Church closing trend began before COVID-19
MANCHESTER, Tenn. — When the Ragsdale Church of Christ closed…
I was born the year my dad, Travis Irwin, began his 45-year ministry to Church of Christ congregations in Ohio and Tennessee. Thus I have spent almost every day of my life being “the preacher’s kid.”
As a result, I know things about Dad that may surprise the people to whom he ministered.
For example, Sundays burned Dad’s candle at both ends. At the peak of his ministry, he preached two sermons on Sunday mornings and taught an adult Bible class in between. We often hosted people in our home for lunch before Dad headed out to visit the hospital and nursing homes.
After the late afternoon elders and deacons meeting, he preached again at Sunday evening service.
What did Dad do to relax at the end of a long Lord’s Day? Did he light a candle and pray quietly, his fingers resting on his open Bible?
He stayed up and watched 007 movies. I knew, and now you know. Sorry, Dad.
Dad’s love for James Bond movies aside, I want you to know that he is part of an amazing church growth story.
In 1981, Dad became the minister to what is now the Ashland Church of Christ in Ohio and ministered there for 22½ years. When he began his ministry in Ashland, the congregation had about 150 members. When he preached his last sermon there in January 2004, it had 350 members and shovels ready to break ground on a new 600-seat building.
During that same 22 years, membership in the nationwide Church of Christ fellowship shrank by 10 percent. While most Church of Christ congregations got smaller, the Ashland Church of Christ more than doubled in size.
This church growth story was not written about a fast-growing suburb of a big city in the Sun Belt. Ashland is a small Rust Belt town in rural Ohio. Its economy struggled in the 1980s and 1990s.
Readers of The Christian Chronicle know that Church of Christ congregations all over America are struggling to survive. All of the things we believe are working against our congregations now were working against the Ashland Church of Christ then.
Yet it grew. How? Why?
I assure you it had nothing to do with style. From 1981 until 2003, the style of the Ashland Church of Christ stayed pretty much the same. Same building, same preacher, same worship leaders, same songs from the old red hymnal.
Looking back almost 20 years later, I wanted to know why this congregation grew, so I went to the source. When Dad retired from ministry in December 2020, I started a podcast, “Minister in the Making,” to record and share Dad’s stories and what he had learned from almost five decades in congregational ministry.
When we talked about the Ashland years, I learned that three things had a lot to do with the congregation’s growth.
The Ashland Church of Christ had a culture of special hospitality. I don’t mean the congregation had a hospitality ministry or program or team; every member understood that hospitality was the norm.
If a visitor walked in off the street on Sunday morning, someone invited her or him home for lunch. A visitor in the lobby was the cause of a mob scene as people crowded around to introduce themselves and shake hands.
This wasn’t something anyone organized or taught. It was just the way things were — from the preacher to the person on the back pew. The culture kept people coming back.
At the first Lord’s Supper, Jesus gave his disciples a “new command”: “Love one another as I love you. … This is how everyone will know you are my disciples.”
He gave this command just as he finished washing his disciples’ feet. The link is clear: Disciples of Jesus Christ love each other (and bear witness to the truth of the Gospel) by serving one another in everyday, ordinary ways. Members of the Ashland Church of Christ excelled at doing things for each other — babysitting, changing oil, fixing leaky faucets.
Someone was there to offer a ride, install drywall, unload a moving van or take in a home-cooked meal. No one told them to do it; they just did it. And every new member picked up on it right away. People entered the church by the washing of baptism, but they grew there by the washing of feet.
Dad evangelized Ashland with gusto. He filled his calendar with Bible studies in the community, many of them leading to baptisms and new members in the church.
As the congregation grew, he took more evangelism on himself, but he didn’t show and tell anyone else how to do it. He did not commission others to follow him into the work of community evangelism. So when he had a breakdown that led to his resignation, no one was waiting in the wings to do what Dad had done — mostly by himself — for two decades.
A few years after Dad left, the congregation was much smaller. Dad took this as a painful lesson: Congregations that do not help all of their members find and use their spiritual gifts as disciples will end up struggling and maybe withering away. When Dad found his way back into congregational ministry in 2005, he made “making disciples” the main focus of his work.
Extending hospitality. Washing feet. Making disciples. Any congregation can do these things — big or small, city or country, conservative or progressive, poor or rich.
I hear a lot of congregations talk about changes in the culture contributing to their decline, about needing new ministers, new programs or new styles of worship to grow. But Dad’s experience in Ashland shows that when the culture of the church changes, churches can grow.
B.T. IRWIN lives with his family in suburban Detroit and is a member of the Rochester Church of Christ in Rochester Hills, Mich. He produces the “Minister in the Making” podcast and writes at btirwin.com. He serves on The Christian Chronicle Journalism Advisory Council.
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