'The backbone' of SBC, Page says of rural, small churches
JOHNSTON, S.C. (BP) -- It's fitting that Josh McClendon should pastor 200-year-old Philippi Baptist Church in quaint, rural Johnston, S.C. The 33-year-old said he senses a spiritual calling to the small-town setting.
McClendon said his burden for rural communities began during his senior year of college. "It seemed like a lot of young guys, and rightly so, want to go to where the masses are," he said. "And truly that's where the greatest need is, but I feel like sometimes the rural communities get overlooked."
McClendon is full-time pastor of the church that celebrated its bicentennial in February and averages 150 in Sunday attendance.
Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee President Frank Page, who delivered the bicentennial address, also voices an immense appreciation for small congregations.
"Churches like Philippi are the backbone of Southern Baptist life," Page told Baptist Press. "By far the majority of our churches are small in size. We value them and see their involvement at all levels of Convention life.
"In fact, a true study of Convention involvement will show an already large number of these churches and their pastors involved at all levels of Convention life," Page said. "However, we continue to seek ways to deepen their involvement because they are great sources of talent, commitment and sacrifice."
McClendon grew up in Locust Grove, Ga., in a church by the same name as his pastorate, Philippi Baptist, attended two Baptist colleges in Georgia, Truett-McConnell and Shorter, and is earning a Master of Divinity degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
McClendon, his wife Valerie and two children live in an aging farmhouse that men from his church helped them remodel. In the fourth year of his first pastorate, McClendon is following the model Jesus gave of making disciples of men.
"My heart as a pastor is to make us a reproducing-disciples church," McClendon told Baptist Press. "I plan on being here as long as the Lord calls me; we love it here. But whenever the day comes for me to leave, I'd love to be able to walk away and the church continue to make disciples. That's my heart."
He started encouraging discipleship early in his pastorate, but expresses an empowerment that came in the past year.
"In the last year we have jumped into that," he said. "We've had discipleship groups along the way, but I took some of our church leaders -- just a few, it's a very organic, grassroots kind of thing -- to start pouring into them.
"And then we are just now into our second tier of those guys finding guys within our church or within our community they're pouring into. And I'm walking alongside of them doing that. So I've trained them, walked with them and shared life with them and [am] continuing to do that and encouraging them to take that next step, and pushing them towards that as well."
Philippi Baptist supports missions at home and abroad, giving 13 percent of its undesignated funds to the SBC Cooperative Program in 2012, and three percent to the Ridge Baptist Association.
In the town of about 2,400 people that hails itself the peach capital of the world, the church celebrates a partnership with Johnston Elementary School. The partnership was born out of a vibrant Women's Missionary Union at Philippi, McClendon said. The church supplies 20 children with food each weekend through its backpack ministry, hosting a Christmas dinner for teachers holding monthly birthday parties for students. The church gives birthday cards and cupcakes to all students with birthdays in the particular month.
"We actually get to give them a birthday card that says, 'Happy birthday from Philippi Baptist Church. We want you to know that Jesus loves you,'" McClendon said. "It's been a very fruitful ministry, as far as teachers that have come to Christ. We made a big push for Bible school last year. We prayed for a big number and it really hit it." The church enrolled 230 in Vacation Bible School in 2013, up from 128 the previous year, according to the Annual Church Profile Survey.
Philippi members take frequent mission trips to support the Shepherd's Hands, McClendon said, a ministry to the poor in Lashmeet, W.V. Former Philippi pastor Mayhew West and his wife Marianne lead the ministry.
Bicentennial celebration soloist Rudy Cook, Philippi Baptist's music minister from 1977–1985, said the church has thrived by serving the Johnston community.
"They have reached out to more young adults," Cook told Baptist Press. "I think that's the big thing. It's a big country church and it's very unusual to have that many young adults in a country church. They have a church for the future, as far as the young adults are having children too."
Cook reared his three sons at Philippi before God called him to music ministry, he said, at neighboring Warrenville First Baptist Church in Aiken County.
"My oldest son [Timothy] became a deacon," Cook said. "He was the youngest deacon (19) ever ordained in that church."
Page referenced the history of Christianity in encouraging Philippi Baptist for the future.
"Hebrews tell us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses," Page said during his message. "This shows that we are not alone. A host of great men and women have gone before us to pave the way, to pay the price, to show us that the cause is just and righteous. Let us always be aware of those who have gone on before us."
Taking Hebrews 12:1-2 as his text, Page reminded the church of its heritage, responsibility, mission and master.
"We need to be a Jesus people, a Jesus convention," Page said. "With all of our diversity, we should have only one goal and that is to lift high the name of the Lord Jesus. Not only do we have a Master, we have a motive and it is to lift Him up!"
About 225 members of Philippi and the surrounding communities attended the celebration, which included morning and evening services, lunch and the unveiling of a historic marker on the church grounds.
Philippi Baptist traces its roots to Feb. 26, 1814, when it was founded by Thomas DeLoache, Francis Walker and John Landrum, with 25 charter members including three African American slaves. After the Emancipation Proclamation, the African American members left and built the separate Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church on a neighboring plot, according to church records.
McClendon appreciates the opportunity to build his family in the small town, rich with friendships, connections and extended families.
"It's kind of who I am. People tell me I'm an old soul ... the way I see life," McClendon said. "The church I grew up in was much like this. The community I grew up in was much like this. [Philippi Baptist has] been a great fit for me. I like old-fashioned stuff."
"A great part of our culture is dying with our busyness," he said.
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).