Building a Prevailing Rural Church (Jul-Aug 2006)

By Matt Dabbs

by Ben Baker
July – August, 2006

Planting and creating an environment for a church to grow means connecting with people and connecting them with God, says Pastor Mitch Bias of Regional Church of God in Debarton, West Virginia.

Pastor Bias knows what he’s talking about. He pastors a church in an economically depressed coal mining town; a church which is bursting at the seams in this rolling mountain town where mountain tops are cut off and leveled for building space. Despite these hardships, Pastor Bias is building a church with a huge impact in his community. He’s doing that by focusing attention on people, not buildings and money. He looks to help the Holy Spirit work in people, and they in turn will find the spaces to minister in their town, in their jobs, in their homes, in public places.

At the same time, he warns other pastors and church builders interested in impacting their community in a great way that the task before them is not easy or simple. “There are really no shortcuts-no secret formulas,” he said.

Cutting the shortcut right out of the picture from the start is getting a pastor who is connected to and will stay connected to a community. Implicit in that connection hides a major stumbling block to the growth of the church: short-term ministers.

Build trust in people

Mitch BiasBecause pastors move frequently, many churches “have paranoid sheep,” Pastor Bias said. “They don’t feel like they can trust the leader and follow him.” Trust takes time to build, especially in people. The pastor said studies show it takes at least eighteen months of quality leadership for a leader to inspire trust in those who follow him. The average stay of a pastor in church in the United States is two years. So just about the time the church members are putting their trust in a pastor, he moves on. “We have distrust throughout (the churches) because we change leadership,” he said. “You teach what you know. You reproduce what you are.” Unstable pastors produce unstable churches. “Trust is built. Build trust in people.”

Pastors who move around a lot typically say they have received a call to move on. It’s not a call they have received, but a call they made, the pastor says. “Usually, it is the pastor who is finished with you,” he said. “Many people make a great start, but they don’t finish well. Pastor Bias presented this idea in more familiar terms – “It’s like me telling my children, I am not going to be your father any more,” he said.

Buy a grave plot

The question then becomes, how can a pastor prove his intention to be there for the long haul? It’s easy, Pastor Bias said. Make a commitment in a solid and tangible form that most people in the church will understand. This simple idea also confounds the great enemy. “Pastors, buy your grave plot,” he said. Satan “hates it when pastors finally settle down and buy a grave plot.”

In other words, make a commitment to the community and the church you will serve in. Pastor Bias points to the example of Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit coming to dwell with us. “The passion of the Chief Shepherd is ‘I will never leave you and I will never forsake you.’ With (all too many) pastors it is ‘I will leave you and I will forsake you,'” he said. If you really serve Jesus and want to follow His example, then prove it by making a permanent connection to the congregation.

His commitment to the Delbarton community and the region actually reaches back to the 1930s when his grandfather came to pastor there. His grandfather retired in the eighties and Pastor Bias took over the post. “The torch was passed to me and I continue the work,” he said. Beyond that, this West Virginia man of God knows about moving and staying put. He’s received offers from all over, including a position at the international Church of God headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee. Of that offer, he said he did not even have to pray about it. He said no. God put this man in charge of a church in West Virginia. “You cannot be promoted out of the center of God’s will,” he said. “How could you be promoted out of God’s will?”

Commitment, to Pastor Bias, means more than a promise to the church and the people who attend that church right now. Commitment, he says, means reaching out to the community.

One pastor in Toombs County, Georgia, for example, attends all the football games. At one away game, the head coach caught this pastor at the gate and asked if he would become the team chaplain. “I just showed up at the football games. I knew that door was not opened by man. God opened that door,” said Pastor Stephen Toole. “It may seem insignificant to a lot of people, but God has opened many doors. I have full access to the high school. I can walk into any class. It has opened up doors of ministry into families’ lives through those kids. I’ve had families we’ve been able to win because they say ‘we can tell you care about our children.'”

Network outside your fellowship

This kind of reaching out pays dividends not only with increased opportunity for ministry work, but with increased opportunity to bridge gaps in a community. Look at it this way, by reaching out, Jesus spanned the gap of sin which separates us from the Father. So when pastors reach out in their community to others, especially other denominations, it promotes the spirit of unity and grows The Church which is what Jesus told us to do. Pastors who do reach out also set an example. Studies show about half of what people learn is through imitation. Networks play a big role here. Pastor Bias said if people see other people reaching out, they will reach out. In West Virginia, Pastor Bias meets regularly with other church pastors. Pastor Toole said he counts some other church pastors as among his best friends.

“God, whatever you are doing is what we want to be a part of,” Pastor Toole said. “Don’t ever compromise what we believe as Pentecostals [but know] the Spirit of God is being poured out on Churches which are not Pentecostal.” Learning and leaning on one another in networks of small churches is vital to living and growing in the larger body of Christ. “Networking happening in a rural region is so wonderful. In a rural church, we ought to be able to capitalize on these networks.”

In addition to building unity in The Church, “it drives the evil one berserk,” Pastor Bias said. “When pastors dwell together on one turf, God commands blessings on them,” he said, paraphrasing one of the Psalms.

Pastors also need to apply this kind of outreach within the walls of their own church. A church is not a one-size-fits all arrangement. Just as people will attend different churches because they are different, people within one congregation are different. They have different schedules and different needs. This creates a need for new leadership roles. Instead of looking at it as just delegating authority, Pastor Bias said it’s an opportunity to grow people in the Body of Christ. A church needs leaders for various teams, he said.

