To borrow from Abe Lincoln, “God must have loved small churches because he made so many of them.” One of them is Chatham Baptist Church, set to celebrate its 150th anniversary this summer.
Chatham Baptist is much like many other churches in the small towns that dot the rural Virginia countryside. Located in southside Virginia near Danville, it, like so many other towns in that area, has experienced economic hardship and little population growth. When Chuck Warnock accepted their call in June of 2004, they had been without a pastor for three years and the church was discouraged about its future.
These days, however, things have changed. Warnock is only half joking when he says that the church was desperate enough to get a pastor that they considered him and he was desperate enough for a church that he considered them. According to Warnock, the pastor search committee asked him what he would do if he became their pastor and he replied that he didn't have a clue. In truth, however, he did. Influenced by Ray Oldenburg's The Great Good Place, and Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Warnock believed that the church could become a community gathering place and a force for rebuilding the social fabric of distressed areas.
According to Warnock, to do this “we have to be interested in people not for what they can do for us but what we can do for them. The church has to cease being self-serving, which is what we have been.” He and church members began to look for ways to make Chatham a more enjoyable place to live while being true to the mission of the church.
An impressive array of ministries and partnerships have resulted. When the tsunami devastated the southern coast of India, Chatham Baptist Church responded by making a gift of $5,400 to Baptist World Aid. Recognizing the desire of the greater community to help, church members Teresa Easley and Laura Adcock and Warnock spearheaded a benefit of local music groups, which a church member named “Chatham Cares.” When all the funds from the benefit and offerings were tallied, they had contributed over $15,000 to tsunami relief thru the Baptist World Alliance and the Virginia Baptist Mission Board's India partnership.
“This was the first time I realized that if we do something, the community will respond,” Warnock recalls. Following Katrina, “Chatham Cares” became an official community group.
Simultaneously with its effort to help the tsunami victims, the church was seeking ways to give back to its own city. Church members Ben and Betty Davenport pulled together interested residents and arranged a partneship with Virginia Tech to begin a children's music program now called Chatham Arts Community Music School, which meets at the church. To make the school accessible for everyone, scholarships are offered.
For business and community leaders, the church began to host simulcasts of John Maxwell's “Maximum Impact” and just for fun the church has sponsored “Sundown Cinema” a periodic public movie shown in their parking lot.
Also in partnership with Virginia Tech, the church and community are seeking to establish a local community orchestra. To help fund this endeavor, the church has been creative. For years the church had stored 40 oak Sunday school chairs which they no longer used. These were given to personalities in the town (including the mayor and other dignitaries) to paint and decorate any way they wished. The decorated chairs were sold as part of a “Christmas in Chatham” celebration which raised more than $2,000, and other groups in the community raised an additional $7,000 for the community music school.
To encourage the formation of their orchestra and to provide enjoyable evenings for Chatham residents, the church hosted “Viva, Vivaldi!” and arranged for an Irish youth orchestra to perform at Hargrave Military Academy's chapel, which seats 800.
Other community needs were discovered. Teenagers had few places to hang out with their friends. Because of the church's leadership in local arts programs, a local artis who is not a church member approached Warnock with the idea of a teen community open mike night which they call “Sound Check.” The group is run entirely by young people and it meets on Main Street in a vacant storefront building owned by a church member. The church provides refreshments and the sound system. Teens show up and during the first 30 minutes of the two-hour time, they choose a time slot to do whatever they want—sing, act, read poetry, etc.
“I was amazed at the investment these teenagers make both in terms of preparation and performance,” Warnock said. An off-duty police officer sits at a table on the fringe and drinks coffee as a precaution, but the teens have been extremely well-behaved. 115 teens showed up for Sound Check recently—about the same number of people who attend the church on Sunday.
Yet another community need was revealed as a result of Sound Check. The high school drama program, which had been discontinued due to lack of funds, left a void that the church is seeking to fill. Once more a Virginia Tech partnership has proved beneficial. The church provides the space and Tech provides drama professors willing to teach a community drama group.
The church has sought other partners as well. Recognizing that students who were not athletes had no organized activities after school, the church opened its old fellowship hall to a boys and girls club overseen by a Danville club which offered a $50,000 grant if a suitable place for the club could be found. More than 40 students gather at the church on Mondays.
Warnock is particularly excited about an idea first proposed by church members Bill and Betty Davenport. They learned that grants would be awarded in conjunction with community revitalization efforts. Warnock called together a group of ministers and proposed that they seek a grant to build a new community center. The ministers and others worked together to provide a rationale and the community received a grant of $3 million.
Stressing that small church pastors sometimes ignore the possibilities around them, he believes they need to see the church and community as their responsibility. “This has not been intentional. Several years ago the church did a long range plan that was put on a shelf and never consulted,” he offers. In contrast, much of what they do has come about because a church member made the connections between a community need, the mission of the church and a potential partner.
Warnock, too, has been alert to opportunities. Two weeks ago he was notified that that Outreach magazine had selected his entry as the winner in their nationwide “Small Church Blog Contest.” In addition to the church website, which he initiated soon after his arrival, Warnock maintains a blogging website at www.amicusdei.com (amicus dei is Latin for friend of god). As winner of the blog contest, he has been invited to contribute articles called “Confessions of a Small Church Pastor” to Outreach magazine.
Other things undertaken by Warnock and the church have been done with a great deal of intentionality, however. Attempting to reach those who have no church background while also providing meaningful worship for those who have been a part of the church for years, a casual community worship service is held around tables in the fellowship hall at 9 on Sunday mornings, while in the 11 service Warnock wears a robe and uses the lectionary. He hopes to move the casual community worship to the community center after it is built because he believes unchurched community members are more apt to gather at a neutral site than go to a church.
Warnock hopes what CBC has experienced will be encouraging to other small churches in the Commonwealth. He has identified several keys which be believes are transferable from place to place:
• Pastors of small churches must commit themselves to the church and community rather than seeing their ministry as temporary until something better comes along.
• Church members need to join their pastor in looking for community needs to meet and resources with which to meet them. And pastors need to be open to their suggestions.
• Churches need to learn to partner with other groups. This requires openness to other theological viewpoints and willingness to surrender control.
• Pastors need to see that working for the community good will create long-term gain for the church even if they are slow in coming.
Just because a church is small doesn't mean it can't have a huge impact.