Columbia First Assembly of God mentors church in Fayette

Friday, October 10, 2008 | 3:23 p.m. CDT
Shirley Studley and J.C. Bias lead a prayer during a Sunday morning service at Fayette’s Assembly of God Church. The struggling church, which averages an attendance of about 15, is receiving mentorship and financial support from Columbia’s First Assembly of God.

FAYETTE — The congregation of 14 gathered on a Sunday morning doesn't come close to filling Fayette's Assembly of God Church, but with the Rev. Richard Sullivan leading them on the piano, they somehow manage to fill the space with singing, clapping and praying.

Before the service, Sullivan described his preaching as "a one-man show." He puts his whole heart into making it feel as if every wooden pew is full.


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Two months ago, Sullivan, the former staff pastor of Columbia's First Assembly of God church, became pastor of the Fayette church. The Columbia congregation is acting as a mother church to the church in Fayette, mentoring members as well as helping financially in what Sullivan calls a "home missions project."

"When we hear people talk about missions, we think about missions around the world and we forget about our own backyard, ... and Fayette is our own backyard," Sullivan said.

"It's time for the churches to rise up as a whole and take care of the smaller communities," he added.

The church in Fayette, which is older than the church in Columbia, was founded 75 years ago after a camp meeting revival tent service. After the revival, a group of people got together and formed the church.

J.C. Bias, who has been coming to Fayette's Assembly of God for 47 years, sits near the back of the church on Sunday mornings. He is dressed in a suit and is singing, occasionally saying, "Thank you, Jesus."

"Our motto is that we're a country church in a modern town, so we'd like to hold up the old standards but yet try to reach it in a modern way, ... and the church has to do some changing, and that's hard when we're used to the old times," Bias said.

Sullivan said that the church in Fayette has been struggling for several years and is not self-sufficient. The congregation is small, around 15 attendees on average, and almost everyone is older. The decline and closure of churches in smaller communities is a trend within the Assemblies of God denomination, as well as within other denominations, Sullivan said.

Research from the Association of Religion Data Archives shows that the Assemblies of God denomination has shown only a 6 percent increase in membership in the past 10 years. The number of churches in the U.S. has remained nearly steady during that period, with 9,773 in 1980, 11,353 in 1990 and 12,277 in 2004, the last year data was collected.

But statistics vary about current membership and attendance.  In 1980, 494 churches in Missouri were affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination. That number rose to 501 in 1990 but dropped to 483 in 2000, according to the ARDA Web site.

"Many of our churches in the Assemblies of God are in the same position where they have declined through the years, they can't attract a pastor and don't have the funds to do the programming," said the Rev. Tracy Cook,  pastor at Columbia First Assembly of God.

Columbia First Assembly of God is a general council church, which means that it is not under the supervision of the district and able to fully govern itself. The church in Fayette, because it is so small, is under district supervision, which means that there is no board and the district superintendent appoints the pastor. District Superintendent Ray Brewer asked Sullivan a year ago to serve as pastor, but Sullivan declined because he didn't think that it was financially feasible for him at the time.

After declining the offer, Sullivan started working as a part-time chaplain at Boone Hospital Center. When the pastor in Fayette stepped down in June, Brewer asked Sullivan to reconsider the offer. This time, Sullivan accepted.

"It is the vision of several of our pastors, especially our new superintendent, Dr. M. Ray Brewer, and it's been my vision for a long time to either plant a new church in one of these communities that had lost a church or never had a church or to go in and revitalize one of the churches to bring it back," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said that one of the goals of revitalizing churches is to encourage young people to get involved and to "give them dynamic churches in small communities." He said he hopes to bring in students from Central Methodist University, which is in Fayette.

Bias said he thinks that Sullivan's transfer to the Fayette church is a positive change. "We've had a lot of elderly people here and we need a shot in the arm for us to get some younger people involved," he said.

Sullivan has spent the two months he has been in Fayette trying to connect with a community that is culturally different from Columbia. Fayette is a rural town with very little industry — most of the people are farmers or commute to Columbia to work. It is centered around Central Methodist University, which Sullivan said is a "suitcase college" where a lot of the students go home on the weekends. He said that progress has been slow in revitalizing the congregation and "there are still a lot of changes left to make."

"Each church has to be relevant to the culture that it's sitting in, and I'm still trying to figure out a way to connect with the culture differences," Sullivan said. "My hope is that we can reach all age groups in Fayette."

Sullivan wants Fayette Assembly of God to become an important part of the community and to bring its message out to the streets.

"As a pastor and as a church, we have to get involved in the daily lives of the people of Fayette," Sullivan said, "and that's not just having another church service but involves interacting on a daily basis with things they care about and by just becoming their friend. I'm willing to give everything I have."

Not only does Sullivan have to find a way to connect with the community in Fayette, he also has to deal with the financial situation of the church.

"We're struggling as a church, so I have to be creative with the finances that we have and be creative with raising new support to help us keep the doors open just to push through this period of revitalization," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said that the congregants, who would also like to reach the younger generation, are giving all the financial support they can.

The Fayette congregation has benefited from the close relationship Sullivan has with Columbia First Assembly of God. He was a staff pastor there for almost six years and has known Cook, the church's current pastor, for eight.

"We are providing support, encouragement and accountancy so that he is not feeling like he's just hanging out there on his own," Cook said. "We love Richard and so this is easy to invest in."

Beverly "Charlene" Cleek, a member at Columbia First Assembly of God, has known Sullivan for six years. She said that he reminds her of David in the Bible story about David and Goliath.

"I think of David facing Goliath because Richard has such great ideas and he just goes after them. ... I'm one of his many admirers," Cleek said.

Cleek is providing support to Sullivan. She has pledged to pray for him every night and has attended services at the church in Fayette, where she hopes to get more involved. She is also on the financial committee at Columbia First Assembly of God and makes recommendations for how the church can help the congregation in Fayette.

Cleek said that Sullivan's work in Fayette is important because "the souls in small towns are just as important as souls in larger communities."

Cook and Sullivan agree that it is important to keep struggling churches in small towns open.

 "Most people could probably drive to Columbia for Sunday service, but I think it's really important for them to have a local church so they don't lose their identity and can meet their local needs," Cook said.

There is no definite time when the church in Columbia will stop acting as a mother church to the congregation in Fayette. "As long as I'm cooperating and seeking help and they're willing to cooperate, we'll work as a team," Sullivan said.

Cook said that although there are currently no plans to sponsor any other churches, he expects other opportunities to come up.

"The last five or six years we've really been increasing and growing so we want to give out. ... God has blessed us tremendously so we want to keep giving to other churches," he said.

Back in Fayette, Sullivan concludes the worship service with a prayer after announcing that the evening service is being canceled for financial reasons. He advises the congregants to spend time with their families. He invites everyone to come forward to pray at the altar.

As they pray, Sullivan quietly sings and plays the piano.

"My hope, my goal, my prayer is that in the next year or two the church is very self-sufficient and I hope this starts a trend," Sullivan said, "... to look at our small towns that have struggling churches and not just close them and forget about them but to go in and see what God has done in the past through these churches that he called into existence and to revitalize them and help them to make big impacts for Christ in our smaller communities."

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