A growing church must have leaders. “As your church grows, the demand for leadership grows disproportionately. The more your church grows, the demand for leadership curve goes right out the roof,” he said. “I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I’m just affirming the facts.”

Communicate

At Regional Church of God, there is a management team, a pastoral care team and a finance committee. All are responsible to the pastor for their actions and so they keep him apprised of their activities through meetings and reports. Responsibility has to be a two-way arrangement for quality leadership. That means the pastor must be available to and accountable to the leaders. At Regional Church of God that comes in the form of a monthly meeting in which the leaders can ask Pastor Bias anything and discuss anything important to the church. There may be “turf” battles among leaders, which means the pastor will have to play referee, he said. But that too is part of building a team, he said. “It’s communication. It takes time,” he said.

Resolving differences is what we are instructed to do. Apostle Paul says, “Don’t you realize that we Christians will judge angels? So you should surely be able to resolve ordinary disagreements here on earth (1 Corinthians 6:3, NLT). Building leadership brings with it a set of challenges. “The pains of leadership must be worked out.” When a pastor trains leaders, elders as he called them, to help him lead the church, he said the pastor will have to help those leaders work through issues that will come up. “It takes years to that. There is no shortcut I know of. There is no quick fix I know of. If you stay faithful and do the right things over the long term, you will be faithful,” he said. “God will send you key critical leaders if [you] will stay long enough for God to work.”

It’s not enough to have and use leaders, Pastor Bias said. People want to be appreciated. “Celebrate those who lead and applaud them,” he said. His church regularly thanks leaders. He calls them by name from the pulpit and hands out certificates. “We celebrate leaders and share their gifts,” he said. “When that happens, you will have people come out of the woodwork to help you with a difficult job.” He also writes personal notes to church leaders thanking them for their work. “People love the personal touch,” he said. All these things reaffirm the person’s worth and usefulness. “They will continue on. It will enhance their desire to continue and do well,” he said.

Build leaders

Building leaders does not mean abdicating responsibility. Pastors must take a strong hand in the church’s operation. Remind everyone, “this is the church. This is not a social club. Dissension and division are an abomination,” he said. How does this boldness operate in a church? Should there be a pastor and eldership strongly leading? In some traditions there is resistance to this idea because of abuses of power, but the Bible does set up a hierarchy for the operation of a church. The pastor is to lead the congregation.

If the pastor is to lead, then what roles should other leaders in the church have? The Bible sets this out very clearly. “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13, NIV). This chapter of the Bible also describes a biblical model for appropriate apostolic and gift-based ministry, which is another critical element of building a rural church. This, says Pastor Bias, it’s the most important single element of growing a church. “Apostolic ministry,” he said. “Apostolic dimensions will cause you to reach beyond the borders of your community.”

In doing the work of God, there are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. He likened the five positions to a hand with the Apostle being the thumb. Only the thumb can effectively touch each of the other digits in a meaningful and useful way. A church must reach out. “The apostle must go first,” he said. “It sets the stage for the teacher.”

Send leaders

“We’ve got to get out of this ‘my little church mentality,’” says Pastor Toole, “God wants the church to grow. Numbers are important. We see numbers in the Word. But we should never get number-motivated and forget the harvest.” (Apostle comes from the Greek word Apostolos meaning to be sent.) Apostles are “the pioneer spirit,” Pastor Bias said. “The person is not sitting there marking time. They are being sent. Power. Influence. Pioneering.” Challenge church members to be apostles and go forth, while remembering the need to reward them for hard work.

Growth can be uncomfortable. Pastor Toole said he’s seen the effects of stretching in his South Georgia church. “We limit ourselves by placing ourselves in our little molds. Be willing to stretch ourselves. If you are not willing to stretch, it will break you,” he said. Any pastor who has been in a growing church knows the pains of seeing longtime church members and staunch supporters walk bout because of decisions they did not agree with. “I have lost people. It’s tough. It’s hard. But God is setting us up for the harvest.”

Resistance is a fact. A tree growing fights gravity. Roots growing fight the soil. Expect resistance. “New levels, new devils,” Pastor Toole said. “The enemy hates the church.” Because resistance is a fact, how a pastor deals with that sets the tone for how he is perceived by his congregation. A pastor who can work through the rough spots will be trusted.

Pray

There is a simple plan for working through these rough spots. Pray.

The Word teaches us that it is vital to pray, yet studies show the average pastor prays less than thirty minutes a day. As one pastor says, “Your ministry will never be greater than your prayer life.” So if prayer is necessary to ministry, it is that much more important when resolving conflicts. “Stay in prayer,” Pastor Bias said. Pray for resolutions to problems. In addition to prayer, Pastor Bias brings two conflicting parties together, and if that doesn’t resolve the issue, he calls on the church elders to moderate and intervene. “That puts the fear of God in them. The elders are going to get involved,” he said. “That [the fear of God] is a good thing.”

Considering the challenges which face a growing church, it would be easy to ask why it’s necessary for a church to grow. In the first place, it is our spiritual duty to bring the lost into God’s fold. We work not for salvation, but because we are saved. Once a living being stops growing, it dies. So it is with churches—when they stop growing, they will stagnate and die. Churches around the nation are closing doors because of a refusal to grow. Pastor Bias said you must also prepare yourself for growth, because if you follow God’s will, growth will come. “It’s very important to stretch beyond the borders of where we are now,” he said. “There is no Plan B. He is going to use the local church.”New Wineskins

Ben Baker, EvangelistThe Rev. Ben Baker is a South Georgia evangelist and newspaper editor. He has a particular passion for the Old Testament and how it relates to the New Testament. Reach him at [Redneckgenius@hotmail.com].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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