By Brett DeHart
How can a small and shrinking church, which no longer matches the demographics of its community, be faithful to the task of making disciples of Jesus Christ?
That is the question many smaller churches across the country face. It is the question that 170-member Austell First United Methodist Church has tackled head-on.
When I arrived a year ago, after having served as an associate minister at a large church, I realized quickly that the attractional model just wasn’t working here. We didn’t have all the bells and whistles of large church worship. We didn’t have the programs that parents expect and want for their children. We didn’t have the resources or money that would give us any hope that we could become a successful attractional church.
When you have been trained that church and making disciples is about attracting people to worship and to programs, it really knocks you for a loop when you realize you are at a church that isn’t successful at that and probably won’t be even with a lot of effort. It’s not that the leaders of Austell First didn’t want to attract new people and grow. But the odds were so stacked against them.
There’s nothing wrong with the attractional model, if you can make it work. But what about all those churches that aren’t and can’t? There’s more than one way to do church. We decided that if people won’t come to us, we’ll go to them.
“Bless Austell” is the name of the church’s vision to live out its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Internally, our goal is to have our church and its members focus on blessing our community: being the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Externally, we hope the campaign will signal to the community that we are ready to serve, to be an asset to this community. We hope others will want to join us in the blessing and eventually in the life of the church.
The church has developed ongoing programs for the community including free aerobics classes Wednesday nights, a free community dinner (Grace Cafe) every Thursday night, and a tuition-free, 5-day-a-week preschool (Feed My Lambs) for lower-income families.
The church is making a real push to engage area schools. It is involved in extensive outreach to its neighbor, Austell Primary School, where the church holds teacher appreciation lunches twice a year, volunteers at the school’s annual Spring Fling, and recently purchased and laid 60 bales of pine straw at the school. As a result of this growing partnership, the school naturally turned to the church to help sixteen families who lost everything when record flooding hit the city in September 2009. In addition, Austell First supports the community food pantry and clothes closet, delivers birthday baskets of goodies to residents at an assisted living home, and volunteers at community events.
While Austell First members are focusing outward, the church is also celebrating the work the Lord is doing inside the church. In the first six months of this year, compared to the first six months of 2008, worship attendance is up 13 percent and giving is up an amazing 27 percent.
The truth is that this church was already making an impact for Christ in this community through outreach. By placing that activity in a theological context with the Bless Austell vision, we can now celebrate the impact we are making for the Kingdom instead of being depressed because we aren’t a big attractional church.
Our community has changed and thus our definition of a successful church has had to change as well.
Brett DeHart is the pastor of Austell First United Methodist Church in Austell, Georgia. This article first appeared in the North Georgia Advocate and is reprinted here by permission.
By Frank Billman
“My experience at the Lay Witness Mission was amazing! It was the first time I heard stories about how Jesus was working in the lives of people I had gone to church with for 17 years. I was amazed at the transparency and openness that this event created. It felt natural to see everyone singing and hugging each other, which had been missing from our church. It was evident that the Holy Spirit was given freedom to work in our church in ways that we had not ever experienced. My life personally was touched as I watched the congregation come to the altar on Sunday morning and give their life to Jesus either for the first time or to renew their relationship with him. I never saw that happen here before!”
That is a pretty typical testimony from a recent Lay Witness Mission—a ministry that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
The roots of this ministry stretch back to the Rev. Ben Johnson, a Methodist pastor in the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference and a sought-after revival preacher in the late 1950s. Sensing that his work as an evangelist had grown stale, he started a prayer group. The members grew close to one another as they prayed for Johnson regularly.
Soon after that, he was doing a revival that proved to be difficult. He sent for his prayer group to come and they prayed for him before the service. When he stood to preach, Johnson was moved by God to ask several of the prayer group members to share a witness. It was a God-inspired moment. Those chosen to share were anointed and the congregation was electrified. Hearing lay people talk about what God was doing in their lives stirred the church. Johnson was led by the Spirit to not preach after that; he just gave an altar call. The people rushed forward to kneel and the altar service lasted more than an hour. It was the witness of laypeople rather than the preacher’s sermon that stirred them.
When vital lay witnesses described how they had been loyal to the church program, how they had served in many official capacities, and yet were lacking in a genuine experience of Christ, other lay people could readily identify with them. But their witness did not stop with describing an empty, meaningless Christian life. They went on to relate how their lives were changed through prayer and a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Each of them shared relevant experiences of how their new life worked on the job, in the home, in the church fellowship, and in community life.
