"I want us to quit saying, 'We've always done it that way.' Instead, we need to ask, 'How can we do it to reach more people for Jesus?'"
Ron Davis (RTS '95) can't stand to see dying churches. He's as sad about their demise as you would be upon hearing of the serious illness or death of a close relative. But Ron and his staff at the Greenville Baptist Association are determined to fight the condition they see in the congregations around them and begin a reformation of the churches in America, starting in South Carolina.
"About seventy-two per cent of the churches in our convention are declining," says Ron, who is the association's Director of Missions. "We are excited about developing a strategy to revitalize these churches, getting them off dead center and beginning to contribute a vital influence for kingdom work. Turning around merely half of the declining churches in our convention would have such a great impact on Christ's kingdom."
With over 100 churches, the Greenville Baptist Association is one of the largest east of the Mississippi. It is part of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, which has over 1900 churches and, founded in 1826, is the oldest state convention in the United States.
Ron cites several reasons for the churches' decline. Some have been caught in cultural shifts in their area and have not been able or willing to make changes to address their local community. Other congregations want to operate in the same way they did in the 1950s and refuse to catch up with the times. Still others are uncomfortable letting new members in, fearing they will dilute the power of existing members.
A big reason for the slump is the attitude of the church as a whole in America. "Our churches are comfortable and 'at ease in Zion,'" warns Ron. "They have not realized that this country is not as proactively Christian as it once was. America is becoming less and less Christian."
By Ron's figures, North America is the only continent that is not experiencing revival. On a typical day in China, 37,000 new believers come to Christ; in India, 27,000; in the North African Sahara, 17,000. But not here, and Ron feels we're losing the battle for people's souls.
Dr. Reggie McNeal, Director of the South Carolina Baptist Convention's Leadership Development Team, is glad Ron is at the helm. "He understands the challenges that leaders and churches face in the 21st century and doesn't waste motion or time in getting to the heart of the issues. He brings a tactical and strategic mind to bear on the opportunities of the new Christian millennium."
Dr. Carlisle Driggers, Executive Director-Treasurer of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, agrees. "Our board had not been reorganized in almost one hundred years when Ron led in that effort some time ago, and we have seen tremendous improvement in its functioning. He is an experienced church leader who works well with people. He thinks through problems with them, lays out the solutions in understandable terms, and then implements them. People appreciate his leadership style, which is non-threatening and includes everyone's opinions."
SURRENDERING TO GOD
Providentially, Ron was able to witness good models of the faith as he grew up. His maternal grandparents lived with his family, and all four adults were solid Christians. Not surprisingly, he was saved at age nine and called to preach in the middle of a missions conference when he was twelve.
But he rebelled. He wanted to get an accounting degree, start several lucrative service-oriented businesses, and give a great deal of money to the Lord. Serving the lord full-time did not fit into his plans.
It took two years and three majors at Newberry College in Newberry, South Carolina, for him to realize that he was headed in the wrong direction. During his sophomore year he surrendered to the Lord to preach. Telling his pastor first that he was ready to get serious about his call to preach, he then made it public and changed his major to philosophy and sociology. At that point he felt the Lord was calling him to the foreign mission field.
He met his wife, June, during his junior year at Newberry, and they married about a year later. After graduating in 1968, he entered Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. Terribly impatient to get on with seminary and out into the ministry, he graduated from Newberry on Friday, arrived in Fort Worth on Sunday, moved in Sunday night, landed a job on Monday, and started classes on Tuesday.
"That was one of the dumbest things I've ever done," recalls Ron with a laugh. "I should have made the change much slower. June and I had never lived away from home, and I had to study for the first time in my life!"
The transition was extremely tough for other reasons, including Ron's misconception of seminary life. "I thought seminary was going to be like Bible college where students studied the Bible and prayed. Although that certainly went on at Southwestern, I wanted to know why I had to take Hebrew, Greek, and church administration. What relevance did they have to preaching the Word today?"
One day in 1970 during his second year of seminary, he simply couldn't take it anymore. Added to the seminary work and his job, the couple now had a new baby. He was weary of the struggle and extremely frustrated. Standing in line to register for the spring semester, Ron found himself crying helplessly. He threw all his registration papers in the garbage and walked out.
"I looked at the sky and said, 'God, I can't handle it. If it's going to get done, you've got to do it; I can't.' I think that was a surrender to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. I had surrendered to preach, but I was still running my life my way. I see that moment as the point at which I really decided to serve the Lord fully."
