February 3, 1999
|OLD AND NEW come together at Cottonwood Baptist Church in Erath County, where Mike Fritscher is pastor.
Rural church & city preacher bloom together
___By Mark Wingfield
___ERATH COUNTY--Mike Fritscher never envisioned himself as pastor of a rural Baptist church. Yet he has become one of the most successful rural church pastors in Texas.
___The 39-year-old graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary grew up in a New Orleans suburb, in a large and growing Baptist congregation. He witnessed on Bourbon Street as a teenager. He spent seven years in urban youth ministry, working with innovator Ralph Neighbour at Houston's West Memorial Baptist Church.
___He entered seminary with a view toward continuing an urban ministry, vowing he never would go back to a traditional church. And then he went to supply one Sunday at Cottonwood Baptist Church in Erath County--which is three miles outside Dublin, which is 10 miles outside Stephenville.
___By Sunday evening, the congregation of about 25 all over the age of 50--asked if he would become their pastor.
___He agreed, thinking he would stay only 18 months, until he finished seminary.
___That was 14 years ago.
___Today, Cottonwood Baptist Church packs in more than 330 people most Sunday mornings. Every chair is filled in the new multi-purpose room built for worship four years ago, and Fritscher wonders where he'll put those who are yet to come.
___What made the difference, Fritscher explained, is God's intervention in his own life, which gave him a new vision for ministry where God had placed him and enabled him to better meet the spiritual needs of his rural flock.
___And so, when seminary graduation day rolled around, "I had no leadership to put out a resume," he said. "I began entertaining the thought of what could God do in to what was, to this New Orleans boy, the middle of nowhere."
___That commitment to stay, at a time when most young pastors pack up and leave for larger churches, set the stage for future development.
___Within a year, "God did a remarkable work in my life," Fritscher said. "I died to a lot of stuff, the 'bigger and better' mentality."
___From the time he was 10 years old, Fritscher said, he carried a fear of dying young. After a period of intense prayer and Scripture reading, God delivered him from this fear--and changed his ministry, he said.
___Some pastors are tempted by money or power, but that was not Fritscher's stronghold, he said. "My dream was not making money or living in big houses. My dream was to pastor big churches."
___From that dream, he said, "God set me free."
___"I began to see the gospel as more than just getting folks to make a decision, but to change lives," he said. "I started preaching that, and people started coming."
___His preaching, he said, became more dependent upon Scripture and less dependent upon his own illustrations. And his theme became that "salvation is more than a one-time shot, it's being conformed to the image of God."
___People began coming to his office to learn more about this freedom in Christ. Then more people began coming to worship services to hear more. And in time, the church slowly began to grow, not only in numbers but in spiritual maturity and love.
___Cottonwood's transformation from a church barely keeping the doors open to one barely fitting everyone inside the doors revolves around themes of time, love and tenderness.
___Plenty of changes have been made, but none quickly. For example, the congregation today sings a combination of hymns and choruses, accompanied by drums and keyboards. But the changes in musical styles were introduced little by little.
___"One week we would introduce one chorus, along with five hymns, and we'd do that for a few months. Then we'd move to two choruses and three hymns and do that for a few months," Fritscher explained.
___Because the transition was slow, few people were run off and more were brought in, the pastor said. The church's worship leader remains the same woman who has led music at the church for 46 years.
___The church also has experienced a major shift in the focus of its Sunday night activities-- over a seven-year period.
___On the first and third Sunday nights of each month, the congregation meets in home fellowships; on the fourth Sunday night they gather at the church for the Lord's Supper.
___The home fellowships take place in various small communities around Dublin. Currently, 180 people are involved in five home fellowship groups, with plans to add two more groups by the end of this year.
___That compares to 40 people who attended the old Sunday night worship service.
___The result of this more intimate discipleship strategy is that "folks are becoming stronger in their faith," Fritscher said. "And there is more lifestyle evangelism taking place now."
___Growth at Cottonwood hasn't been explosive and hasn't occurred overnight. But by baptizing 25-30 people per year and renewing the faith of others who were inactive in other churches or who moved into the area, the church has seen steady growth.
___And in a way, that's a metaphor for the very thing Fritscher has been preaching--that the gospel is not just about a one-time experience but rather is about a lifelong journey to be more like Jesus by experiencing the freedom of the gospel.
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