The last Sunday in September, I traveled to represent the Alabama Baptist Historical Commission at the 100th anniversary of the founding of Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church.
It was not an easy place to find. A small brick building with a cemetery at its side, the crowd was three times its usual 25. The church house had been shined up for this special occasion.
The pastor seemed to be nervous about the event, at least his message for the morning, drawn from Haggai, seemed to show nervousness. I was never able to connect what he had to say with the significance of the day.
The “dinner on the ground” was quite good, and the program in the afternoon was excellent. Howard Reeves, editor of the county newspaper, a son of the church and its current lay leader, had worked behind the scenes to present a satisfying and uplifting celebration of 100 years of ministry by a small church in a small place.
Rather than speaking himself, Howard had secured the services of two other gifted sons and a gifted daughter of the church. One was a former county agent, another a writer and the third a business person.
Like so many rural churches, Mt. Pisgah grew out of a brush-arbor revival in a community, the Matthews community, which lacked a church up until that time. Also, like many such churches, its life and the life of a rural school were intertwined.
In this case Mt. Pisgah and Union school had shared a common building for many years. A typical unpainted frame building with no plumbing, it held precious memories for the speakers. While appreciating the conveniences of the newer brick church house, a longing for the old one was a unifying theme in the remarks of the day.
The speakers related wonderful stories about baptizings, protracted meetings, floods and the actions and ensuing punishment of ornery little boys. Praise was offered to devoted Sunday-school teachers and pastors.
Like many older rural churches, generations of intermarriage had resulted in most of the current membership being cousins of one another to some degree. Along with the Matthews, the Boman, Todd and Finch families had provided the teachers and officers of the church through the years.
A few years ago the church dwindled to a small handful, and it seemed destined to close before its 100th year. But God provided answers to the prayers of old saints in the form of a team of pastors who work well together, and the church has grown some.
One speaker on the program was not a kinsperson and had only been in the church for a couple of years. His affirmation of what the church had done for him and his family and of his hopes for its future moved the crowd.
During the day, the associational missionary, Benton Goodman, and I talked about how glad we are that it is not our “call” on whether or not to close a church. For us, God continues to be full of surprises like the one at Mt. Pisgah.
The Mt. Pisgahs of the world may not be “for” most modern Americans. They do not offer any of the “bells and whistles” found in larger churches.
To hold up the large suburban church as the model or ideal church, however, overlooks the majority of the churches that make up the Southern Baptist Convention.
Those who contend that we should not try to do church in the modern suburbs the way we did it in the rural villages are correct. But the reverse is also true.
What works in the suburban large church might not be the way to do church in rural areas and small towns. Leadership styles, programs and strategies that are blessed in suburbia may court disaster in a rural, relational church.
For many years Baptist leaders bought into a philosophy of social organization termed “Fordism.” Henry Ford declared that there was one best way to build a car–and one best color to paint it—and he knew that way. The result was standardization. Like Ford, denominations believed they knew the best way to build a church. They packaged the plan and sold it through their publishing houses. The Mt. Pisgahs often resisted.
Two or three decades ago, however, people began to demand choices. Pioneer churches sought to design or discover new models for church that would be more effective in their particular context. After a time denominations woke up. The new models were embraced. More diversity in form was allowed.
Now it is time to take the next step. We must come to employ the paradigm of ecosystems to plant and develop churches in an area. Choices mean that there will need to be a variety of churches doing different things, employing different worship styles, working to reach all segments of the population. Language, class, vocation, avocation, generation, race and other defining elements will shape churches. Some churches will be very large. Others will be very small. Others will somewhere in the middle.
“A church for everyone,” a Discipleship Training motto of many years ago, said it–almost. A modern revision could be “churches for everyone.”
The Mt. Pisgahs of the world still have a role to play in the Kingdom of God.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.