INDIAN TRAIL, N.C. – The bigger a church gets, the smaller it has to get, said Maurice Henson, associate pastor of First Baptist Indian Trail, located near Charlotte, N.C.
By Andrea Higgins
INDIAN TRAIL, N.C. – The bigger a church gets, the
smaller it has to get, said Maurice Henson, associate pastor of First
Baptist Indian Trail, located near Charlotte, N.C.
The apparent paradox made perfect sense to Henson’s listeners.
Henson’s audience, pastors from across the Union Baptist Association, a
collection of smaller membership churches in this southern Piedmont
county of North Carolina, were learning about the need for close
relationships and building churches through Sunday school. Fourteen
Union Baptist Association churches have completed the training.
The pastors were in the fourth and final session of
a six-month church mentoring program presented by LifeWay Christian
Resources in conjunction with First Baptist Indian Trail.
For relationships to be meaningful, new members
should be engaged immediately in service if the church hopes to keep
them as members, Henson said. “If we play patty cake with them, they’re
going to go some place else,” he said.
Henson was preaching to the proverbial choir in
participants like Donnie Gamble, pastor of Hermon Baptist Church in
Waxhaw, N.C., affectionately known as “Mr. Sunday School.”
Since Gamble became pastor at Hermon Baptist in 2002, the membership has doubled, steadily increasing from 60 in worship to 120.
Still, just since October 2005 when church leaders
began implementing the specific LifeWay strategies, the 100-year-old
church has seen a 20 percent average jump in Sunday school and worship
attendance, with recent weeks far exceeding that.
Gamble said while churches may assign new people to
a Sunday school class, many have forgotten what Sunday school is really
for – evangelism. “The key to this thing of church is all about
relationships,” said Gamble. “It really goes down to our need for a
relationship with Jesus.”
Statistics would seem to bear that out, said Mike
Perry, LifeWay specialist for the association’s network partnership,
who coordinated the workshops.
“Seventy-six to 80 percent of church memberships are
either at a plateau or declining,” Perry said. “We have failed to
communicate our mission.”
Sharon Smith, who helped pilot the LifeWay plan two
years ago, worked with five churches that had not seen baptisms in five
years, and then watched them begin to grow through the Sunday school
“In most cases, a new member never understands why
we do what we do, so they never get the vision and never become part of
the army,” Smith said.
Emphasis on strategic growth
The first training session in October 2005 involved
just pastors, who received materials and committed to enlist their
churches leaders. Pastors brought progressively more people, ending
with a training that included 241 church leaders, Sunday school
directors, teachers and laypeople from the 14 participating churches.
Over the course of a year, staff members from First
Baptist Indian Trail will work with the churches, several of which have
already reported growth directly attributable to the gradual
implementations of the LifeWay strategies.
Thirty church members from Hermon Baptist Church
were present for the final training on April 8, including Brenda
Carter, who has been a member for 43 years since she got married.
“They called this ‘basic training.’ They’re leading
people to go back to the Sunday school basics,” she said. “Sunday
school is where you make connections. Sunday school is where your needs
can be met. The pastor can’t meet the needs of every sheep in the
Equipping with proper strategy
LifeWay’s Perry said the training moves a church
from thinking of Sunday school as a “program” solely focused on Bible
teaching to equipping members with a strategy for evangelism,
discipleship and Bible study.
Sunday school should not be about another program,
he said, but rather it should be about the Great Commission, and based
on the New Testament model.
Henson said 10 years ago, First Baptist Indian Trail
made a commitment to reach the world for Christ through the Sunday
school. The church tries to keep a 10:1 ratio of care groups to
maintain personal contact, so that at every level, people have someone
looking after them.
In that time it has grown from 1,200 to 5,200
members, with new Sunday school classes duplicating themselves
frequently to keep ratios low. The church has also started a new campus
at the eastern part of the county, using the same methods. With a
membership of 400 already, it will eventually become a separate church.
The church also started a Hispanic church and a Korean ministry, with
interpreters in each service.
Henson said church leaders were eager to host the
LifeWay conferences and assist smaller churches in the county.
“A lot of times you go to conferences and you get
this information dump,” Henson said. “The problem with that is you
don’t get to see how to go home and implement it. We’re trying to help
“Every church has agendas,” said Henson, explaining
that churches have their own “life cycle” that often leads to a loss of
a sense of purpose. “They start out with a specific mission. The
problem with churches that have been around for a while, over the years
that mission kind of gets muddled.”
As important as it is to evangelize the lost, it’s
also essential to build up believers by showing them you care, Perry
That happens in Sunday school by keeping care groups
small, and not just calling members when they don’t show up, Perry
For instance, said Kim Thomas, a ministry
coordinator at First Baptist Indian Trail, a member of her Sunday
school class who has cancer, has been getting sicker and sicker over
the past two years.
“For two years, every other day, we take the family
food and we clean their house two times a week. That’s Sunday school,”
Thomas said, close to tears.
Perry said: “We need to have this kind of passion, this kind of mercy – to show people you care.”