Period of Adjustments
Longtime Pentecostal church looks to the past and the future to find the right ministry mix.Ronnie S. Morris is lead pastor of Russellville First Assembly, a congregation with a rich spiritual heritage in a region considered the buckle of the Bible belt. Over 700 people attend the church, founded the same year the Assemblies of God organized in 1914 in Hot Springs, Arkansas — a mere 70 miles south of Russellville.
“Our church was birthed in the hotbed of revival,” says Morris, 62. Russellville, a growing city of 29,300, has 80 churches. Russellville First Assembly is highly visible on a major thoroughfare in the community. The church also is only half a mile from Arkansas Tech University, a school with nearly 10,000 students that has a Chi Alpha Campus Ministries presence.
Nevertheless, Pentecostalism has changed since the early part of the 20th century.
“We live in a culture when people are more reserved and not exposed to a move of the Spirit,” says Morris, who in 2005 succeeded Larry Moore — elected district superintendent after 15 years as Russellville pastor. “The challenge is to help people flow into a mindset that allows the Holy Spirit pre-eminence in daily loves and corporate worship. We don’t want to be all about experience, but we want to be true to who we are as a church of His presence.”
That is becoming more challenging as the congregation ages. In his 13 years at the church, Morris says 100 onetime core adherents have either died or are homebound. Helping existing and potential attendees to become more committed is one of the reasons Morris opted last year to have church leaders participate in the Acts 2 Journey: four two-day sessions, led by AG Assistant General Superintendent Alton Garrison. Morris believes the practical teachings will help the church reach what he calls “the Jacob generation,” or third-generation Pentecostals.
“We’re really going to target people who are 25- to 40-years old,” Morris says. “We want to build relationships through small groups and in serving in the church.”
As with most churches in this generation, Russellville First Assembly competes for attention on Sunday mornings.
The Acts 2 Journey instruction will enable Russellville First Assembly to change gradually, according to Richard A. Kluender, a retired college dean who serves as a part-time staff member. Kluender, 73, notes that a cross-generational team spent a year defining the congregation’s values and mission.
“Our church is old in the Movement and we have a terrific institutional memory that shapes a lot of what we do,” says Kluender. “The Acts 2 process has spiritual values embedded in it. This is not just a buy-in process. There is a standard for what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Another cultural challenge is looming on the horizon. State voters in November approved a constitutional amendment to allow a full-fledged casino to be built in Pope County, where Russellville is located.
Although it would face local legal hurdles before being constructed, a Mississippi corporation announced in December plans to open a $254 million hotel and casino in Pope County by mid-2020.