Church in Focus: Calvary Baptist Church of Pine Bluff, Arkansas
Warner Worthan, Pastor
A church is born
Calvary Baptist Church was constituted in 1927 as a church plant. It was Southern Baptist up until the mid-20th century. What may be more important is the Church's role in growth of the doctrines of grace during the latter half of the century. In 1946, E.W. Johnson became pastor. A new building was constructed, and by 1954 Calvary had become a sovereign grace church. Two years later the church formally left the Southern Baptist Convention. During this time, a resurgence of the doctrines of grace had begun in the south, and Calvary played an important role in it. Additionally, in 1957, Calvary became one of the first sovereign grace churches to initiate an annual Bible Conference, committed to the doctrines of grace. The conference continued into the 21st century.
The call to preach
I was living in Holly Springs, Georgia at the time of my call to pastor Calvary. My family was part of Bethel Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia for twelve years, where I served as an elder. I had known for some time that God's purpose for me would include a pastorate. I longed to serve Christ in the capacity for which I believed the Lord had fitted me. I wrestled with a great deal of impatience and uncertainty as to the timing of God's purpose. Yet at the same time I was contending with a sense of my unworthiness for the ministry.
Additionally, I feared I lacked the preparation needed to serve the Lord in the pastorate. In the fall of 2000, Calvary contacted me about being the pastor. The church and I had a mutual connection in W.T. Worthan,1 by whom my name was introduced. After much prayer and waiting on the Lord for a sense of His will in the matter, I agreed to move my family from Cherokee County, Georgia to Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
The ministry at Calvary was a bit intimidating. No less than the able and renowned E.W. Johnson had ministered the Word to Calvary for more than a half a century. Furthermore, other able preachers had filled the pulpit each year at the annual Bible conference since 1957. However, with the Lord's help, I began in February 2001.
I resolved to simply be myself. I knew if I tried to fill the shoes of my predecessor or imitate him in any way, I could not be faithful to minister the Word of God. So, I simply stepped into the pastorate with the ability and sincerity I had been afforded. The Lord has been gracious, and the people have been kind and patient. I have found that where God's people are, there is a sincere desire to be fed with God's Word.
Joy in the ministry
My greatest joy is to be enabled to study and preach God's Word. The Lord never ceases to amaze me as I turn to His truth. I am ever mindful of my unworthiness to handle the Scriptures. For me, the joy of handling the Bible is really a result of seeing God by faith and increasingly realizing the wisdom of God in redemption. I also rejoice in seeing God's people delight in the Scriptures and share in this amazement. This greatest joy is inseparable from the joy of seeing fruit born in my own soul and of those who receive the ministry of God's revelation.
Challenges in the ministry
Without a doubt, the greatest challenge of the ministry is dealing with myself. It seems there is a myriad of pitfalls and “bypath meadows” involved in the ministry. Whether it is guarding my time and opportunities so as not to waste them or watching that apathy does not sneak in, many snares are ready and waiting. The fight with indwelling sin, loneliness, depression and fatigue are constant.
I also find that holding a demanding fulltime job, along with the ministry, is a severe challenge. As I grow older, I tire more easily and find that I can't study very well after a day's labor. Working a job while pastoring is both a boon and a bane. The added personal resources and opportunity to be with people in the work force is a benefit. Also, I am afforded the opportunity to realize what some of the people I pastor deal with on a daily basis. Yet, I find that it demands so much of my time, attention and energy that I am greatly inhibited from my preparation to preach and teach the scriptures.
Milestones in the life of the church
I suppose that markers in the life of a church are often related to the change in pastoral leadership. Typically, the direction of a local church is distinguished by the man who fills the pulpit. If this is a fair marker, then one could say that the fifty plus year pastorate of E.W. Johnson, achieved most, if not all possible landmarks.
But milestones can be marked in different ways. Many times, a significant point in a church is a new program or different emphasis introduced by an incoming pastor. I count it a milestone with Calvary that the church lasted beyond the ministry of my predecessor. There was approximately a ten-month interim between brother Johnson and myself. During that time a measure of fear and uncertainty arose. Some believed that Calvary might not survive. In fact, after I arrived, it was conveyed to me that one who had been part of the church, but had departed during the interim, “prophesied” of the church's demise.
This February, Lord willing, will begin the nineteenth year of my ministry here. But that is only a marker related to pastoral presence. The true marker is that God continued the life of Calvary Baptist beyond the expectations of some. That, in my estimation, is a milestone worth recognizing. God's faithfulness to His glory, His gospel, and a blood bought people are of great significance.
Small church challenges
Regardless of the size of a church, the commission of Christ remains the same. But when a church decreases in size, the challenge is to remain faithful in the commission. A loss of evangelistic zeal is a real danger. Secondly, the realization of being small sometimes focuses the corporate view of the church upon survival. The church might be more concerned with maintaining the status quo of paying the bills, or of building maintenance, than with the vocation of being the pillar and ground of truth in this world. Thirdly, small churches seem to face the danger of adopting a fortress mentality. Some might count it a badge of honor to be small. The size of a church does not designate how faithful it might be. A church might be small because it is dying a slow death of pride or stubbornness. It might be small because it fails to be light in a world of darkness. It is one thing to be shoved into a corner; it another thing to back oneself into a corner so as to avoid the difficulty of confronting the world with the truth. Lastly, another danger is that the church can easily take on a defeatist attitude. This attitude can become one of lack of trust in the Lord and an erosion of earnest and continual prayer. This may very well be the most challenging thing a small church faces. Small church strengths While small churches face the challenge of a lack of resources, they do tend to be more focused in the truth of the gospel. Large churches often become so by moving away from doctrinal purity. Secondly, small churches are typically strong in the love of the brethren. Thirdly, small churches seem to understand and appreciate more the authority which God invests in the local assembly, rather than in an association or council. Finally, maybe out of necessity, a small church tends to understand that the life of the church is not in the hands of one or two people. Every saint is an integral part of the body.
Burden for the future
The greatest burden of any true church of Christ in these days is to remain firm and steadfast in the purity of the gospel and God's means for the life of the church. Rampant pragmatism, commercialism, and production-ism have long since raised their heads in Western 'Christian' culture. Gone are the days when young people remember the simple church setting of their mothers and fathers. At least they had something to compare the modern setting with. We now have adults who know nothing other than the pragmatic, man-centered atmosphere of so-called Christianity. They have grown up in the modern entertainment oriented youth programs. To them the present popular church model is the norm. My burden is that God will break through the morass of pragmatic humanism by the simplicity of his truth. My desire is that God will begin to turn the minds and hearts of many to Him, so that those who have been trained in the man-centered “community centers” will get a true sight of God in Christ. My desire is that those who presently know the Lord in his glory will remain faithful to Him for His glory, and that in so doing God may use these faithful ones to bring about a great awakening.