Reviving a Dying Church
Thirty years ago this April I began my first pastorate. It was a dying church – dead really. Today we would call it a “legacy church plant.” There were ten people who attended our first Sunday, all but one retired, with the one being a teenage boy. I’m not sure why the boy was there, except that he lived on the other side of the cemetery. The cemetery, church, and a small school building, long since closed, bordered each other. The Thurmond family gave the property for these three entities in the 1890s, each deemed important for a community in those days.
My wife and I served that church for 3 ½ formative years, formative for us and for that church and community. I soon learned that the former pastor recommended that the church disband and give the building to the local Baptist association. He had reasoned this was their best option since they hadn’t baptized anyone in four years, only had a Sunday morning worship service with few attenders, and little prospect of seeing things turn around. The few attenders, most of whom had lived there all their lives, considered his suggestion, but decided to give it “one more try,” which meant giving one more seminary student an opportunity to “learn on them.”
We moved into the parsonage, which hadn’t been lived in for a few years. They tried to get it ready for us, but they hadn’t killed the scorpions, which we killed by the dozens. Then there were the skunks under the house. I would sit up at night, with a light shining into the yard, waiting for the skunks to come out. I shot them once they got far enough from the house that they couldn’t get back before they died. The house wasn’t much, but it was rent free, and that was most of our pay, so we were grateful to have it.
We had no neighbors, except cattle and the cemetery. And we had fireflies, hundreds of them that spring! One night I caught a couple of dozen in a mason jar and released them into our bedroom. I must say, it was quite romantic having those fireflies lighting up our room. But they all died so I only did that one time.
When I think back on those days, I am grateful that we came from a church that taught us how to share the gospel, and believed you had to take the gospel to the people, not wait for them to come to you. So that’s what we did. We began to visit the homes in that rural area, and a few more people started coming. The real breakthrough came that summer when Curtis Aydelotte gave his life to Christ.
I went to Curtis’s house and visited with his wife Kandy. She said that she would be at church with her kids but her husband wouldn’t because “he doesn’t go to church.” But the next day there he was. Within a month he received Christ and became the first person baptized in that church in 4 years. Curtis was 47 years old. He later told me that when I came to his house he was sick in bed with a migraine, but he could see me out the window. When his wife told him I was a preacher, he said, “Huh, a preacher who wears blue jeans. I think I’ll try that church.” That was 30 years ago and Curtis and Kandy are still serving Christ in their senior years.
Others soon came to know Christ. Families were transformed. The church grew. We never became large, but that church is still there today. The ten there when we arrived are all dead, save the one boy, but the church remains.
A fellow seminary student asked me, “How do you get motivated to preach to so few people?” That was an odd question to me. Motivation was not a problem. For one thing, I was visiting people throughout the week, sharing Christ with them, and inviting them to church. If they came and I wasn’t prepared for them, that would be a tragedy. Moreover, every individual who came needed, and deserved, to hear a well-prepared message from God’s Word just as much as the attender of a mega-church did. A further motivation for me, I must admit, was that I was learning how to preach and how to pastor God’s people. These both required hard work. I was young and knew that I wouldn’t be at that church forever. But if I did not serve them well, why should God give me any other ministry? Besides, this was what God called me to, and I was having a lot of fun.
We saw a “little revival” in that church and community. It came as the pastor, and then the church, began to share Christ with others. It came as our little church gained confidence that God was at work, and that they could invite people to attend with the confidence that God could use us to bring eternal life to others. Within two years, God even used our church to start another church about seven miles away. We were the first church to start a church in that association in about ten years. That served to motivate other churches, much bigger churches, to do the same.
Those years at Fairview Baptist Church were good years. We learned a lot, and we saw God do a good work.
This Sunday, April 3, I’ll be preaching at Orchards Baptist Church in Lewiston, ID, beginning a four-day revival emphasis. I pray that we see God do deep work in that church, and that lost people are drawn to Jesus. But I do know this, if your church needs revival, share the Gospel on a regular basis and lead your church to do the same. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God to save a person from sin, and nothing revives a church like God’s people getting right with Him, and then sharing the gospel with others.
Several years ago I saw Curtis Aydelotte at a funeral. He told me that recently he had crashed his motorcycle and was sliding down the road, certain he would die. But he said, “It was amazing because I wasn’t afraid. I was sliding down the road and I knew I would be with God.” He said, “That’s the thought that hit my brain. I knew I’d be with God – and I wasn’t afraid.” Then he said, “I thought you’d like to know that.”
Curtis was right. I did like hearing that. It demonstrated that the Jesus he had come to know decades before, through the ministry of a little reviving church, is powerful, and His salvation is eternal.
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