I can hardly believe it but I am fast approaching my first anniversary of working with the wonderful people of West County Fellowship (November 16th is the exact date). When I think that one year ago, Merry and I were packing up our house in South Carolina, surrounded by boxes and wondering what lay ahead, I realize how far things have come for us and our fledgling fellowship. I thought I might share with you some of those reflections (and some statistics) that you might share in the excitement I have as we enter our second year of ministry together.
When Merry and I arrived in St. Louis in mid-November of 2009, I must confess that the folks of West County Fellowship (back then, we were Central-Chesterfield) seemed dispirited. The West County campus of Central seemed to have a great start in the previous spring but the late summer and fall saw a decline in attendance and there was a bit of soul searching. From my perspective, there were so many things that were right and good about the Chesterfield site but clearly some things were going wrong. Many folks who started with the project had either returned to the Clayton campus or left altogether for different churches. Attendance had dropped from the 90s to the low 60s. The core that remained was weary with the labor required to setup every Sunday and wondering if these efforts were all in vain. Morale was low last November.
In retrospect, some of our missteps seem very clear now. A study of successful church planting conducted by Stephen Gray found that new works did much better when there was a full-time pastor. Admittedly, we are not a church plant, but our ministry effort is significantly different from the Clayton campus in style and community culture by design. This disjunction between the West County and Clayton campuses also created some “grinding of gears” not fully anticipated. So despite the good start, there were some significant missteps.
Under the elder leadership of Rex Dunlap, Jay Barrington and David Klotz, the West County campus began to make some course corrections. Central hired a full-time pastor (yours truly) and we entered into a period of refining the vision and practices of the ministry. Our re-affirmed mission was “to see the people of West County enjoy a life changing relationship with God and His people.” To that end, we expanded our small group ministry (adding two for a total of six), brought a better balance between in-person and video preaching, and further developed the worship service (creating variety in the order of worship, beginning weekly communion, starting a children’s message time in the service and introducing other special events). We re-launched as West County Fellowship at Easter 2010.
Since that time, we have witnessed an exciting turnaround in our trajectory. There are, of course, the statistics. We have gone from an average attendance in the low 60s in October of 2009 to and average attendance of almost 90 this October (and for a time in August our attendance average over 100). Compared to most other start-up works, this is quite remarkable. The South Baptist Convention’s Study on Church Plant Survivability and Health noted that the average attendance of a church plant in its first year was ~42 and reaching only ~83 by its fourth year! The Lord has put us way ahead in the game by this measurement. If we measure by giving, the same study noted that the average church receipts (not counting outside fund-raising) during the first year was ~$38,000 and reached ~$90,000 by the fourth year. During our first full financial year (July 2009 to June 2010) giving to West County Fellowship was ~$95,000.
While these numbers are certainly encouraging, I am much more excited about the personal stories of folks who are attending: a dad with a young family who had attended Clayton for years but not really involved with ministry now has a crucial role in out outreach efforts at West County; a couple who recently moved to the St. Louis area stumbling across our Easter Celebration in Chesterfield’s Central Park while taking their daughter for a walk who are now part of the core; a young man from a Jewish background looking for a place to belong who was received by our folks and is now considering the claims of Christ.
Since last November, West County Fellowship has added 14 families (going from 22 committed families to 36), 7 of whom had no previous connection to the Clayton campus. However we look at things from this time last year, we see serious progress. There is reason to think that God is moving through our fledgling ministry.
So what lies ahead for the second year? As much progress as we have made, many exciting opportunities/challenges are still in front of us. We continue to look for a worship and music director to replace Eric Stiller so he can focus more on his primary duty of pastoring Trio. We continue to need help with set-up and tear down and the children’s ministry is always looking for people willing to help out with kids. The Stephen Gray study on fast growing church plants pointed out that we have some notable gaps in our ministry. A proactive stewardship program, conducting leadership training for members, having a new members class and providing a fully developed children’s program and teen ministry all contribute to growth in church plants. So, our leadership is examining all these possibilities and some of these programs will be added very soon (e.g. we will start a new members class in January). If you are interested in any of these existing or potential new ministries, let me know and we will get you plugged in as soon as we can.
Whenever the people of God start something new, there are always serious and heart-felt questions: 'Where are we going to get the resources to do this? What if this doesn’t work?' Certainly, we will have those questions as we face the challenges of this second year. But I want to remind you that one year ago, some were asking these questions, not about some new program we might add to West County Fellowship, but about our very existence! God has been faithful over this past year. There is every reason to think He will remain the same over the coming year. And just think where that faithfulness might take us!
To God be the glory!