Seemingly ‘throw-away churches’ can win souls, pastor says
EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story is part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.
CHARLESTON, S.C. (BP)--Northbridge Baptist Church bore all the attributes of a church in decline and on the verge of failure when is current pastor, Louis Venable, arrived in 2003.
In the 10 years preceding Venable, Northbridge averaged only two baptisms per year. But since then, 25. Worship attendance at the Charleston, S.C., congregation has tripled to 300, while Sunday School enrollment has nearly quadrupled to almost 500.
While quick to give God all the glory, Venable cites two reasons for such growth: “I do truly believe that the Bible is the Word of God. And when it says that we’re to go to all nations and make disciples, I truly believe that’s what we’re supposed to be doing as a church.”
Venable, who had similar success in his previous pastorate in Virginia, also credits the Sunday School-based FAITH evangelism strategy for aiding him in training church members to do what they thought they had been doing all along, but without success.
When interviewing with Northbridge’s search committee, Venable asked if any committee member had ever shared the Gospel or led another person to faith in Christ. When they said they’d invited people to come to church, Venable pressed harder, eventually hearing that none had shared personally the Gospel of Jesus Christ with someone else.
Venable asked how many personal contacts had been made in the homes surrounding the church. The response was that flyers had been left on the doors. Again, Venable pressed: “But how many homes have you actually, physically gone up to the door and tried to share the Gospel personally?” The answer was none.
Though the people thought they’d been obeying the Great Commission, Venable told Baptist Press he “knew for a fact they hadn’t tried ‘it’... with ‘it’ being actually, physically going out and encountering people with the Gospel in the streets.”
“Their form of ‘trying it’ was inviting people to church,” Venable said. “They didn’t realize that when [the Apostle] Paul said, ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation,’ he didn’t say, ‘I am not ashamed of inviting people to church because that changes people’s lives.’
“When the pulpit committee asked me how I would grow the church, I said, ‘I’m not going to grow the church.’ And they looked at me sort of funny. I said, ‘God will grow the church. I’m just going to be obedient to what He’s told me to do. If I do my part, and you do your part, we can count on God to do His part.’”
His role, Venable explained, is to preach the Word of God and also to assist others to know their role and equip them to do it. “I’m going to teach you how to go out and share the Gospel,” Venable recalls telling the church.
When Venable arrived as pastor at Northbridge -– where only one couple was under the age of 40 -- he steered away from issues he knew “were going to cause controversy. I said, ‘No changes in music. No changes in style. The main thing we are going to do is the Great Commission.’
“Older people cannot argue with that -– they won’t, because they believe in the Word of God. So there was no arguing there,” said Venable, who notes that many of the older adults had convictions about biblical evangelism but weren’t physically able to go door-to-door. So, as part of Northbridge’s FAITH outreach they bring baked goodies for the FAITH teams to give to their prospects during their visits, while the seniors remain at church to pray for the teams as they go out witnessing.
Reflecting on his pastorates in semi-rural Virginia and now in metropolitan Charleston, Venable said his expectation in both locales proved true: “Most people believe that the Bible is the Word of God, the older people especially, definitely, believe the Bible is the Word of God. They just didn’t know how to do anything about it. They needed tools more than they needed convincing that the Bible is the Word of God.”
When Venable arrived at Northbridge, it had most all the typical problems that cause churches to ultimately fail, but he accepted the pastorate, he said, “because I couldn’t ruin it, or be held accountable to God for destroying it. There was nothing I could do to make it worse.
“To me, the risk, with the exception to my mental and physical health, was quite minimal. But the return on investment was quite high.”
Venable rejects the notion behind the oft-cited adage with regard to aged and declining churches that it’s “easier to give birth than resurrect the dead.”
“About all I can see from some of these ‘modern’ ways of doing things is ‘Let’s kick out God’s sheep who’ve been His sheep for many, many, many, many years.’ And we’re blaming the old sheep for not doing what we think they should’ve been doing. But we’re not taking into account that many of them have had liberal or lazy pastors for a long, long time, who weren’t even demonstrating evangelism in their own lives.
“I believe God can grow a church in spite of these prevailing theories,” Venable said.
It wasn’t always that way for Venable, who recalled holding evangelism training classes of his own devising in his Virginia pastorate, saying, “I trained the people and said, ‘Now, go!’
“They would all know that they needed to go, and that the Word of God says to go, and they would know all the memory verses, but the fear of what might happen when they knocked on doors was overwhelming,” he said.
Saying he had some fear himself, he began to lead the congregation in personal evangelism because that was his role. “The fear for me was never overwhelming. Obedience to God surpassed that to the point that I prayed, ‘I’m going to trust you, God. Even if I get shot doing this, at least I got shot doing what you told me to do.’”
Venable makes FAITH visits every week with the church members, because “you can’t hand this off to somebody else.” Even after adding church staff to help with the FAITH initiative, Venable says, “That never takes away my responsibility to also go out and win the lost and share the Gospel.
“I make evangelism the number one thing because Christ made it the number one thing.”
Venable relies on the FAITH strategy because, “Solomon said: ‘There’s nothing new under the sun.’ I didn’t have to recreate the wheel with FAITH.... The whole strategy is brilliant. That’s all I can say. It’s brilliant.” He is quick to cite, however, the true source of conversion to Christ: “I’ve humbled myself almost to the point that it really doesn’t matter what I say; it’s what the Holy Spirit wants to do in that person’s heart.... No matter how many verses you memorize, you can’t make that other person a ripe fruit.”
But when a church will do what God says to do, “It will bear much fruit,” Venable added. That has happened at Northbridge, and Venable says, “All glory to God.”
Reflecting on the success God gave in both of his pastorates, Venable said, “Man, what an exciting thing to see God do the miraculous through what other people would think of as throw-away churches.”
Venable said his greatest joy as a pastor is the impact on church members who help lead someone to faith in Christ. “They say to me, ‘Louis, I feel more like a Christian now than I ever have in my entire life.’”