CREAL SPRINGS, Ill. — Fairview Baptist Church is a white, neat little church that sits atop a slight hill, a large black bell on a brick platform outside its front steps. The church, surrounded by a century-old cemetery, thick woods and crops, is off a winding stretch of Saraville Road in rural Creal Springs.

It’s an old church — that was to celebrate its 136th anniversary and homecoming last weekend — whose leaders are thankful for that history and striving to remain relevant to its small congregation while attracting new members, particularly younger ones.

“You would like to reach out to have more people to come in,” said Ken Sharp, pastor of the church. “We don’t have a lot of young people; we’re trying to reach out.”

He said he attended a church convention and heard them talk about using Vacation Bible Schools as an evangelism tool. He said he didn’t want to pressure church members to host one, but was pleased when they decided to organize one this year, the first in at least 20 years.

“It wound up being ‘our’ idea instead of ‘my’ idea,” Sharp said. “I wanted it to be a shared vision.”

Sharp describes Fairview as a “small country rural church” with a small congregation, some with long family ties: 12 or so members on most Sundays, 15 to 20 on better days and up to 25 on a great day. The youngest person in the church is a young man in ninth grade, he said.

Second Baptist Church in Marion helped Fairview to organize and host its Vacation Bible School this summer, he said.

About 19 young people came, including a few from that Marion church and about a dozen youth from Creal Springs, including a handful who attend other churches.

“Only a couple of them aren’t (attending any church), and we’re trying to reach out to those to bring them in and that’s where the struggle comes in,” Sharp said, “and that’s to get people to come to church on a regular basis.”

According to the latest census figures, Creal Springs had an estimated population of about 536, almost 20 percent of whom were 14 and younger.

The group had Vacation Bible School one week in July, from Sunday through Thursday and ended with a family celebration that Friday. The classes met in the church’s lower level, which has three rooms designed to be classrooms and a two-part Fellowship Hall and kitchen, and had music in the sanctuary upstairs.

Sharp said the best part came when a young brother and sister, who live a few miles up the road the church, approached him with a question that had him smiling as he repeated it: “Y’all going to do this again next year?”

At this point, Sharp certainly hopes so.

Sharp has been pastor at Fairview for the past four years, after being at churches in Goreville, Murphysboro and Karnak. This is his 33rd year in ministry. He and Joanne, his wife of 30 years, have three adult children: Ashley, Kevin and Bridget.

The congregation he leads now built the church they’re in 25 years ago, with help from Pastor Ricky Gray of Flowood Baptist Church in Mississippi, and members of that congregation; Gray was to address the homecoming celebration at 2 p.m. Sunday at the church.

The event also was to feature the Voices of Praise from Harrisburg; Sharp is himself a former minister of music who would love to one day see his own church create a choir that fills the three pews behind the pulpit.

Early on in his ministry, he said he worried about the number of people he could minister to.

“In the beginning, numbers bothered me,” Sharp said. “I let it get to me. Now I know God wants me to be faithful . doing what he wants us to do. . He will take care of the numbers.”

“Our focus is to be on people, not numbers.”


Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, http://bit.ly/2cEGxAH

This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan.