Embracing change is helping a 140-year-old western Wilkes County church buck the trend of declining numbers at many mainline denomination churches.
Growth in membership and ministry prompted Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on U.S. 421 West to start having worship services at three different times each Sunday morning, something few churches in the region have undertaken.
Beginning Oct. 4, the church will have worship services at 8:20, 9:40 and 11 a.m. each Sunday. Currently, services are at 8:30 and 11 a.m. Mount Pleasant will continue its 17 different Sunday school classes, but each will now be offered twice—at 9:40 and 11 a.m.
About 80 percent full
The Rev. D. Kevin Brown, pastor of the church, said attendance at the 11 a.m. service averaging about 400 in a worship and fellowship center with auditorium seating for about 500 people prompted adding a third worship service.
“That’s putting us about 80 percent full, which can make it uncomfortable for people when they walk in and try to find a seat,” said Brown, a third generation Mount Pleasant member who grew up attending the church. This past Easter Sunday, 773 people attended the current two services combined.
Brown said the hope is that enough people now regularly attending 11 a.m. services will attend one of the two earlier services to create additional seating sought for visitors and other “non-regulars.” He said many people attending the current 8:30 a.m. services likely won’t mind or might prefer coming a little earlier for services at 8:20.
“We explained the need and we believe that when people understand the need and don’t feel like something is being crammed down their throats, they’ll do what they can and help.”
Brown added, “It’s a matter of whether we want to reach our community. A fellow pastor asked me how big I want us to be. I told him I don’t know, that’s totally up to the Lord. He’s the one that’s grown us to this point. All I do know is that with the resources we have, we really have to create space.”
He said he believes regular attendance could grow to 700 to 800 people at the three worship services combined.
As now is done with two services, said Brown, the contemporary worship format, music selections and other aspects of the three services each Sunday will be the same to maintain cohesiveness in the church.
Likewise, Brown will preach the same sermon at all three services. He said most of his messages are preached in sequence from books of the Bible, focused on particular Scripture in expository style to help people understand its meaning and apply it to their lives.
Contemporary Christian music is an important part of the church’s worship services. The Rev. Brad Cordray, associate pastor in charge of music, has two praise team bands with guitars and drums that will alternate providing music at the three worship services.
Motivation for change
Brown said incremental implementation of the current worship format, particularly the music, began in 2007, after the need for change to promote membership growth became apparent.
He explained that soon after he was named pastor in August 2007, he was told that substantial debt from building the current worship and fellowship center a year and a half earlier threatened the church’s future.
When he joined the church staff as an associate pastor several months earlier in January 2006, attendance at worship services averaged about 275 people.
Brown said the changes were undertaken after careful consideration and consultation with church members. This included discussing the financial situation and the need for change in a dinner gathering with senior church members in Mount Pleasant’s “young at heart” program.
“I told them that if we don’t change, we won’t make it.... And we cannot drop the baton. Your parents and grandparents would have your hides,” said Brown. He also reminded his listeners that they helped raise him.
Brown said the response essentially was support for doing whatever was needed for the good of the church. “I am so grateful they trusted us, because without the support of our older folks, none of this would be happening,” he added.
“You should never change the (Gospel) message, but the way you deliver it has to change. You can hold to 1970s methods and die with the dinosaurs.”
The debt on the worship/fellowship center, now down to $788,821, is on schedule to be paid off in 3½ years, said Brown.
Rite of Passage
Instead of offering a traditional youth group, said Brown, Mount Pleasant Baptist tries to challenge and empower young people ages 12 through 18 by inviting them to participate in the life of the church through a program called Rite of Passage.
The program’s Scriptural basis is Luke 2:49, where Jesus at age 12 told his parents that he had been in the temple because he had to “be about my Father’s business.”
Brown said participating young people essentially take on apprenticeships in adult church member roles like usher, greeter, Wednesday night meal server and sound system operator and by assisting Sunday school teachers and adults in other roles. It can include assisting Brown, Cordray and the Rev. Dale Jennings, the other associate pastor.
“This involvement gives young adults a sense of ownership as functioning members” of Mount Pleasant Baptist, he said. Brown called Rite of Passage an alternative to entertaining young people in church youth groups.
It’s designed to involve parents in raising young people to be Christ-centered.
“Parents must take on the responsibility of raising their children spiritually…that simply can’t be left solely to the church,” Brown said. “Yes, we have fun and do recreational activities together, including various outings, but the goal is to involve, versus entertain.”
He said adult church members volunteer to serve in parental roles for participating young people without a mother or father.
Brown wrote “Rite of Passage for the Home and Church: Raising Christ-Centered Young Adults,” published in 2011 by Energion Publications, a guide for implementing the program.
Other initiatives, concepts
Mount Pleasant Baptist has worship services and a fellowship meal each Wednesday night. The meal starts at at 5:30 p.m. and the service is at 6:30 p.m.
“We do all of our committee meetings on Wednesday nights, along with choir and praise team practice so people can be at home with their families on other nights,” said Brown.
To help keep families together during worship services, Mount Pleasant doesn’t have a typical nursery, “children’s church” or anything else concurrently for certain age groups. He said there are no biblical references to families being separated during gatherings for worship.
Brown said he, Cordray and Jennings work well as a team. In addition to music, Cordray oversees church facility and related matters. Jennings’ responsibilities include pastoral care and missions.
Mount Pleasant is a strong supporter of foreign, domestic and local missions. Church mission trips are scheduled to the Philippines in October and to China in January and Texas/Mexico in April. The church is a member of the Brushy Mountain Baptist Association and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Mount Pleasant has a flag football league for youths in kindergarten through eighth grade. Teams are divided by age groups and are coached by young adults. The program was started “because we saw a need for something low cost that all kids could participate in,” said Brown. There is a five-minute devotion before each game.
Over 600 people participated in the program last year, including parents, players on about 20 teams, cheerleaders and young adult and adult volunteers. Games are on church property divided into four fields near the church each Saturday in the fall. The first games this year are Sept. 26. Chick-fil-A in Wilkesboro is the primary sponsor.
Brown, 47, graduated from West Wilkes High School in 1986, attended and played basketball at Gardner-Webb University and transferred to Appalachian State University, where he graduated with degrees in marketing and management in 1990.
He worked in management for different local and area companies for about 17 years before deciding to enter the ministry fulltime. Brown said that when he shared this with his wife, Pam Brown, she said she already knew it but wanted him to decide for himself.
The deacons at Mount Pleasant soon offered him the position of associate pastor, which he accepted. He said he gave his life to Christ, was elected a deacon at age 22 and was married at the church. Brown’s church office once was the church nursery and is where he was kept as an infant.
The Browns have four children and one grandchild.