SBTC Annual Meeting 2019

Amid revitalization, Houston church leaves the ‘comfort zone’ to grow

July 23rd, 2019 / By: Karen L. Willoughby | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

HOUSTON  During its first year of a revitalization process, the congregation of Forest Oaks Baptist Church broadened their prayers.

Members who had mainly limited their praying during corporate prayer times to intercession for people’s physical needs began praying for God to move in the hearts of the unconverted, to strengthen the church and to guide the congregation to a closer walk with him.

“After we started moving into revitalization, if nothing else, the effect has been the excitement in people’s hearts,” Pastor Kevin Barefield told the Southern Baptist TEXAN. “The worship has improved. There’s evidence of prayer answered. The hope of the people has returned.”

Organized in 1953, Forest Oaks Baptist members were “comfortable” with their church when they called Barefield as pastor in 2001. It’s comfort that led to a consistent decline as the aging congregation in southeast Houston began to die and finances dwindled.

“I took a $700-a-month pay cut six years ago, after I had been at the church for six years, and tried to communicate the need to do something different,” Barefield said. “I had been trying to turn them outward, doing community outreaches and evangelism, but we weren’t seeing results and the people were discouraged.”

Problems escalated. The worship center and fellowship building’s air conditioning system went out. The church steeple was struck by lightning. Then came Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, and the insurance company declined coverage.

That became good news, the pastor said, because after that came an email from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention asking churches if they needed hurricane recovery help. Barefield responded, and SBTC Revitalization Consultant Mike Landry contacted him.

“When I first met Kevin Barefield, I found a pastor who had a heart for the Lord and for people. He was open and willing to do whatever it took to see Forest Oaks become the church God wanted it to be,” Landry said

“Mike shared the revitalization process with me and asked me to connect with the church about entering into a contract with SBTC about revitalization,” Barefield said. “It was a unanimous vote to do so.

“It [a willingness to change] had been coming on,” the pastor continued. “Things had been moving in that direction, but I guess we were trying to do revitalization on our own.”

Several pastor friends were encouraging him, Barefield said, “but it wasn’t working. I think a lot of the lack of progress had to do with the fact I was very inexperienced in revitalization and did not have anyone to consult with or give me guidance or help me kind of focus. 

“Between Kenneth Priest and Mike Landry and everyone at the SBTC, though, I was able to get what I needed: encouragement, support, guidance and focus,” Barfield continued. Forest Oaks Baptist also received financial assistance for the repair of the wind-ravaged roof and interior water damage caused by the hurricane. 

The last Sunday of January 2018, the pastor gave each member a “congregational analysis” they were to fill out and return the following Sunday.

“I remember looking at the results and thinking that the church members think they are OK as they are,” Barefield said. “In worship, prayer, evangelism, discipleship and fellowship, they thought they were in good shape. They thought we were ‘over the top’ in our health concerns.”

As the months went by, the congregation learned about healthy churches from Sunday morning messages with scriptures suggested by the SBTC revitalization team. Those messages were augmented by Sunday School Bible studies that covered the same topics.

“That was pretty much by design,” Barefield said. “We wanted to hasten the church along in understanding what revitalization entailed, and their part in it.”

At the time it seemed to be a slow process, but in retrospect everything moved quickly, the pastor said.

“I think I actually got to the point where I gave up,” Barefield said. “I stopped trying to do it on my own. Then God stepped in and said, ‘OK! Now that you know who’s in charge, watch what happens.’”

The congregation, resistant at first to change, “knew something was wrong; they just weren’t ready for revitalization,” the pastor said. “We were picking at things, trying to find something that would work, instead of doing the hard work of change. 

“We looked for old techniques and old programs that worked years ago, that we felt comfortable with, thinking, ‘If we do this, it will make people come.’ We weren’t willing to change internally, to see that the problems existed on the inside. We just wanted to fix the outside, the roof, the ceilings, the drywall.”

SBTC gave $75,000 to Forest Oaks Baptist to help with the extensive repairs needed after Hurricane Harvey. The repairs coincided with the congregation’s acceptance of their need to change, just as the building changed. 

“I was getting a lot of feedback and encouragement from the congregation that they were being encouraged,” Barefield said. “They were beginning to see the necessity, the importance, of turning themselves outward to the community, reaching the community and working toward congregational health. They were beginning to see it was not God’s problem. It was our problem, the way we were approaching it.”

Prayer that at times was a ritual became heartfelt as the congregation responded to what they were seeing God do in their midst, the changes he was making.

“We’ve seen God move,” the pastor said. “There’s evidence of answered prayer.”

The changes Landry noted include the now-encouraged pastor’s new vision, the congregation’s increased focus on the Great Commission and their learning what it means to live on mission.

“Revitalization is all about the spiritual health of the people,” Landry said. “The church has also experienced an increase in attendance and baptisms.”

Forest Oaks Baptist is again averaging about 80 in worship, a new believers’ class has been started and some church members are helping with community outreach events, including its recent Easter Egg hunt that drew about 800 people to the church property and a “Highways and Hedges” ministry every other Friday. 

In this ministry, members prayer walk for one week down assigned streets. Two weeks later they’ll return to the same street and put up door-hangers, inviting people to church.

Five years ago, Forest Oaks started a Hispanic ministry, now led by Sisto Vidauri, which draws about 30 people to the church on Sunday afternoons. It, too, is involved in the revitalization process.

“We’ve been working hard, trying to establish the vision and mission of the church and getting excited about it,” Barefield said. “We’re also looking at developing small groups. 

“My advice to those in churches needing revitalization is to surrender and have patience,” the pastor continued. “Wait on God and remember, you can only do so much.”