THE LORD CAN MAKE IT HAPPEN
Ron eventually re-entered Southwestern as a more mature Christian and graduated in 1973. The call to missions had waned, and the Lord had placed a desire for the pastoral ministry in his heart. So he and June accepted the call to Renfrew Baptist Church in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, where the pastor had told the congregation to shut the doors because the church was dying. Indignantly, the congregation emphatically told him they refused to die, and then they called Ron. Impressed with their attitude, Ron came and preached there for three years. Not only did the Lord cause membership to rise, but the church also bought property to relocate!
Ron discovered at Renfrew that seminary had not prepared him to pastor. He had to rely on the Lord constantly for direction. After receiving the call he remembers shouting to his wife, "I got a church! I got a church!" Whereupon, she replied, "Now what?" He said uncertainly, "I haven't a clue." So, he began asking the Lord what to do, reading everything he could about pastoring, and started knocking on doors in the neighborhood. The Lord blessed his searching tremendously.
In 1976 he went to First Baptist Church in Wagener, South Carolina, a church with much history. He had learned the value of preaching in Renfrew, and he wanted to have an area-wide revival in Wagener. Everyone said it could not happen; Wagener's population was only 600 and the surrounding area numbered only 3,000. But Ron learned that if the Lord gives the vision, He'll make it happen. He did indeed have an eight-day crusade there that averaged 1,100 people a night! In 1980 the Lord called him to North Side Baptist Church in Greenwood, South Carolina, where he pastored for the next seventeen and a half years. The people there challenged him like he'd never been challenged before. They were hungry for God's Word and wanted to live it out. They trusted Ron's judgment implicitly, which forced him to pray harder about decisions in order not to violate that trust.
"We were about to build a three-million-dollar sanctuary and had spent eighty thousand dollars in architect fees when the Lord made it plain to me that we should not build it. I prayed about it for two weeks, then told the Building Committee that the cost of construction would have a negative impact on the ministries of the church. I suggested instead that they build a family life center to double as a worship center. After much prayer, the committee agreed and the congregation accepted the change."
At North Side, the Lord had lessons to teach Ron about resting in Him. One day, after pushing himself to the limit for ten years, he drove into the church parking lot and just sat in his car, realizing that he didn't care about anything any more. He was simply burned out, a frightening experience for one so vital and alive. The church gave him a month off -- unusual for Ron, since he had always prided himself on never taking all of his vacation time. When he returned, they told him to take another month off. Regrettably, he did not. For the next six years, Ron suffered the effects of burnout and learned how to depend on God completely. The church continued to grow with a steady stream of visitors, but now Ron knew that God was bringing those people in, not Ron Davis.
In 1992 Ron felt the Lord leading him to get more training, so he enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program with North Side's blessing. He feels the program has given him a broader perspective of the church's needs today.
WHY DO WE HAVE TO DO IT THIS WAY?
Although leaving North Side was one of the hardest things he's ever done, his work at the Greenville Association is a welcome challenge. Ron sees his role as a facilitator, helping churches fulfill their visions for ministry and experience healthy growth.
He also likes to try new methods. "I want us to quit saying, 'We've always done it that way.' Instead, we need to ask, 'How can we do it to reach more people for Jesus?'"
"Ron definitely is not content with business as usual," says Dr. Driggers. "He wants to see churches making progress in spiritual growth and missions outreach. He's not satisfied with those that aren't struggling for kingdom growth."
Ron's goals for the future include developing ministries that will help churches be ready for the next century and cope with changes that are occurring in the congregations. Strategies for this include encouraging churches to get involved in multi-housing ministries (apartment complexes, condos, trailer parks) targeted to reach children and families. New methods for leadership training and cooperation among churches to plant new congregations are also underway.
"We want our churches to think 'kingdom' instead of merely 'our church,'" Ron explains. "Getting churches to cooperate is hard if they build fences around the congregation and are afraid someone is going to steal their members. If they are thinking 'kingdom,' they are more apt to cooperate with other churches to plant new congregations or to get involved in missions."
At the heart of all the strategies is Ron's desire to revitalize the sick churches. He and his staff have just completed a twelve-step recovery program for declining churches in the convention. At the invitation of a church, his office will assess the church's demographics, analyze the attendance figures, interview the staff, and perform other diagnostic tasks to present a report to the congregation. If the congregation wishes, Ron and his staff will implement the program over the course of six months to revitalize the entire church program or parts of it. They'll also train leaders to continue the work after they leave. Ron is planning two pilot programs for 1999, then making it available to all churches by 2000.
Think of Ron as a doctor to ailing churches, giving them strong medicine to cure the disease that is making them sick. And this doctor even makes house calls!
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