One of the goals of most churches is to grow in numbers. For the most part that is a laudable goal. Conservative churches that preach an undiluted gospel in a worship setting that the apostles would have recognised are few and far between, and to bring people in from the community or from apostate churches is something for which we all pray earnestly. However, numbers aren’t everything. I recently read an article in The Aquila Report entitled “How to Shrink a Church”. Part of it reads as follows: Our church was planted in 2003 and founded upon church leadership principles that worked like a charm. We grew from 2 families to around 200 families in the first three years. We planted another church in a nearby town and continued to grow. But, when we decided to reject sentimentality and pragmatism and chase faithfulness instead we really began to grow … smaller that is. I don’t know for sure because we no longer count, but my best guess is that we have decreased by more than half.
Many church groups, even Reformed groups, who go into the inner city, gravitate towards a different style of worship. So it has been exciting to see that even though we maintained the principles of our heritage our numbers have grown. The content of the message, the singing of Psalms and a significant amount of Scripture reading is the same in downtown Atlanta as it was in the suburbs. And numbers? We have increased more than 50% in the last few months.
When we were unable to continue distributing bread, pastries, cookies, etc., which had been donated by Panera Bread Company I started taking “goodie bags” containing some healthy snacks such as juice, fruit and cheese for each child. We were concerned that the adults would stop attending the service if they didn’t get their bread and pastries but they continue to come! This has really encouraged us because it shows that they weren’t there just for the physical bread but the spiritual sustenance that they received.
Something which we had not anticipated is that the ministry evolved into more and more of a children’s ministry. The numbers of children went up from a handful at the most when we were outside on the steps or in the convenience store back room, to a high of fifteen in our new location in the Faithful Friend Church building, and we are now averaging about 12. When we were on the steps the number of adults was normally about half a dozen (though not the same people each week) and is now about four or five “regulars” who are picked up from the Bluff on a weekly basis bringing our average attendance up to just under 21 since the beginning of January. In addition to our regular attenders we have ministered to a large number of the local population. Pastor Frank is well known in the neighbourhood because of the effort he has put into meeting and interacting with so many of them. As we drive through the area he is greeted by people we don’t even recognise, some of whom wave and call out, “hi, Rev”. We figured out that in 2013 we ministered to about 130 people.
Many of the children who attend Sunday School and the service are unchurched and have great difficulty paying attention at first. Amy Work, along with her assistant Jerusha Wheeler, works very hard but lovingly to train them to pay attention and take notes. After a while many of the children do very well at this and, after the service, are quite proud to show off the notes they took during the sermon. A lady who brings some young friends of hers from the suburbs tells us that they often have a good conversation about the sermon on the way home and she is frequently amazed at how much they understood.
We do have our disappointments. Two young boys who had attended regularly suddenly stopped coming. Their mother (who attended one time) said recently that she wants to become a Muslim. She absolutely does not believe in the deity of Christ and had been looking into becoming a Jehovah’s Witness before apparently settling on Islam. Pastor Frank met with her when he could, spent time trying to convince her of the truth, and sent her materials to help her. Now, however, she and the boys have left the area. When they were attending, the boys started out being problematic in their behavior but they began settling down and becoming more cooperative. In fact on one occasion the younger one showed me that he was writing down the first couple of Shorter Catechism questions on a piece of paper which he could take home and “play church”.
As you can imagine, we develop personal relationships with many of the children, and there are currently two other young brothers about whom we are concerned. One of these children is mildly “special needs”, suffering occasional seizures. His older brother is very bright and used to be a real joy to work with but recently he has been quite melancholy. We do know that he is very concerned about his brother and our hearts are touched when we see him hugging and consoling the younger child when he suffers a sudden serious headache. They have not attended for the last two weeks and, apparently, may not return. But this has happened before so we are hoping and praying that the Lord will bring them back.
The arrival of a new child usually means disruption to the service. Occasionally Pastor Frank will have to chide the children by reminding them that they are in the presence of the Lord and that they are being disrespectful to Him by misbehaving. Thankfully, the adults who attend, both from the neighbourhood and from the suburbs, understand and accept the situation. They are just grateful to see so many children in attendance to hear the gospel. In Sunday School they have learned the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23 and Psalm 146, and at the beginning of the worship service they and the adults are memorizing about a dozen Bible verses and the first eleven Shorter Catechism questions and answers. All in attendance are learning to sing Psalm 100 by heart.
One young man, sixteen years old, went through a phase last fall of being very moody and rebellious. He would get upset at any little thing, and would sit apart from the others, not willing to join in. Over the months since then he has, for the most part, become someone who can be relied on to participate well and take very good notes. So we keep hoping and praying that we will see each of these young people change, be it ever so slowly, in response to the gospel and to the loving care and concern shown them by Amy and Jerusha and Pastor Frank and others. Warren Jackson, one of the Atlanta Fund board members, has a wonderful way with the children, making them feel loved and very precious. And many of the visitors who come from out of town find that they make a real connection with them as well.
We were very encouraged by the action taken at the Great-Lakes Gulf Presbytery meeting last week. The men voted unanimously to adopt Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship as an outreach of the presbytery. We anticipate that the men who serve on the board of The Atlanta Fund will continue in their function of fundraising, while a new Southern Church Extension Committee (SOCHEX) has been given general oversight of the administration of the ministry.
During the first couple of months of residency in the Faithful Friend Church building our intention had been, in lieu of rent, to donate material supplies to assist the pastor in improvements he had wished to make to the building (it being a converted house). That idea proved to be impossible to coordinate. Under a new lease agreement, we are now giving them $200 per month for the use of the facility and they are making their own arrangements with regards to the improvements. In addition to rent, we also purchase liability insurance in order to protect both them and us.
I have talked in the past about reaching the children not only for the glory of God and for the eternal safety of the children but so that they can adjust their perspective on life and set goals for themselves. We are so happy to have one young man, fourteen years old, whose ambition it is to be an attorney. It is very unusual to find someone like that. He desires to learn, is very sharp and is a good example to the others. We would love to see that attitude reflected in more of the children and to see a spark of drive, whether it be using intellectual gifts or simply making a determination to work hard in the trades. But they need to do something to break out of the mold that so commonly besets these young people. We would appreciate your prayers that we can lead them into Biblical truth and thereby set them on a course which would take them into a good job, a good marriage and responsible parenthood and so fit them to be a godly example to their peers and the next generation.