Before he was called as the incoming pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Fayetteville, N.C., Tim Wilson shared his ministry vision with the congregation: He wanted to pastor a small church.
A goal to be “strategically small,” Wilson says, means “we’re never going to outgrow this geographical footprint.”
“Our intent is to not stop growing, but our intent is to start giving people away.”
Immanuel’s facilities hold about 200-250 people in a service. Wilson hopes that in about five years, the church could “give away” 40-50 adults to help revitalize another church in their association. Their goal is to continue focusing on discipleship, so that members are not only growing in their relationship with Christ, but in leadership.
Wilson envisions sending members to other churches in need not just so they can sit in their pews — but so they can help lead as worshipers and givers. And in doing so, Immanuel will continue to have room for another 40-50 new members too.
“We believe that the Lord will bring us to that point,” says Wilson.
When Jim Boyle, who served as Immanuel’s senior pastor since 2011, first came to the church, there were only about 15 people. He said the Lord brought growth, and the church experienced ups and downs, but “Immanuel was starting to lose the battle with the obituaries.
“Our young families had moved away, and we were struggling. We were trusting the Lord to keep the lights on.”
Boyle and Wilson met four years ago when Wilson’s family attended a service at Immanuel and they connected because of their backgrounds as Army chaplains. They kept in touch and met every few months for coffee, fellowship and prayer. In November 2020, they asked what was next for them, as Boyle approached retirement and Wilson felt a call to move away from chaplaincy and toward pastoral ministry.
In February 2021, Boyle invited Wilson to Immanuel. Wilson started to preach once a month, giving them a chance to know each other better.
Wilson says that since then, “It’s like God has created this wave. … For the past 13 months, we’ve just been trying to figure out how to ride it.”
At the time, the church had no formalized outreach strategy besides word of mouth. Attendance grew from an average of 35 to 77, with some weeks seeing 100 people on Sundays.
Because Wilson can’t officially be employed by the church until he transitions from chaplaincy this June, Immanuel members unanimously voted to call him as “pastor-elect” one year early, to give him opportunities to begin leading.
They began a strategic partnership with Young Life of Fayetteville last spring. Located two blocks from a high school, Immanuel opened their facilities for Young Life to use to reach high school students in the area.
“A church membership with an average age of 72 is not going to have a great youth ministry, but Young Life — they do youth ministry really well,” says Wilson.
Now the second level of Immanuel’s education building, which was only being used for storage in past years, is filled with 30-50 high schoolers on Monday and Wednesday nights. And some of those students’ families have started coming to worship services at Immanuel on Sundays.
The influx of younger families has cultivated a multigenerational fellowship in the church, where 90-year-olds still joyfully serve as ushers, and an 85-year-old man, with the enthusiasm of a college student, runs the sound system.
Boyle said that from the start, when new members are received into the church family, they encourage both new and older members to get to know each other.
“We exhort the older folks to recognize these precious gifts that God has brought into their midst and to realize that these are God’s answers to prayer,” Boyle says. “Likewise reminding all of the young couples and young families … you need to look around this sanctuary, and you need to see and identify these seniors, and you need to recognize that they are treasures of God — grandmas and grandpas that can add so much to your life and your walk with Christ if you put your arm around them.”
Boyle and Wilson redeveloped the membership class and made it a point to include intentional messaging about understanding gifting, so new members don’t “sit and soak here at Immanuel but be active within the body of Christ.”
Immanuel has welcomed 45 adults and recently baptized 15. The most recent membership class had nine people participate. All are aware of and embrace the church’s “strategically small” vision.
“The word of God inspires that kind of a vision because the gospel is a force multiplier,” Boyle says. “It’s not about staying where you are. It’s about going out. That’s the Great Commission.
“Most people would’ve thought it’s impossible to revitalize, but we’re thankful that the Lord didn’t think that.”