By Sharon Mager, BCM/D Staff Correspondent
HERALD HARBOR, Md.—South Shore Church is an anomaly. Rather than change their worship style and outreach techniques to reach a new generation, they embraced traditional worship and outreach methods and their attendance soared. The fastest growing Sunday school class is the college and career class. Their youth are asking to serve. They’re multi-generational and they worship together. But it has been a process.
The church had gone through a rocky period about five years ago and attendance dropped from 150 to 75. Now it’s up to 250. Senior Pastor Russ Rathier humbly attributes the growth to God’s answering prayer. He preaches the “old, old story.”
Rathier said he preaches on the blood of Christ, the reality of hell for those who reject Christ and that we live in a broken world and that our lives are filled with consequences for our sin.
“The fundamental Word of God is taught here and the flock embraces it,” Rathier said.
Rathier had served as music minister at South Shore for three years. When the church went through a time with no pastor, Rathier, lay leader Andy Hightower and Jim Mitchell, a former South Shore pastor who still attends as a member, provided pulpit supply. When Rathier was called as senior pastor, he began by getting to know his “flock” in a more pastoral way and making changes slowly as God directed.
He worked with membership to reinstitute a deacon board, re-energizing those who were there and bringing new men in. He also encouraged deacons’ wives to become more involved.
The church also changed its worship style. “Instead of blended and traditional, we went back to really traditional—hymns, doxology. The second service we call “non-traditional.”
While the early 8:30 non-traditional service brings in a good crowd, with about 80, the 11 a.m. traditional has the highest attendance of over 100 and includes both the young and the old.
Many churches, Rathier said, are going away from traditional and doing blended services. “Seasoned saints feel close to God in traditional services. If we throw that out, how are we feeding that generation? And we can learn so much from them,” he said.
In addition, Rathier said some young people are embracing the traditional service because they are looking for more structure.
South Shore is restoring Wednesday night dinners. People are enjoying the fellowship. “We went from 6 to 30 almost overnight,” Rathier said. “Now we average about 100.”
Members then asked to bring back monthly “singsperations.” Rathier was a little concerned that the word might be a little old-fashioned and be a turn-off to some of the younger folks—wrong!
“It was an incredible success,” Rathier said. “Young folks began to play. They set up their bands. We had mixed generations singing together.”
The youth and young adult groups began growing. In 2009, the church hired a youth pastor, Caleb Horton, and the youth went to Kentucky to repair roofs and build handicap ramps. It was the church’s first mission trip ever. Rathier said South Shore has always been very supportive of missions and the Cooperative Program, but this was hands-on missions. They’re planning to go to M-fuge this summer. Rathier wants the church to do a family mission trip to New Hampshire soon.
Rathier said the youth are hungry to grow. “They want to get deeper in discipleship,” he said. They also want to serve. The youth told the church they want to learn to serve. “They said, “We want to go and help people who have needs. We want to clean someone’s house, their gutters, their yards, take them to the store—can you help us?”
The church as a whole is reaching out to their community. They have a food pantry and a thrift shop and they participate in Angel Food, distributing quality food for discount prices. Members also read at local elementary schools.
Rathier was born and raised in a Christian home. He served as an altar boy and choir member in a Catholic church. While in college, he was hired as a soloist for a Jewish Temple and for a Baptist Church in Providence, R.I. It was at the Baptist church that Rathier was challenged to examine his walk with the Lord. He began attending a Bible study. Later he signed up for a special group to study a book by Roger Williams on Soul Liberty.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had all the right answers (head knowledge) because I had learned all about God and Jesus; but I did not have a personal relationship (heart experience) with my LORD. The last Sunday in November of 1983 I went forward to publicly acknowledge my desire to be baptized and walk with Jesus as my personal Savior.”
In October 2001 while attending a Spiritual Weekend at Camp Occahanock on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, God called Rathier to full-time ministry. It was there that Jesus told Rathier that he was to use the gifts He had given Rathier to serve Him.
“If I would trust Him, He would guide me into the direction He wanted me to go. I left a soloist position at the Naval Academy Chapel and began a venture attempting to follow Jesus.”