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Three-member church makes big sacrifice, sees big things happen in communitycomment (0)

June 5, 2008

By Jeremy Dale Henderson

All it takes is two or more gathered in His name and God is right there in the midst. In 2001, Chelsea’s Mount Signal Baptist Church was down to three. No choir, no pastor, just three faithful members calling each other on Saturday nights to decide whether or not to even open up on Sunday morning, which they always did.

They kept the doors open, kept waiting on the Lord and kept hanging onto the promise of Matthew 18:20, that three was more than enough for miracles to happen.

Enter Leonard Irvin, a retired Birmingham police sergeant ordained in the ministry, then teaching Sunday School at Birmingham’s Crestway Baptist Church and keeping his ears tuned to the Shelby Baptist Association grapevine for whatever interim work might become available.

Not that he’ll count himself a miracle, but the presence of Irvin at Mount Signal, invited for a one-Sunday fill-in sermon in 2003 and eventually assuming the role as interim and then permanent pastor, must have seemed miraculous to a congregation that quickly more than tripled its numbers once he assumed the pulpit, from three members to 10.

"Percentage-wise, that’s a pretty sizable increase," Irvin joked. "A little core of about 10 people that had banded together prayed the church back. My wife and I don’t take any credit. I give the credit to God and to the people."

The church’s incredible story of Christian giving continues to unfold to this day, and it’s one that Marcus Merritt, an associate in the office of evangelism of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, calls a "story that needs to be told."

"It’s just fascinating what has been going on over there," Merritt said.

With the stability of a permanent pastor, things slowly began to happen at Mount Signal. Irvin found himself preaching to 12 people, then 14, then 16. And then one Sunday morning, while getting dressed for church, Irvin was watching the telecast of Gardendale’s First Baptist Church and received a burden from the Lord.

Gardendale’s First, which is in North Jefferson Association, had just begun a $55 million building campaign, and Irvin became convinced that his congregation, one barely scraping together $20,000 in annual offerings, should contribute.

"I wanted to challenge us," Irvin said. "I told them, ‘I’ve got a burden about us and our future, and I really believe we are the generation God has chosen in that He’s either going to have us bring this church back or He’s going to hand us a shovel and bury it. My concern is about how serious we are about bringing it back.’

"When you start messing with people’s pocketbooks, you know they’re serious," said Irvin, who wanted the church to give one week’s offering receipts.

When a few eyebrows were raised — why a megachurch like Gardendale’s First? — Irvin put them back in place by preaching on the widow’s mite and how the Macedonian church gave well beyond their means to their brothers in Jerusalem. He called the $622.45 donation an "object lesson" in sacrifice.

"Gardendale is faithful with what they have and God has blessed them," Irvin told his congregation, "and besides, we’re in the same business."

The church wrote a check, stuck it inside a card that said, "Thinking of you," and sent them both on their way.

Fourteen weeks later — 14 weeks after the funds had cleared from the bank, 14 weeks without a "thank you" or anything — the folks at Mount Signal were content to believe that the gift to the $8.1 million-budget of Gardendale’s First had been a "spiritual gut check," one they had met and passed.

Then a call came and a camera crew arrived, sent from Gardendale’s First to make a seven-minute promotional video launching their stewardship program. They filmed a Wednesday night service at Mount Signal, which managed to muster six people to the pews, and invited them all to watch the video at an upcoming Sunday night service at Gardendale’s First.

"[Their gift] affected our church; it affected our pastor," said Nelson Hannah, associate minister of pastoral care at Gardendale’s First. "It grabbed hold of all of us. We just kind of sensed that God was up to something."

And Gardendale’s First was up to something, too.

What Irvin and the 12 or so Mount Signal members who drove the 30 minutes to attend and who, according to Irvin, were "treated like royalty," were unaware of was that then-pastor of Gardendale’s First Steve Gaines had that morning taken up a special offering for Mount Signal. Inviting Irvin up to the front of the church after premiering the video, Gaines handed him a check for $28,157.29.

He remembers the amount exactly. "I looked at it and I was stunned. I tried to give it back to him," Irvin said. "I said, ‘You can’t be giving away money like this. You’re just starting a building fund.’"

Gaines laughed. "And I don’t guess your church was going to miss the money you gave," he replied. "Don’t worry, friend, we’ll never miss it. You can’t out-give God."

From that moment on, being unable to out-give God has been a truth Mount Signal has learned and tested and learned and tested. Irvin said the experiment in faith regarding their gift to Gardendale’s First turned the church’s thinking around.

Rather than sit on the money or make things easier for themselves — aside from paving their crumbling parking lot — Mount Signal turned right back around and started giving the money away, $3,000 to Southern Baptist missions work alone.

"We developed a ‘can-do’ attitude," Irvin said. "Instead of asking, ‘Can we survive?’ we started on planning for the future."

Did the woman down the road need her propane tank filled for the winter? Mount Signal would fill it.

Did the family who visited last week have their water cut off? Mount Signal would have it turned back on.

In fact, for the past two fiscal years, an average of 21 percent of Mount Signal’s budget has gone to missions work and local community benevolence. All the while, the church has been growing. And they’re not the only ones.

"Shelby County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, if not the fastest," said Hugh Richardson, director of missions for Shelby Baptist Association.

According to statistics from the North American Mission Board, Shelby County is the most unchurched county in the state, with only 16.8 percent of the population attending on any given Sunday. "We have a really big missions field," Richardson said, "and we’re really trying to work with our churches in starting new church plants."

And so established was Mount Signal’s new reputation for radical generosity that when a man, Grady Covin, walked through the doors of the Shelby Association offices in 2006 inquiring about starting a new church in Chelsea, Richardson sent him straight to Irvin. "We had [Covin] come to our church, give his testimony, give his vision and, in a nutshell, we decided to go into partnership with him, to be the parent church to a new church," Irvin said.

It was a decision again rooted in the faith that God would provide more than enough even against the odds, which He did.

Partnering with Gardendale’s First, Mount Signal hosted a "Give It All Away" revival to raise funds for the new church. Pastors from Gardendale’s First, including Nelson Hannah, came to preach. Three thousand dollars was collected and handed to Covin, and this past Easter, Covin’s vision — Mountainview Church — held its first service.

Since then, 14 people have been saved at the new church.

Meanwhile the folks at Mount Signal — all 35 of them — bowed their heads with smiles on their faces, joyful in the knowledge of what can happen "when God’s doing the math."

"[The members of Mount Signal] have a unique sense that God wants to use them, and they were not afraid to take a step of faith," Hannah said. "We were used a little bit by God [in this instance], but that little church is doing some awesome things."

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