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Smaller churches growing stronger through COVID challenges and opportunities, leaders say

In the inaugural Small Church America webinar, titled “The Smaller-Attendance Church: Stronger Than Ever,” two pastors of small Southern Baptist churches discussed the challenges and opportunities experienced by their churches during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Southern Baptist Convention is a “large convention with small churches,” said Joe Wright, executive director of the Bivocational and Small Church Leadership Network.

An estimated 66% of Southern Baptists’ 47,000 churches have fewer than 75 people, said Wright, as he called on William Dooley, pastor of Middletown Baptist Church in Berea, Kentucky, and Kevin Sellars, pastor of RoEllen Baptist Church in Dyersburg, Tennessee, to share their experiences leading their small churches through the pandemic.

Although some leaders estimate that “upwards of one in three” churches will close due to the pandemic, Wright said, smaller churches that “have been faithful will find a way to do God’s work and ministry in [their] communities.”

Tough decisions/positive outcomes

Before the pandemic, Middletown counted about 80 regular attendees in its Sunday worship services, Dooley said, and the church is now regaining close to that number as the pandemic is beginning to decline and the church is reopening. However, as the pandemic first began to take hold in America in the spring of 2020, making decisions to suspend worship services and other church activities was “miserable,” Dooley said.

As the church began to reopen slowly, two Sunday morning services were offered to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Today, the church will continue with those two services, a decision applauded by Dooley because it allows for expected church growth.

The “best thing” over the past year for Middletown has been the development of discipleship groups. Dooley recounted a text message he received from a young man who thanked the pastor for inviting him to be a part of a discipleship group.

Discipleship, the young man wrote, “saved” his life spiritually because he had been wandering from the faith. Discipleship, said Dooley, is more than curriculum. “It’s about doing Christian life together.”

Those who have been discipled, like the young man, will be key leaders for the church moving forward, Dooley said. “As we disciple people, those people [will] step up and fill leadership roles. We are coming out of COVID stronger than when we went in,” he said.

Stay in the Word and pray

Before COVID, RoEllen Baptist Church, a rural church in a farming community, was beginning to grow, Sellars said. Attendance was in the “solid” forties, and the church had begun welcoming young families and had hired a part-time youth director.

As the pandemic wreaked its havoc, RoEllen went through a cycle of closing its doors and then reopening, only to have to close and reopen time and again. The small church lost a few members along the way as it closed its doors.

With a median age of 75 in the congregation, varying opinions among church members and no deacons, Sellars felt the weight of each decision made during the pandemic.

“You’re the one, as pastor, that has to stand before the Lord on that great and terrible day and answer for what you decided for that church,” he said.

“COVID really knocked the wind out of us,” acknowledged Sellars. “I  … got mad,” he recalls, but then he realized, “That’s enough. My God is greater than this. My God is bigger than this.”

Today, the church is moving forward. The church is keeping its online presence, which it didn’t have prior to the pandemic, and church members have begun planning for summer Vacation Bible School. The church is “going to be open to what the Lord wants to do,” Sellars said.

Speaking directly to his fellow small church pastors, Sellars implored, “The best advice I can give you right now is to stay in the Word. We’ve got to be men of the Word; we’ve got to stay in the Word of God, and we’ve got to be in prayer.”

Our time

Small church leader Ken Sartain, who helped co-host the online event, closed the inaugural webinar, saying, “This is our time, guys. God is opening the door for us to partner together in His kingdom work.” The webinar, he said, is “designed by and for small church pastors.”

The next 30-minute Small Church America webinar is scheduled for May 23. Find out more here.

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