By Joy Allmond
When Brian Moss surrendered to the call to ministry in 1985, he didn’t do it the conventional way. And he didn’t do it in the conventional timeframe.
He did it after spending nearly 20 years as a systems engineer for one of the world’s largest tech companies.
“I wanted to be rich,” says Moss, now the pastor of Oak Ridge Baptist Church in Salisbury, Maryland.
“I was on a fast path to being successful in the business world. But God pulled the rug out from under me, shined the light on how shallow of an aspiration that was, and just completely altered my future.”
Moss, who didn’t grow up in the church, had spent a long season of his Christian life with a passion to serve—yet with no clear direction—volunteering for practically every ministry his local church offered.
One morning over breakfast in 1993, his mentor, an older pastor, leaned over the table, looked Moss directly in the eye, and bluntly said, “Son, you need to go to seminary.”
Soon after, Moss put his Tulsa, Oklahoma, home on the market and moved with his young family to Ft. Worth, Texas, where he had enrolled in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
By 1999, upon seminary graduation, Moss knew two things: He wanted to be bi-vocational, and he wanted to go where others wouldn’t.
“I have a missional heart,” he says. “So that moved me to be bi-vocational—with a purpose.”
Pretty soon, Moss began to open himself up to the idea of going to non-Bible belt locations.
When Moss answered the call to Oak Ridge Baptist Church (his first and only pastorate) in Salisbury, Maryland, balancing marketplace and ministry while leading a dwindling congregation turned out to be the least of his concerns.
Oak Ridge had shriveled to around 30 after a season of divisive conflict.
Upon Moss’ arrival, the first two things handed to him were a proposal to change the church’s bylaws, and the budget, because the congregation was going to vote in a month.
And if those items weren’t overwhelming enough, he discovered an affair between two high level leaders in the church during his first two weeks at Oak Ridge.
“I thought to myself: What have I done?” recalls Moss. “I called my pastor back home and got all kinds of counsel. I prayed like I hadn’t prayed before. I figured out pretty fast that I didn’t know how to lead a church.”
There was one thing, however, he had on his side.
“Most of my (pre-existing) leaders were pruned,” he explained. “They had a passionate desire to do church differently from what they has seen.”
And that, Moss says, is “the number one thing lacking” in today’s struggling churches.
“They don’t have a passion to do church differently,” he says. “They have a passion to have more money. They have a passion to have more young people. And they have more passion for seeing the church come alive, but they have no passion to do anything differently to get there.”
One year before Moss arrived at Oak Ridge, the search committee spent a year on their knees in prayer asking God to do something miraculous—to revitalize His church in Salisbury.
“They had already gone through the ‘broken’ phase,” says Moss. “They were looking for something new. I don’t know how to revitalize a church as long as the people in power don’t love Jesus enough to change the church.”
Back to the basics: simple changes for any congregation
Moss says any church—regardless of size, history, or budget—can become more effective in reaching people for Christ.
But with one caveat.
“If they’re willing,” he says.
For Oak Ridge, being “willing” meant making adaptive—not catalytic—changes during the early part of their season of transformation.
“For us, ‘making changes’ didn’t mean we had flashy lights on stage, along with a rock and roll band,” he says. “We didn’t have that. We were still traditional; I wore a suite and we sang hymns.”
While Moss says Oak Ridge has since become less traditional, those changes didn’t happen overnight. Slow, small changes are the key—changes any church anywhere can make.
And “change” looks quite different from one congregation to another.
The biggest and most important change a church can make to take steps toward revitalization is the simplest one, says Moss.
“Most churches would double in size if they simply became friendly,” he says.
“It’s really about authenticity and love that flows out of your heart. When you love Jesus, you have to love what He loves. If you don’t love people, then you don’t love Jesus.”
Especially in a less-churched context—like Salisbury, Maryland—how does a church reach people with the gospel, and how do they move them toward steps and stages?
Moss says according to his experience, context in North America isn’t an issue.
“If you present the gospel clearly and if you meet needs compassionately, people will respond,” he says. “I just believe that.”
After all, he says, people are still human beings with a common need.
“The problem of sin, deep felt needs, worry, fear—those exist for all people in every culture,” Moss explains.
“The key is to figure out how to create a doorway into their lives, often opened through compassionately meeting their needs,” he says. “The culture around us is not the problem; it’s the culture inside the church. That’s what’s preventing the church from growing.”
With the passion they had and the changes they’ve made, Oak Ridge has grown from a struggling group of 30 to a thriving congregation of 1,200.
But Moss issues a warning against holding on to traditions too tightly during times of transitions. This, he says, can be one of the greatest hindrances to reach and growth.
“Traditions aren’t necessarily bad,” he says. “But when tradition trumps truth it’s wrong.”
Moss says churches should do everything they can to be ready to receive the people in their communities—with all of their good and bad. Because, this missions-minded pastor says, the United States is one of the largest mission fields in the world.
“Most of us lose concept of that,” he says. “We think of missions as foreign. But there are radically lost people here. We have the greatest opportunity for the gospel—an unbelievable opportunity—if we’re willing to change.”
JOY ALLMOND (@joyallmond) is managing editor of Facts & Trends.