A Vibrant Church in Rural Tennessee
Pastor Daron Brown
Waverly, TN sits 75 miles west of Nashville. It is a rural town of less than 5,000 people with factory jobs for blue collar workers. Most of the residents have lived their whole lives in Humphreys County. In some ways Waverly is your classic Mayberry with music on the Court Square on Saturday nights and a quaint, historic downtown area. It is a place where people know people. But in other ways, Waverly experiences the realities of a broken world such as sizeable rates of alcoholism, methamphetamine production and use, and fragmented families. To be sure, Waverly is a mission field.
Prior to my arrival in 2001, The Church of the Nazarene in Waverly had a long history of stability. Fifty years of healthy lay leaders and solid pastors and paid-in-full budgets. In 2001, the church averaged 68 people in Sunday morning worship, which was, more or less, the average attendance for the previous couple of decades. It was a traditional small church in a traditional small town with hymn-driven worship and a high priority on fellowship. Most of the church’s energy was spent on internal activities. The church was ready for a leader who would put down roots and offer God’s vision to move forward.
Much of God’s work has taken place despite my plans. While I prayed for and offered vision from the early stages of my ministry, much of my leadership has been a “stumbling forward” whereby God’s grace and provision has been abundant despite everything that I am and am not.
Knowing that a high premium is placed on relationships in a small church in a small town in the south, my first task was simply relationship-building. On my first Sunday one of my first remarks was “In these first few months, I have no agenda but to worship God and to get to know you.” Not only did that help me build trust and relationships with people, but it also bought me time to try to figure out how to pastor. Those first few months were spent at kitchen tables over cups of coffee. Listening to the story of the church and learning the lives of the people. That investment laid good groundwork for the days to come.
The next step was strengthening the church’s commitment to prayer. Through preaching, teaching, leading, and initiating new prayer ministries, we made an intentional effort to make prayer our first order of business. We began an active prayer chain and a Prayer & Care Group that makes cards and prays for people’s needs on a weekly basis. We have had several 24 hour prayer initiatives leading up to major decisions and big events. Small groups are saturated with prayer. And board meetings often feel more like prayer meetings. If you ask people from WCN to describe our church, one of the first responses you’ll receive is that we are people of prayer. Our corporate emphasis on prayer has become the starting point for vibrant renewal.
Another important component to the vision and renewal of our church has been the emphasis on missional living. Through preaching, teaching, leading, and modeling, we have transitioned a small traditional church to focus outward. WCN has designated the elementary school across the street as our primary mission field. We donate food and on Friday afternoons we stuff backpacks for needy children. We receive offerings and budget funds to help teachers purchase supplies for their classrooms that they would normally purchase themselves. Several of our members greet at the doors of the school each morning. We pray for employees, send cards of encouragement, share gifts, and prepare meals for them. In addition, the administration of the school knows to let us know what their needs are. We never want to make assumptions about their needs. They know we are here to serve them.
WCN also initiated a dynamic jail ministry to ladies. Several of our ladies meet with ladies in the jail to listen to them, to lead them to Jesus, and to disciple them. When one of these ladies accepts Christ, the Sheriff and deputies bring them (wrists and ankles in shackles) to the church to receive the sacrament of baptism. They are greeted by our church family with encouragement. After a time of sharing and prayer, the ladies are immersed, chains and all. As they step out of the water, praise erupts from the people. The discipleship journey continues for these ladies. We keep track of them when they are released. That, of course, is when the hard work begins.
In addition to intentional church-wide missional efforts, I consider it my primary responsibility to equip people to live missionally in their daily lives. My call and passion is to make disciple-makers, to empower people to engage others for Christ in their homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities.
From my first days in Waverly, I began laying the groundwork for the church to transition from being a single-cell, pastoral-size church to a multi-cell program-size church. While the size of the church was not close to being ready for such a transition, I knew that the mindset needed to change long before the reality would. One way I began the process was by preaching and teaching the biblical model for the pastor-church relationship. Zero-ing in on the biblical role of the pastor as defined in Ephesians 4:11-13, Exodus 18, Acts 6:1-7, and I Peter 2:9-10, I began the hard work of changing people’s perception about the pastor. Instead of being a “do-er” of ministry or (even worse) a “personal chaplain” whose purpose is to tend to the needs of the people, the biblical model for pastoral ministry is one who equips. The church board gladly gave me a written job description that specifically says my job is to equip people for works of service. Coupled with the change in mindset about the pastor is the people’s awareness that they are called to ministry. Over these years, I have made the effort to equip. And I have called the people to respond by serving in ways that God has called them to serve.
