“There’s no future in the past,” says Kenny Gooden, pastor for the last 30 years of Union Grove Baptist Church. “We have to look forward.”
Change is essential, even though change in a rural area like Yadkin County is difficult and takes time, Gooden said.
“The message never changes,” he said. “But sometimes we need to adapt the way we’re accomplishing what we’re supposed to accomplish for the sake of the Great Commission.”
One thing that doesn’t change at Union Grove Baptist is its commitment to missions through the Cooperative Program (CP), the way Southern Baptists cooperate together to reach out with the Gospel message of God’s unconditional love for each person in the world.
The church, which had a pre-pandemic weekly attendance of about 225, was giving 10% of its offerings to missions through the CP when Gooden and his family arrived in 1990. He has led the congregation in incremental increases. This year, the congregation voted to allocate 14.5% to the CP, plus another 5.5% to other missions.
“I think our people understand giving is a ministry,” Gooden said. “Anything we call ministry we don’t do for repayment, for gain, because ministry of any type requires sacrifice.
“As you give to CP, there is the joy you receive from knowing you, along with other Southern Baptist churches, are supporting the gospel 24/7/365. Together we’re doing something none of us could individually.”
Gooden said he realizes the benefit of being part of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and has been impressed by the help available to churches through the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. The state convention forwards 42% of CP income it receives to national and international SBC causes while retaining 58% for use in the state.
“There’s always someone there who can help me, to assist us in various projects,” Gooden said. “Also, being a part of something bigger than ourselves, being part of something global, that’s important. And to me, the greatest part of giving to missions through the CP is you’re part of reaching the world for Christ.”
Union Grove Baptist surrounds its ever-growing CP giving with ever-adapting church programming. The church changed its mission statement two years ago to “Reaching the lost, teaching the saved, loving one another.”
It is moving away from a Sunday School format to home-based Bible studies. The goal for these RTL – Reaching Teaching Loving – groups is that each multiplies after growing to 12 or 15. One group has been added to the initial three so far.
“We’re taking baby steps but they’re big steps for us,” Gooden said. “Over the last number of years we’ve tried our best to go out into our community and our local schools and do service projects. We discovered people need to know we care about them, to be there in crisis or need.”
The church has such a well-established food pantry that when county and school officials run out of resources, they send people to Union Grove Baptist.
“We’ve found that’s one way we have of reaching people, by being the church in the community,” the pastor said. “We try to be there to help people. That’s been as important as anything to us.”
In addition to mission trips across the nation and to Peru, the church for years sent its youth to repair homes each summer through World Changers. Eight years ago church leaders discussed leading in a similar ministry locally, and two other churches from Yadkin Baptist Association joined in what has become an every-other-year ministry effort.
It’s every other year because organization, logistics and fundraising take time, the pastor said.
Last year’s “Impact Yadkin” week-long ministry involved 800 teens from 40 churches of several denominations. They completed 65 home repair projects at no cost for needy community residents.
“At night we have a worship time with a band and speaker,” Gooden said. “The gym typically is full. We put a great deal of emphasis on that; not just for the churches but for the cause of Christ. It’s been very fruitful in what we’ve seen happen.”
Gooden said he’s watched as the church – once the heartbeat of the community – has been sidelined by other pursuits: outdoor recreation, family time, school sports and more.
“We try to stay out there and stay relevant, where people can see us, and hopefully they’ll give us an opportunity to minister to them,” the pastor said. “This pandemic of course has been something that has forced the church to change even more. It forced us to step back and say, ‘How are we going to reach people – our people and new people?’”
When the church started live streaming services on Facebook, the number of viewers quickly grew to more than 500, more than double its previous Sunday morning worship attendance.
“I think the Lord used this pandemic to help the church realize we need to make changes in our methods and budgets because so many people now, that’s what they do, they sit in front of their computer,” Gooden said.
After two months of online-only services, Union Grove Baptist started with outdoor services, where people brought their own chairs to a large grassy area on the church grounds. In mid-July, services moved indoors, with two services so people could socially distance. By mid-August, one service was outdoors and one indoors.
The pastor shook his head at the thought of all the unrest in America this summer.
“So many people are hurting and afraid and looking for something,” Gooden said. “I’m tired of bad news, and what we have is good news. We have the opportunity to share good news with a world in desperate need of it. That’s something that doesn’t change.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press.)