By Carl Stagner
Sometimes, on the scale of size and influence, smaller churches can feel insignificant. The truth is that the impact of the smaller churches among us cannot be overstated. The Church of God in Gloucester City, New Jersey, for example, has a rich history of impact for the kingdom. Highland Park Church of God also has benefited from pastoral longevity; as senior pastor Bill Dilks prepares for retirement later this year after twenty years, associate pastor Debra Conner surveys the faithfulness of Highland Park, encouraging the congregation to press on in ministry during this time of transition. Through community partnership, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the New Jersey church believes God will do many more amazing things in their midst. But they’re not waiting for some elusive big breakthrough to live out their purpose—Highland Park carries on the work of the gospel, even in the face of adversity.
Before Pastor Bill, the church had a couple short-term pastors, but prior to that, a pastor that remained for three decades. These men proved faithful to the call and faithful to the flock God called them to shepherd. Likewise, the congregation has proved faithful to the ministry, even in a difficult ministry setting and a time of transition that has only just begun.
Eighty to one hundred people attend Sunday gatherings on average, and many of the Church of God congregations in the region are relatively small. Even as a smaller church, they rejoice in strong men’s and women’s ministries, as well as a solid youth program. But Pastor Bill and Pastor Deb have both indicated the tendency to feel isolated from the rest of the Church of God movement, which is why they were especially blessed when the Regional Convention came to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 2016. But the real challenge for Highland Park isn’t the connectedness to other Christians, but effectiveness in meeting the needs of their community.
Situated across the Delaware River from Philadelphia and adjacent to Camden, the struggles that major cities often face are also the struggles of the church’s community, Gloucester City. “Drug abuse, crime, a welfare mentality, and other issues are a real concern here,” Pastor Debra explains. “There’s significant brokenness, and we want to help. They need to know there’s hope for them, that there’s life for them, that there’s a God who knows and loves them. Our church has always been a serving church, but one where people come and we serve them. Now we’re finding ways to go to where the people are and serve them, but the challenge, which has also been a blessing, is identifying the needs of the community and determining how to meet those needs.”
In the case of identifying needs, they jumped at the chance to do something about the number of young women facing the dilemma of unplanned pregnancy. Ready to make a difference in their community, they instituted a program of national reach. The programming and resources were vast, but the young women did not show up to the church. Recognizing other opportunities, they found the strategic value of partnership as some church members got involved in an established outreach with similar goals. Young women (and families) were already coming to this local ministry, especially those who might have otherwise been hesitant to step foot in a church building. Instead of giving up, the church adjusted their strategy and remained faithful to this specific calling. By doing so, they were unexpectedly blessed, themselves.
This local outreach welcomed a gentleman who had recently lost his wife and his home. Through the new connection to Highland Park Church of God, the man brought his four-year-old daughter to vacation Bible school. One thing led to the next, and this man found help and hope through the church’s GriefShare ministry—another vital ministry of the church—and the family is now a part of the congregation.
So, instead of reinventing the wheel, Highland Park is looking at other ways to support established ministries. “Right now,” Deb explains, “we’re looking at ways to support efforts to curb drug abuse. Obviously, that’s a nationwide problem, but we’re finding so many young people dying just in our small city. I think the challenge is really assessing the needs, and how we can effectively reach out and touch those lives with the love and provision of Jesus. When we do that, it’s the greatest blessing. Seeing people come to us lost and grieving but finding hope and a relationship with Jesus—that’s so awesome!”
Since the church has entered a new season of transition—one they’ve not experienced often in their history—they request prayer. “I know God is already at work for someone to come and lead this church,” Debra explains. “We’re praying for the right leadership to take us into the next season as a church. Please pray with us as we continue to find ways to meet the needs of our community in the meantime, getting more young families involved, and pointing everyone to the love of God who can heal the brokenness.”
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