Another piece of the groundwork for transitioning from a single-cell church to a multi-cell church is the emphasis on small group ministry. WCN had a traditional Sunday School ministry program. It was working, in the sense that people were coming. In fact, when I arrived at WCN, the Sunday School attendance (72) was larger than the worship attendance (68). I realized that the Sunday School program needed to remain in place, but it needed to become more wholistic. Through training sessions with Sunday School leaders, I encouraged pastoral ministry to take place within groups. Leaders within each group are delegated to lead food ministries, prayer ministries, outreach ministries, compassionate ministries, and class events. By giving each group a structure to become more self-contained and wholistic, the idea is that classes become small groups that “share life” together. We began the awkward evolution from being a single-cell church where the church IS the small group, to creating a structure where multiple groups co-exist. We have also created new small groups that are designed to be wholistic from day one. This change of mindset, just like other changes that have taken place, has been done intentionally, slowly, and with the larger mission of the church in mind. I have made a point to repeatedly “connect the dots” between changes and our mission to make disciples.
Another key to the vision and renewal of WCN has been permission-giving lay leadership. WCN is blessed with key leaders whose lives are focused on serving Christ and others. Their hearts beat in unison for the mission of God. They freely give permission for new ministries, new leaders, and necessary changes. Our leaders have opened the door for new worship structures and styles. They have not only embraced new staff members, but they have let those staff members “loose” to serve the community. For example, WCN’s children’s pastor gives 8-10 hours per week volunteering at the local elementary school (on the clock for the church, of course). When presented with new ideas, instead of standing in the way or thinking of reasons why it can’t be done, our leaders often respond with “Why not?” and “Let’s do it!”
When differences of opinion come to light, it is not uncommon to see board members in the minority on a certain issue say something like “I don’t know about this. But I trust our pastor and I trust the rest of you.” Such a spirit is indicative of maturity of character that can only be explained by Holiness of Heart and Life. WCN is blessed with lay leaders who are tuned into the big picture of God’s mission in the world instead of being distracted by mundane minutia. Lay leadership is filled with “armor bearers” who lift me up in prayer, support me with encouragement, and model God’s vision for the church. I firmly believe that the most crucial element for a church’s forward movement is having a core group of leaders who are unified, healthy, and missional.
As I survey the factors that the Lord has used to bring us forward, two that are directly related to the pastor are pastoral longevity and pastoral authenticity. One is measurable and one is not. I am currently in my tenth year in Waverly and much of the forward movement can be attributed to the credibility that I have earned over time—credibility in the church and credibility in the community. And that credibility is gained by way of developing authentic relationships with people. Residents of Waverly value genuine interaction. They have a knack for knowing what is real and what is not. It is refreshing to pastor people who don’t expect me to present myself in a manner that is any different from who God made me to be.
In nine years our worship attendance has almost tripled (68 to 195), Sunday School attendance has increased by 69% (72 to 122), and total giving has more than tripled ($91,263 to $319,509). From 1991 to 2001 we received an average of 3.2 New Nazarenes per year. And from 2002 to 2009 we welcomed an average of 17.7 New Nazarenes per year. All of this has taken place in a small town that has seen minimal population growth in the past decade. These measurable factors (input) have provided a good gauge for growth, but we have also attempted to measure our output. Output is what matters most. Here is a sampling of our output for the 2009-2010 year.
620 pounds of food given OUT to needy families
Today, WCN is a vibrant church that has experienced God’s renewal. We continue to discern God’s direction as we face the challenges that lay ahead. Our greatest challenges for the days ahead are not necessarily the church’s health or infrastructure, but instead physical and financial limitations. These limitations have forced us to think creatively as we move forward. We have two Sunday morning worship services and a third service outside of Sunday morning is on the horizon. We utilize the school across the street for parking and Sunday School space as we continue to seek and implement God’s vision for disciple-making in Waverly, TN.
-Daron B. Brown, Pastor