to revitalize a church without changing the pastor. Sorah said he disagreed.
“God can make you a new preacher where you are,” he stated.
While pastor of a plateaued church, he experienced spiritual revitalization with help from the book, Return to Holiness, by Greg Frizzell. He also saw a congregation revitalized as he preached principles from the book, led a solemn assembly, and saw church members seek forgiveness of sin.
Struggling churches also turn to new programs for revitalization, noted Sorah.
“If programming alone could revitalize a church, all Southern Baptist churches would be revitalized because we have the programs for everything,” he stated.
He saw one program help in one church situation and that was the Experiencing God study. Sorah said he saw a group of men of the church meeting early on a weekday morning changed as they went through the study. The men ranged from ages 18-80.
“God broke our hearts about what God was doing and what He wanted to do for us,” he noted.
Churches seeking revitalization additionally try to clarify their purpose as a step toward health. Yet often those congregations don’t grasp that “the church is not about them,” stated Sorah. Too many Baptists think that if people “don’t want to be one of us, if they don’t want to come, then that’s their decision.”
Sorah told of Steve Sjogren, author of Conspiracy of Kindness, who as a pastor in Cincinnati, would offer to clean the rest rooms of businesses to show “God’s love in a practical way.”
Then, as members of his church began doing the same, his church grew.
Another reason compassion ministry is effective is that only about 10 percent of church members have the gift of evangelism, wrote Sjogren, while every Christian can be involved in compassion ministry.
Sorah referred to Charles Roe-sel, pastor emeritus, First Baptist Church, Leesburg, Fla. Roesel led his church to develop many compassion ministries and saw it grow from about 300 people in Sunday morning activities to several thousand. Roesel described the church’s journey in the book, It’s a God Thing.
Servant evangelism or compassion ministries follows the example of Scripture which teaches people to care about the needy, widows, orphans, and migrants, he continued. He also referred to The Church of Irresistible Influence by Robert Lewis, which points to engaging one’s community.
Another reason to begin using servant evangelism is that it “is attractive to young people because they want to be involved and touch lives.” The approach also follows “the principle that actions precede attitudes,” he continued.
At a church he pastored Sorah saw the effectiveness of compassion ministry. Church members prayerwalked their neighborhood and learned about residents. “Eyes were opened to needs,” he reported.
Then the church adopted servant ministry projects like distributing batteries for smoke detectors on time change weekend to residents. Help from firemen in the church who would install smoke detectors also was offered.
While doing ministry, church members would talk to people about the church. Though many people in the community often parked in the church’s parking lot for high school football games, many reported they didn’t know about the church.
Finally, the church decided to move week night family suppers, which had become a burden to offer, to local restaurants to help those business owners and employees and to be a witness to other patrons.
The church coordinated the night of their visit with the restaurant to fill nights when the restaurant wasn’t very busy. They also made a point of asking about needs of people they met and offering to pray with them.
The last effort was a big success, reported Sorah.
Everyone can be involved in compassion ministry, observed Sorah. All that is required is seeing a need and matching “the passions, abilities, and gifts of church members to that need.”
Also speaking in the session was Doug Mitchell, pastor, Midland Baptist Church, Bell Buckle, who saw his church in a rural setting grow after it simply continued a bread distribution ministry to needy residents. The ministry was offered by one church member who passed away. As a result, people make professions of faith each week, the church has grown including the addition of an Hispanic congregation, and the ministry has grown dramatically. The church was featured in the June 17 issue of the Baptist and Reflector.
Sorah concluded by warning the ministers in his session.
The alternative they face is their church losing “its influence” and ultimately closing.
Sorah also warned, “As you plan compassion ministries, prepare for some hard work.”