Farmington—Bell City Baptist Church is defying conventional thinking when it comes to church growth.
Church growth proponents tend to agree that one important reality for a growing church is location, location, location. Bell City Baptist, however, is located in rural Graves county, two miles from Podunk, one mile from the Tennessee state line, 30 minutes from Murray, Mayfield, Fulton and Paris, Tenn.—or as their members like to say, “30 minutes from anywhere.”
Church growth experts might also add that you need a good population base from which to grow a church, but there are no houses visible from the front steps of Bell City Baptist. Church growth advisors might further agree that to reach young families, you will need a modern facility, with programs and ministries that appeal to young families with children, but, as you may have guessed by now, Bell City Baptist did not have those either.
They did, however, have a Spirit-filled young pastor named Presley Lamm, who loved the people, felt convincingly called to this church, and believed that God could do the improbable, or impossible, with the Bell City congregation.
In the three-and-a-half years that Presley has served as pastor, the church has grown in worship attendance from about 10 people to an average of 75. Sunday School attendance has increased from the same 10 people to 35 or 40 each Sunday. They have gone from a building that had not been updated since 1965 in a land-locked setting to a remodeled worship center with land available for future growth.
God has already done a great work in a short time with this rural congregation.
In an interview with the pastor, and long-time church member, Edith Warren, I asked what had changed in the past 42 months, and what they addressed as a church in their attempt toward church revitalization. Following is a list of actions taken by the church:
1. The pastor motivated the congregation to think outward.
Pastor Pressley believes, “Everybody deserves a redemption story.” He said, “Regardless of their background each person within the reach of this church deserves to hear the gospel—whether an alcoholic of single mom, rich or poor.” Presley sought to remind the congregation that they have a mission to accomplish in reaching the people of their community.
As a result of their shift in focus to outreach they have baptized more than 45 people in the past three years. In some months, they have baptized every Sunday, and three baptisms are scheduled in coming weeks. They have also received almost as many new members by transfer of letter or statement of faith. Recently, one of their new attenders remarked that “every service feels like a revival.”
2. The church established a social media presence.
Pastor Presley had never been on Facebook before coming to the congregation, but he has used it effectively as an ongoing social media presence that ministers to their members and the surrounding community.
“The day of going and hanging posters for VBS and revivals is gone,” Pressley said. They have about 300 likes on their Facebook page which gets the word out for upcoming events.
3. They sought to improve the worship service.
Presley stressed that worship should be enjoyable and organized, but not planned to the point there is little room for trying something different. Praise has become a major part of their worship service from the congregational singing and the pastor’s leadership to celebration from the people of recent victories in their lives.
Members have become accustomed to expecting God to do something in the service. There is a freedom in worship where members do not like to miss services because they are afraid of missing what God might do.
4. They updated their facility.
The building was small, with no updates in the past 45 years. They now have a sound system, video projection system and an open pulpit area to aid in worship and presentations. According to the pastor, “The facility change was a big issue as it was a positive impression to guests that something was happening in the church.”
The remodeling cost approximately $16,000 and was done mostly with volunteer labor and the financial sacrifices of the members. As they stepped out in faith to do the remodel, God provided all that was needed to get the work completed. They have since purchased six acres of land around the church for parking and the construction of a new fellowship hall.
There are no wealthy people in the church or community, but the members give as they are able. They raised $20,000 in one Sunday in a church that takes in around $60,000 annually.
5. They developed a Community Response Team.
A CRT team was organized in 2014 as an effort to respond to community needs. Since that time the church has ministered to nearly 100 families by doing small construction projects, taking food to families, providing transportation, and in some cases giving money to people in need.
This ministry involves at least 20 members and has served to establish the church as a caring group in the community.
6. They have engaged in missions.
Before Presley came as pastor, the church had never taken a mission trip. In 2014 they sent five people to Muskogee, Okla., to work on an Indian reservation.
This year they are sending 14 people to Sioux Falls, S.D., to minister to a NAMB church planter and help with his ministry.
7. They have become intentional about church fellowship.
The church eats together often, and when there is a conflict in the church family, the pastor encourages them to work through their differences and reunite around the will of God. They accept that people will have spirited business meeting discussions about issues for which they are passionate.
Ms. Edith says she has not seen a major rift in the fellowship since Pastor Presley has been their pastor. He leads business meetings with a rule that if people get angry, the meeting is over.
8. They established prayer as the foundation for all they do.
They pray about upcoming decisions and for resources to carry out the plans of the church. They also pray for each other and for all the churches in the area.
There is no way to explain the encouraging atmosphere at Bell City apart from it being a work of God in a rural community. When Presley is asked by members of other churches what they need to do to grow, he says, “Do something. Do something. Don’t just sit here.”
That’s pretty good advice from a pastor who is doing what he can do to help a rural church move into its best days. And, if God can bring revitalization to Bell City Baptist Church, He can do it anywhere there is a motivated pastor and willing people. (WR)