Overview. In a nutshell, tell us about your church. What was it like when you came? What is happening now?

Harp’s Crossing Baptist Church is 30 years old.  We currently have five fulltime pastors—Senior Pastor, Minister of Education, Associate Pastor, Minister of Music and Student Pastor.  We also have a fulltime Director of Preschool and Children’s Ministry.  In addition there are seven fulltime Administrative Assistants and a fulltime Assets Manager.  There are many additional part time associates.

Currently our average Sunday School attendance is 712 which has increased steadily since 2006 when the average was 618.  In 2006 we built a new worship center and converted our old worship center to adult education space.

I have been here since 1982, arriving about eight months after the church first started meeting as a mission of Fayetteville First Baptist Church.  When I came there were 43 members.  There was one adult SS class, one youth class, one children’s class and one preschool class.  The focus from the beginning was to build the church by growing and building the Sunday School.  In the early days we built utility sheds to serve as children and youth classes.  Also in the early days all of our adult classes were in homes.

The Sunday School and the church grew rapidly.  We moved into our first “permanent” building in the spring of 1984 and immediately went to two morning worship times and two Sunday School hours.  Most of our history (all but about eighteen months) we have had two morning worship and Sunday School times which continues today.

We began with four Sunday School classes.  Currently there are 70 classes plus our Chinese church and our other campus in Hollonville.  We are regularly adding new classes at every age level.  Just since the first of this year (three months) there have been three new adult classes started.  The starting of new classes has been going on for a long time but it seems like only recently has it caught on and people have actually gotten excited about it.

Our staff has long tenure.  I have been here for 29 years.  Keith Turner our Minister of Education has been here 27 years.  Ken Helms our Associate Pastor has been here for 23 years.  Steve Owens, Minister of Music has been here 21 years.  Chris Watson, Student Pastor has been here for 7 years.  Judi Knowles our Director of Preschool and Children’s Ministry has been here for 23 years.  The average among out support staff is probably around 15 years.

Victories. What were 2 or 3 real moments of victory for you?

In 1984 our first fulltime staff member came.  Keith Turner came at that time as Minister of Youth and Education.  His first Sunday was the day we started our first multiple morning Sunday Schools.  Keith has been a true blessing to our church and especially to our Sunday School!  Having a Minister of Education who believes in Sunday School and is not fearful to do what makes it work is a real and ongoing victory.

In 1997 we were suffering from an identity crisis.  The pastors went on their annual retreat heavy hearted about where we were.  We carefully studied Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church.  We returned with a plan to identify our mission, purpose and vision.   We stopped Sunday School for 13 weeks.  During that time I taught the adults regarding our mission, purpose and vision.  Our Youth Pastor at the time did the same with out youth.  We lost some people but the church was better than ever prepared to move forward.  I look back to that time and remember the pain due to the people who left.  But it was also a time of new beginning!

One of our greatest victories was completing our new worship center and the renovation of the old worship center in 2006.  The cost was just over $5.5 million.  The work was all completed totally without debt!  The newly renovated adult space was the first totally dedicated adult space we ever had!  The newly renovated space has brought about a new vitality to our adult Sunday School work!

  1. Failures. We learn from these. Tell us what didn’t work.

We attempted to have a “Family Sunday Class.”  This has also been called “Intergenerational Sunday School.”   We attempted it and it grew.  However, it became a church within the church.  We asked the group to disband and move into our more traditional age-graded Sunday School but most of the participants left.  It was an attempt to accommodate a group to meet their perceived needs.  However, it did not work for us.

We also tried “cell” or “family” groups but that did not work for us.  We had some roof structural problems several years ago and had to evacuate our main worship and adult and youth Sunday School space for a period of 12 weeks.  Most all adult classes moved into homes close to our campus.  Some met at other times during the week.  We tried to keep those going but in just a short while they came back to the campus and the Sunday morning time.  For us, to have cell groups or small groups was like trying to fix something that was not broken—our age-graded Sunday School.  Age-graded Sunday morning Sunday School still works!

