Measuring a "vital congregation" goes beyond Sunday attendance and the tally from each week's offering. The Rev. Russ Breshears in Arkansas says that new ideas have reenergized his historic church. He offers tips on how any church can be reborn.
(Little Rock, Arkansas)
The Rev. Russ Breshears: "The kingdom of God is too important for silliness."
Russ Breshears is an Arkansas pastor who is known for his "no-nonsense" approach.
The Rev. Russ Breshears, Oak Forest United Methodist Church: "If we can stop focusing on the color of the carpet...or what the youth group got served for supper, or some of these silly, kind of what the music style in the church is, and focus on serving people, loving people and following people, good things will happen."
And good things have happened. Oak Forest United Methodist went from being a church for retirees to a "can-do" congregation -- partnering with other churches to run thriving medical, dental and vision clinics; a food pantry; and a counseling center.
Linda J. Pringle, Oak Forest United Methodist Church: "Our pastor has done a tremendous job here with introducing all of these outreaches, because, you know, people talk. And I always heard that before Russ came here this was just a pew warmer church."
The Rev. Russ Breshears: "If you have a little success people will trust you to risk other things. When I asked them for us to buy the little house next door to the medical clinic, some of the people said, 'Russ, there is no way. We can barely pay your salary. We cannot buy this little house.'"
Gloria Minor, Oak Forest United Methodist Church: "I just didn't think as small as our congregation was that we .... in no way could we afford that."
The Rev. Russ Breshears: "And I just said, 'Please, let's do it.' And we bought it for $42,000 and in less than a year it was paid for. The dental grants came and voila, we had a fully-equipped dental. And now we're adding the third chair. But it was because this congregation had faith and they trusted me. And we had a very good administrative board with the right people on the bus."
Another key to success has been having an open mind toward working with other faith groups.
The Rev. Russ Breshears: "I just had these deep reservations, 'How can a United Methodist partner with an evangelical or almost a fundamentalist church?' And we've learned a lot. I would be lying if I told you it was an easy marriage. But we have learned that we do not discuss politics. We do not discuss theology. But we have a heart for Jesus. And it works."
Before he became a pastor, Breshears was a young missionary. He returned to his hometown of Little Rock when he realized any community can be a mission field.
The Rev. Russ Breshears: "I always felt the call to ministry and I was a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries in Lima, Peru....disastrous. Just...starving little kids ate off of my garbage in the morning. And I was 23 and I felt so impotent. And you don't really think a 23-year-old will feel that powerless. But that led me to seminary in New York City."
That time in South America led to a fluency in Spanish that's helpful today in engaging families who come to Oak Forest.
Breshears speaking to patient: "Cuantos nietos?"
The Rev. Russ Breshears: "One of our core measures is to work with and...not for the poor, but with the poor. And that's a challenge. But all of the people that come to us are working poor. And if we even set an expectation like, you know, 'We're having a fundraiser; will you cook some spaghetti or will you help us on work day clean?' And they do come. But it's a whole different thing if rather than acting, providing charity, that you let people become a part and help you."
His tips for being vital? Engage your congregation to share their time and gifts. Chart a clear course. And believe that God will provide.
The Rev. Russ Breshears: "I had some folks from Uganda here. And we told them, 'You can do this in Uganda.' They're like, 'No, we can't.' And I said, 'How many doctors are in your church?' And they said, 'Well, many.' And I said, 'Well, what's to stop you from one Sunday afternoon from having a clinic?' So, we're starting those conversations with Africa, with Uganda."
"We want to be a teaching church. We want to have those conversations particularly with United Methodist churches in Dallas or Atlanta or in Denver or coast to coast, beautiful old churches such as this, that are now in transitional communities. And we want to say, 'This is a way we have survived and you can, too.'"
For more information on the Shepherd's Hope clinic or other ministries, contact Oak Forest United Methodist Church at 501-663-9407.