From the first experiment with using laypersons on a mission, several discoveries were made: laypersons listened to other laypersons; laypersons were willing to discuss pointed problems with other laypersons; dialogue resulted in deeper commitment than traditional altar prayer times; the laity and clergy learned to participate as equals in a group and witnessing laypersons both inspired and encouraged others to witness.
From that point on, when Johnson was invited to preach for revival services, he arranged in advance for his prayer group to come with him. During the meetings, he gave them opportunity to share. More pastors urged him to come to their churches. He would preach and intersperse laypeople to witness, but soon he discovered that power was released as the lay people told their stories. Gradually the weekend schedule began to shift and his preaching was minimized and he became more of a moderator. Later he found that these open and honest, prayer-filled laypeople could be effective in leading small groups. Sunday morning altars were filled. Prayer groups were started.
Word spread and soon more invitations were coming in than Johnson could handle, so he chose and nurtured lay coordinators to conduct the missions. What began as a clergy-coordinated event became a lay-coordinated event and the Lay Witness Movement was launched. In 1960, it was incorporated as the Institute of Church Renewal.
Soon the weekend pattern for missions was set. Teams of 15 or 20 laypersons went to a church for a weekend and stayed as guests in homes of the congregation. Often their presence proved to be a blessing in disguise and God ministered to the families where they were staying. The movement was reinforced by prayer. Every time a person got up to witness he or she would call on someone on the team to pray for him or her.
The church would gather with the team for a Friday night dinner, after which there would be spirited chorus singing and sharing by witnesses and small groups. On Saturday morning, coffee fellowships were set up in the homes of the congregation who invited their friends and neighbors to come hear the witnesses share. The church gathered for lunch and they divided to allow female witnesses to share with the women and male witnesses to share with the men.
On Saturday afternoon, the witnesses would go with church members to visit sick and shut-in members. On Saturday evening, there was more singing, sharing, small groups, and an opportunity for the church people to come to commit or recommit their lives to Jesus Christ. On Sunday morning, team members shared in the Sunday school classes and the coordinator spoke in the worship service. Another opportunity for church people to commit or recommit their lives to Christ was given.
A children’s coordinator and youth coordinator along with youth witnesses were brought to work with the kids and young people. Literally thousands of churches were renewed and revitalized and brought to spiritual strength as a result of lay people telling other lay people about their life in Christ.
The Lay Witness Movement became ecumenical and spread to the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Southern Baptists, the Disciples of Christ, and other denominations. The movement also went international, starting with the birthplace of Methodism, Great Britain. Lay Witness Missions have been held in Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Mexico, the Philippines, and other countries around the world. They have also been conducted as district-wide or cluster events involving multiple churches, as well as in prisons, in the stockade at a military base, in retirement centers, and in retreat settings.
During the second decade of its existence, what started as a movement became part of the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD). At the height of the movement in the early 1970s, there were more than 2,400 missions scheduled from Nashville, more than 100,000 team members on the rolls, and 1,200 coordinators.
Since that high point, the Lay Witness Mission entered a period of decline. The decline led the GBOD to discontinue it as one of their local church programs in 2003. Since Aldersgate Renewal Ministries (ARM) had then been an affiliate of the General Board of Discipleship for 26 years, it asked if it could be entrusted with the Lay Witness Mission program. The Board of Discipleship approved the request and we’ve been scheduling missions across the country ever since. Without changing the structure of the weekend, we’ve strengthened the preparation and follow-up materials.
We continue to believe that the Lay Witness Mission is an important, valid tool in bringing renewal to United Methodists and their churches. It follows the biblical pattern of Andrew telling his brother Simon or the woman at the well telling her village about their encounters with Jesus.
Many pastors can testify that a Lay Witness Mission in their past was an important component of their call to full-time ministry. The Board of Discipleship is beginning to offer Lay Witness Mission Team Member Training as an approved Advanced Lay Speaker’s Course. The testimonies coming from missions today demonstrate the continued effectiveness of this evangelism and renewal tool.
From a pastor in Louisiana: “The church gathered for its evaluation on Sunday night and everyone present could not stop talking about how it impacted their lives. It was described as awesome, fantastic, spiritually rewarding, motivating, very moving, and exhilarating. A new small group was formed. A desire for prayer groups and bible study, youth and children ministries will be addressed.”
From lay people at a church in Virginia: “We were spiritually recharged.” “I can’t think of a better way to have spent the weekend.” “I loved being able to share, knowing others share the same struggles.” “The weekend opened us up and brought us closer together. We got to know each other better.”
After 50 years, the Lay Witness Mission continues to prove itself to be effective in local church evangelism, renewal, development of small groups, and initiation of prayer ministries. It has enabled local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Frank H. Billman is the director of church relations for Aldersgate Renewal Ministries.