By Sharon Mager, BCMD/Correspondent
ESSEX, Md.—First Church, Essex pastor John Smith looks and sounds like a young Jimmy Stewart or Nicholas Cage, depending on one’s generational perception. The 34-year old pastor paces from one side of the podium to the other, waving his hands expressively as he preaches about stepping out of comfort zones and unleashing caged Christians. God is blessing that contagious enthusiasm.
In the past month the church has been averaging ten visitors and one confession of faith each week. Attendance has soared growing from about 35 in February to 100 in June. On July 4, the church drew 140 people for worship and another 100 for their “Freedom Festival” with food, games and prizes.
“I don’t know if our people have ever been that energized. It was everything we prayed and hoped for and God just showed up, especially for the Fourth of July!” Smith said. One woman walked the aisle during altar call to give her life to Christ and another man showed interest in learning more.
“It was the coolest thing. There was this self-proclaimed ‘never walk into a church’ guy who came up to me and said, ‘Pastor, I know people told you I don’t like church…but there’s something different here. I’ve got a lot of questions.’’ Smith said the man has not made a confession of faith, but feels he’s close.
Nine local businesses supported the festival, donating food and prizes. That’s significant because the church is situated in an old established area in Essex with well-known family owned landmarks like Dudek’s butcher shop, Connelly’s Funeral Home and Salvo’s Auto Parts. By partnering with these companies, Smith hopes to show that the church is also a stable piece of the community.
Smith and other leaders knock on 100 doors a week— letting folks know the church is in the community and leaving information. Smith began by visiting inactive members and shut-ins, resulting in several returns and some curious visitors.
The mostly middle-aged and older congregation is catching the vision and excitement of their young pastor and the influx of visitors. Smith seems very comfortable in his new church though it wasn’t how he envisioned God was going to use him.
FBC’s prior pastor left a year ago and members were careworn. Various pastors provided pulpit supply, including Tally Wilgis, pastor of Captivate Church.
“Tally told it like it is, in love,” Smith said. Wilgis was preparing the church for the inevitable change required—not going from traditional to contemporary, changing the music, becoming young and hip, rather, changing from the inside out, being willing to go out of the church and engage a lost and dying world, starting with the community that surrounded them.
Smith was working for Family Foundation of Virginia when Wilgis, an old friend, called to ask him to consider coming to FBC Essex. Smith was hesitant. Smith had aspirations of starting a church.
Even after visiting, Smith didn’t think this was ‘the’ place for him. He goodheartedly thought he’d share some “words of wisdom” with the church body and help them determine the type of leader they really needed. He challenged them, telling them that if they were not willing to die as a church and commit to the changes God was calling them to make then they weren’t going to make it. In fact, he told them, if they can’t do that, they’ll probably close their doors in six weeks to six months.
“They all looked at me and said, ‘We agree. We had other people tell us that, but we weren’t ready. Now we’re ready,’ ”Smith recalled.
As Smith was driving away, he heard the still small voice gently saying, “John, you’re asking that church to die. Are you willing to die?” Smith was astounded. “God told me that First Church of Essex was the place and that if we died together, we could have a resurrection,” he said. Smith obeyed and he and his wife, Amber and their children, five-year-old Lawton and two-year-old Landon, made the move.
Smith looks to his heavenly and earthly fathers for guidance. Gary Smith has been instrumental in church revitalization in upper New York and the younger Smith is using his father’s techniques. Most importantly, he follows his dad’s lead in making prayer a priority.
“It’s unbelievable what an impact this has made on my life,” he said. Originally, Smith determined he would prayer walk Monday through Fridays and give himself the weekends off, but he usually does it on the weekends too. “Now I can’t live without it! It may not make for an exciting story, but it does make an exciting church,” he said.