Learnings. What have been some of your big ones? What you have learned along the way?

Starting new classes vs splitting classes

Early on we divided classes.  This was necessary since we started with only one adult class.  It became necessary to start new classes.  Splitting classes has a negative connotation.  We encourage existing classes to start new classes from a small group in the class.  This has really worked very well.  Not all classes jumped on board at first but as time passed more and more classes have seen the advantage of starting new classes.  New classes grow faster than existing classes and usually bring in new and inactive people.

Provide the space

The growth spiral is a great planning tool.  It will not make Sunday School grow but it has helped us prepare for and plan for growth.  Providing space has been a big deal.  We have used every available space double and at times triple.  New classes cannot be started without space for the class.  We are encountering this with our new campus at Hollonville.  Space is limited.  We are already looking at using the space twice on Sunday mornings with two worship services and two Sunday School hours.

Advantage of multiple hours

People have bemoaned for years two Sunday School hours and two worship hours.  My answer has been, if one is good, two is twice as good.  The multiples provides opportunities and options.

The importance of Sunday School

I was telling our members 29 years ago if they only had one hour on Sunday morning I would prefer they go to Sunday School.  Our Minister of Education has reminded me for years, “the most powerful place of promotion is the pulpit and the most powerful person of promotion is the pastor.”  I give emphasis to Sunday School on a regular basis and really drive it home in our new members class.

What most pastors need to know? What are the take aways? What can we learn from your story?

Emphasize SS

The church is kept small in the Sunday School.  No matter how large a church grows the smallness and the personal factor is preserved in the Sunday School.  People can establish connections in Sunday School that would never happen in a large worship service.  The pastor must give attention to and emphasis to Sunday School.  Ministry, fellowship, discipleship and outreach can best be organized and accomplished through the Sunday School

Be a pastor

I love what I am privileged to be—a pastor.  It is no doubt a calling and a blessing.  For me this is a lifelong connection to the people of Harp’s Crossing.  I believe that for the past 29 years I have been becoming a pastor.  I have not arrived and will never arrive.  It is a lifelong experience and relationship.  It is important to connect with the people, love them and lead them and not to drive them.

Is it okay to just be a pastor?  After 29 years as a pastor I think I am about to feel pretty good about that role.  That may sound strange but it seems like since day one perhaps I have aspired to be something more or maybe, if possible be something more.  I read apologists like J.P. Moreland, Ravi Zacharias, and William Land Craig and I aspire to be an apologist traveling the world speaking and debating the atheists and agnostics.  I listen to the traveling preacher and evangelists like Tom Elliff, Bill Stafford and the late Ron Dunn, and I want to hit the road and begin preaching meetings in churches.  I have listened to preachers like Charles Stanley, the late Adrien Rogers and W.A. Criswell and I want to be like those guys.  I hear people talk about what great preachers they are or were, and they are and were!   I read the writings of Max Lucado, and other prolific writers and I want to be an author.  I hear about the preachers who have arrived and have teams to do research for them and they are the “Preaching Pastor” and I wonder when I will be a preaching pastor or maybe an administrative pastor or perhaps a teaching pastor.  Do I have and identity crisis!?

Well, I think I am about to the place to where I can more than ever love what I am called to be—just a pastor.  That means sometimes I need to be administrative.  At other times I need to take on the role of an apologist.  At other times I need to write down some things.  I preach, teach, perform weddings, counsel members and nonmembers.  I get to preach at the funerals of members and nonmembers.  I conduct prayer meetings, staff meetings, attend Deacon’s meetings and on occasion meetings about money, personnel and all kinds of other things to meet about.  I am just a pastor and all of a sudden I am fine with it!  That is what God called me to be!  I am not called to be an executive or denominational leader that I may have to do that kind of thing from time to time.  I am not called to be a politician although I need to have input and impact on the political scene.  I believe that it is important for those of us called to be pastors would be content with just that—just a pastor.

Dennis Watson
Harps Crossing Baptist Church
Fayetteville, GA