I want to share a story about what is currently happening with our church in Bakersfield, California. First, some background. The Bakersfield Church of Christ was planted more than 20 years ago by the San Diego Church of Christ. It has had its ups and downs, reaching to over one hundred members back in the 1990s. However, for the past 15 years or so the church has struggled to grow and has languished, with membership more recently in the 40s. The church lost its full-time leadership about a year ago. A contributing factor was that a church of this size simply cannot afford to pay sufficient salary to a young family with children to lead the church. When the previous lead couple took a job elsewhere, the Bakersfield church was not able to find a sufficiently trained couple to work with the church that they could afford. In fact, they could not even get anyone to interview for the job. Here is the question: What can we as a fellowship do to help churches with between 25 and 60 members who simply cannot afford to pay for the kind of trained full-time leadership which could help them to get to the next level of church size?
A little more background. My wife Jan and I have been faithful members of our churches for many years, but have not served in a paid ministry position for the past 30 years. We have taken on a number of roles, most recently shepherding a growing singles group in San Diego. It has always been our vision as we approach our mature years to take our service to God to a higher level. We have never planned on retiring and resting. So, at the age of 63, I retired after nearly 35 years as a chemistry professor. I retired earlier than the financially ideal age in order to devote more time to serving God. My plan was to work on writing and teaching, but apparently God had other plans for us.
This is where my encouraging story about the Bakersfield Church of Christ begins, and this story will lead to a challenge to our maturing empty-nester couples out there. There is a synergy between the situation of our older, mature Christian couples nearing retirement age and the needs of our smaller churches. Jan and I were becoming comfortable in our retirement in the beautiful city of San Diego. But when we heard about the situation in Bakersfield, we realized that the needs of God’s church comes before our comfort. Here is the bottom line: the Bakersfield Church of Christ could afford to pay us a modest salary, which was all we needed, and we have the experience from well over 30 years as disciples of Jesus to lead a small church, so we decided to accept the challenge.
When we arrived in Bakersfield, we found a group of 45 Christians with great hearts, but also a group which had lost its vision to do great things for God. There was no campus group. There was no teen group. There was no Spanish ministry in a city which is largely Spanish-speaking. There had been only one baptism in the past year. Honestly, the church was pretty much just holding on to what they already had. But there was a group of disciples with great hearts, and this is the raw material, along with the Holy Spirit, to do great things.
Since arriving in Bakersfield, in less than four months, the faith of the Christians has increased tremendously. It is so amazing that the effect is hard to describe. What they needed was an experienced couple with sufficient time, energy and experience to spark the church to believing in great things again. Our Sunday attendance has gone from less than 40 to nearly 70. Our membership has gone from about 45 to about 55. We started a campus ministry from scratch and now a campus Bible study has five personal studies. Guess who is sharing their faith on campus? The 64-year-old retiree, and believe it or not the students really appreciate a mature person sharing with them. Yes, guys in their sixties can be campus ministers!
Also, the situation with the teens was very discouraging.Because there was nothing going for them, most of the teens did not even cometo church. On an average Sunday we were having one or two teens in attendance.But, given a little encouragement, we have now rebooted the teen group and weare averaging 12 at our events, and right now 13 and counting aresigned up for teen camp. We cannot describe how encouraging this is for theBakersfield church.
What is so encouraging is that those who had walked awayfrom the church are coming back in significant numbers, now that they see achurch with a vision and with excitement for God. We have already had twobaptisms and we have so many visitors that it is hard for us to study with allof them. We are currently rebooting our Spanish ministry and putting together afocused HOPE worldwide outreach. The church is so encouraged, that they have agreed tohire interns this summer so that we can get the campus and teen group on aneven more solid footing for the future.
So, here is the challenge that Jan and I want to give to our more mature couples as we get into our sixties. What are you planning to do with 20-30 years or more of training you have gained as a disciple of Jesus? Would you be willing to do something really radical—something that might take you out of your comfort zone? Would you consider moving to a smaller church, either in the United States or overseas to lead that church or to become the principle support couple there? You don’t need to be the church leader to make a huge, eternal impact. We believe that God is not through with you yet. We believe that the best still lies ahead for you. There are dozens of churches in our fellowship who are in a position somewhat like that we found in Bakersfield.
I can tell you one thing; Jan and I are having the time of our lives. We have done nothing which is more fulfilling than seeing a group of faithful but discouraged disciples of Jesus begin to bloom right before our very eyes. There is a great renewed vision for Bakersfield and we are so blessed by God to be the used in this amazing way. So we ask you, what are you planning to do with your mature years? Can you imagine God using you to turn around an entire church? If you have been faithful disciples for 30 years, you may have more to offer than you think.
John and Jan Oakes
- The Hampton Roads Church has an entire ministry to help train mature couples for service after retirement called “Caleb Corps.” Find out more here.
- Click here for the “Look Up” Small Church Conference lessons.