Drive through the town of Tar Heel in southeastern North Carolina on a Sunday morning and chances are there will be about as many people worshiping inside Tar Heel Baptist Church than the population of the town itself.
Each Sunday School class at Tar Heel Baptist Church adopted a local organization – school, nursing home, law enforcement, firefighters, first responders, substance abuse treatment centers, etc. – to serve.
Tar Heel Baptist Church isn’t a megachurch. It’s not even a church in a growing community.
But thanks to a renewed focus on loving God and loving others, the Lord is moving in the church and in the community, where the population was just 117 people according to the 2010 census.
“If God can move at Tar Heel, He can move anywhere,” said Devon Varnam, who has served as senior pastor of Tar Heel Baptist Church since March 2015.
Prior to Varnam’s arrival, Tar Heel Baptist was like many churches in the United States – in a state of plateau or decline. According to various studies statistics, as a great majority of churches across all denominations can be classified as plateaued or declining, and many close their doors each year.
One characteristic of many churches that are plateaued or declining is that they have become more inward focused than outward focused. Varnam says that was true of Tar Heel Baptist when he arrived.
When he began his tenure as senior pastor, Varnam says his focus was simply on preaching the Word, following God and encouraging his congregation to do the same. As Varnam and his congregation connected and got to know one another, a vision to reach the community and surrounding area in Bladen County was birthed.
Over time, Tar Heel Baptist Church shifted its focus from inside its four walls to others around them by sharing the love of Christ with neighbors, friends and others. Part of that focus involved Varnam and church leaders shifting Tar Heel Baptist’s ministries to focus on the community.
“Tar Heel Baptist wants to make much of Jesus in the community by loving God and loving our neighbors,” Varnam said.
Every Sunday School class adopted a local organization to serve, which included local schools, nursing homes, law enforcement, firefighters, first responders, substance abuse treatment centers and more.
Sunday School class members serve their respective organizations in a variety of ways on a consistent basis, and the church engages in weekend service initiatives in the community periodically throughout the year.
“Tar Heel Baptist wants to make much of Jesus in the community by loving God and loving our neighbors,” said Devon Varnam, senior pastor of the church. That includes trying to reach children and families in their community.
As a result of those local missions efforts, more members are engaging in missions beyond the community. In the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria, the church sent volunteers to Florida and Puerto Rico to share the love of Christ by assisting with in the recovery and cleanup efforts.
By reaching out into the community, more people are coming to know Christ and growing as disciples. Varnam says average worship attendance on Sunday mornings has grown from about 80 to about 116. Sunday School attendance has increased from about 60 on a typical Sunday morning to about 100.
Plus, the church is attracting younger individuals and families from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Varnam says the fastest growing demographic in the church is 20-to-30 year olds. Tar Heel Baptist has gone from a church with an average age of 65, to one where the average age is now approximately 40.
From September 2017 to January 2018, the church has baptized 16 people.
Varnam says many church members have caught the vision of reaching and discipling others in the community and surrounding area.
In an effort to be a consistent presence in the community, Varnam said one young man has started a men’s Bible study at a local restaurant where men come together weekly to fellowship, read God’s Word and pray. A young woman recently began a women’s mentoring ministry called “Woman 2 Woman” based on Titus 2.
A senior adult man also started a monthly prayer breakfast where men from different churches and walks of life come together to pray, seek the Lord and encourage one another.
When asked to describe the impact of what’s happened at Tar Heel Baptist, one word comes to Varnam’s mind – hope.
“The story of Tar Heel Baptist Church is a story of hope,” Varnam says, “Hope that God can take a church in a small town that was on the verge of dying and restore it to be a light in the community.
“To God be the glory.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Visit ncbaptist.org/revitalize to learn more about the Church Health and Revitalization ministry of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.)