Kingsport’s Past Makes a Difference for the Future
By Adrian Powell
Kingsport is city of the “Tri-Cities” area of Tennessee, in the Fort Bristol Metro area close to the Virginia state line in the northeast corner. Kingsport Community Church is a Church of God congregation that just celebrated a hundred years of ministry last year. Pastor Stephen Collins is a bright, gregarious man with a plan to see God’s blessing poured out on a church and community with a blessed past, but a brighter future.
Stephen wouldn’t describe himself as any kind of expert in revitalization, but notes that their story is sort of a common one in the Church of God. “I was raised in churches just like this one; struggling, stuck, and existing without a sense of direction,” he explains. “We had glory days in the 1960s and 1970s, a good-sized church at that time of about 500 in attendance on Sunday morning, and [we were] the “it” church in the community.”
After the 1970s, the church plateaued and then began a long, steady decline. In 2017 it hit a low point in attendance of 89 on an average Sunday. Leadership noticed how demoralized the church was; there didn’t seem to be much hope or positivity.
“Everything that was going on seemed rather rudderless, directionless, and sort of floating through doing what we’d always done because we didn’t know what else to do,” Stephen says. “When I interviewed with the church, they were very honest. The median age in 2017 had hit 72, so they saw what was coming, because another few years and this church won’t be here because it will die with us. That’s common today. The one thing that was uncommon is that we had two great pastors, Ron Lowe and Mark Stayton. They were long-term pastors. Ron retired after 34 years as senior pastor and Mark retired after 40 years as the worship leader here.”
“So you have 34 and 40 years of sustained leadership,” Stephen continues. “The real uncommon thing was that in the last year they were here they lead the church in a visioning process. They didn’t just say whoever the new guy is, he will have to figure it out. Instead, they led the congregation in a process of really taking a look at the hard truth of where the church was. And they laid that groundwork so when I came in during November 2018, I didn’t have to convince the church they needed a new vision—that work had already been done by Mark and Ron. The harvest we now reap is because of the seeds they had already planted; the foundation had already been laid by them.”
“It was a true gift to the incoming pastor, and they both still live in the area,” Stephen further explains. “Mark is still on staff as a volunteer pastor, as our minister for pastoral care. Ron still lives in Kingsport and comes in from time to time. Ron and I have done funerals and other ministry together, so it has been unique and fruitful.”
Implementing change is completely different from merely talking about it. “Everybody likes the idea of change, and I am a pastor’s kid, so I know how this works. I was raised in churches just like this and know that everybody wants to tell the incoming pastor when he’s innovating that, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re ready to change,’ until the pastor begins to make the changes to begin the move towards that, and then they get upset.”
The church has had challenges and God has continued to open doors and they have been blessed. “I showed honor to the past while still looking to the future,” Stephen says. “When Mark retired it opened a door to the choir to move to a praise team. We changed the style of music and added guitar and drums and hired a new worship pastor with full on worship music.”
During the onslaught of COVID, after we decided to come back after three months, Pastor Stephen told the seniors not to come until they knew how it would all shake out. “And the first month we had about 20 people in the room, and it was an eye-opening moment to let us know that if we didn’t go full on towards change that was what the future would look like in 10 years because all those seniors are still the majority of the congregation.”
Since COVID they have added 30 people to the church who had no connection to the church previously. God has just continued to send new families, new people and they are people who love what the church is doing now.
They don’t have a tie to the past and they have no expectations, so they love what is happening. “We didn’t advertise or do a big Facebook ad,” Stephen explains. “we just continued to do what God told us to do and he prepared us to receive them. And I told our congregation, changing the music won’t make the church grow; moving our worship space won’t make the church grow; having small groups won’t make the church grow, but it will prepare the soil for the rain that he’s going to send. And it has!”
Adrian Powell is an associate editor with Church of God Ministries and serves as senior pastor of Faith Community Church of God in Grove City, Ohio. He has been published in numerous periodicals, newspapers, and blogs, and has authored two books—The Jubilee Harvest and Resident Aliens: A Living Faith in a Hostile World, available at Amazon.com.