Arkansas church experiences revitalizing decade of baptisms, growth

GREENWOOD, Arkansas—Southeast of Fort Smith just off U.S. Highway 71 sit two building of red brick and white vinyl. The steps leading up to the front door are covered in green AstroTurf. By one of the entrances an old white sign with red letters reads ‘Westwood Baptist Church SBC.’ 

This church has seen a lot over the years, and when Pastor Dewey Hickey arrived any vision of the future of the church was blurry. There were 13 people, counting himself, the first Sunday he stepped into the pulpit. Eleven of the 13 were over the age of 60. These numbers do not paint the picture of a church that most people would describe as poised for growth. 

God calling

Dewey Hickey retired from the North American Mission Board and moved, along with his wife, to Greenwood. His plan was to serve as an interim pastor “here and there” and fish the rest of the time. They attended First Baptist Church in Greenwood, his wife’s home church, where he eventually became an associate pastor and preached every other Wednesday and Sunday night. 

Hickey knew of Westwood, but only by the numbers. “I watched them spiral down for about five and a half years,” he said. “I only knew that their attendance was dropping because the folks were joining First Baptist in Greenwood, where I was.” 

When Westwood’s pastor retired, Hickey said he felt some conviction to send his resume to Westwood. “Fortunately for me,” he said, “they hired another pastor before I could send it.” Hickey felt that tug for about three and a half years as pastors at Westwood continued to come and go while the church’s attendance continued to decline. 

One Sunday evening, after returning home from preaching on the evening service at First Baptist Greenwood, Hickey said he again felt a tug on his heart to send his resume to Westwood. He sat in his family room and said out loud, “God, I’m not going to throw a rag in the yard and expect you to keep one side dry in a rainstorm, but I’ve struggled with this for three and a half years. If you want me to go to Westwood, You’re going to have to let me know something that would convince me that I need to go out there.” 

His phone rang a few moments later. A layperson from Westwood called him and said that God had been tugging on his heart for three and a half years to call Hickey and ask him to come to Westwood. He was finally responding to that tug from the Lord. 

“I said, ‘Whoa! God you don’t have to hit me on the back of the head again. I think I got that one,” he recalled in describing that incredible phone call. He said that call motivated him to give his resume to Westwood and finally apply to be their pastor.

Starting over

When he arrived and began assessing the situation, Hickey wasn’t sure how he was going to get young families back into the older congregation. He talked with Ronnie Deal, pastor of First Baptist Greenwood, and asked if he could recruit three college students, who were willing, to come and help start a children’s Sunday school. 

“I handpicked those college students to come out here with me,” he said. “They became our Sunday school teachers.” Hickey knew that a college-aged student could be more appealing to children and younger families and make the experience more memorable. 

The process of reaching new families was slow. With two SBC churches within a 5-mile radius of Westwood, Hickey knew that fellowship within the church would be foundational to connecting families, and especially younger families with children, to Westwood. Therefore, starting new Sunday School classes was placed high on Hickey’s “to-do” list. There were only two classes—one class for men and one for women. Creating another adult class, as well as children’s classes, helped retain families that began to visit.  

With support from First Baptist Greenwood, Hickey set out to make Westwood’s next priority to be missions. He sent one person from Westwood with First Baptist Greenwood on a mission trip to Nicaragua. A year later they were able to send a small group from Westwood to Mexico. “One of the things that excites people is getting involved in some kind of mission work,” he said. “It’s a way of stirring people’s hearts.” 

Using resources 

These changes began to pay dividends. The growth rate in the first year was more than Hickey originally imagined – close to 40 people joined. He facilitated most of the revitalization at that time with the knowledge he’d learned in his years of ministry. 

A year and a half later, Hickey said that the ABSC Evangelism Church Health team developed their Church Revitalization materials that were extremely helpful in continuing Westwood’s growth process. This ABSC resource provides several elements helpful to churches like Westwood. It provides a plan for developing and engaging a team of lay leaders that help guide the church through revitalization. It also provides specific training materials in the key areas of church life. These materials are designed to guide leadership in diagnosing and changing the particular area so the church can become healthy in that aspect of church life. 

Hickey went through all the materials and was able to personalize them to the needs of Westwood.  “Most of the material, we could’ve honestly taken it and used it just the way it was,” he said. “But we wanted to personalize it so that when we met together it would be Westwood’s material—people knew it was still ABSC material though.” 

“I thought the materials were some of the most solid pieces of materials that any state had put out,” he said. “To me, after some 19 years of doing state work with different state conventions…it was easy for me to grasp and really make use of at our church.”

One of the most important benefits developed through the ABSC resources, Hickey noted, was the inclusion of laypeople in every aspect of the revitalization process. It’s usually on the pastor to do most of the hard work but creating leadership teams and including them in ministry positively impacts the entire journey. Congregational participation creates unity within the church. Everyone is engaged and understands what is happening. It creates a strong sense of buy-in within their hearts. The extra involvement also relieves a lot of stress on the pastor since the work is distributed through the involvement of these extra servants. 

“Our growth at Westwood has been very unusual,” Hickey said. “I’m humbled and delighted that God has let me be a part of something like this in my senior years.” Over the last 11 years, Hickey said they have averaged 26 new members each year and over 40% of those were by baptism. “It’s been an incredible run.”

When Hickey finally answered God’s call to come to Westwood, he had no idea the impact that God would have on a little country church in a town of less than 10,000. He never would have imagined that starting with 13 people 11 years ago would lead to 115 people being baptized into the kingdom over that period of time with more than a hundredfold increase in attendance. It is a true testimony to what answering God’s call can do.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the Arkansas Baptist News.

Arkansas Baptist News
Sarah Vaughn
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