North Knoxville Baptist Church, once a thriving congregation in Knox County, has fallen on hard times in recent years with an average of 40–60 people on any given Sunday.
But under the leadership of an interim pastor (actually two interims), the church is beginning to bounce back.
A key part of the revitalization has been the willingness of the older congregation to reach out to its community, said Jim McNeal, a fireman in Oak Ridge who is serving as interim lead pastor.
Due to his rotating schedule, McNeal has shared pastoral duties with 80-year-old Roy Corum who preaches on the Sundays McNeal can’t attend.
“This has worked out really well,” said McNeal of the arrangement that has transpired since March. Noting that the church can no longer afford a full-time pastor, McNeal said the church is now getting essentially two pastors who are living out their calling.
He is grateful for Corum who is not ready to retire from the ministry. “Roy has a heart for Jesus and for the community,” McNeal affirmed.
The two men have helped the church understand that “if something doesn’t change,” the outlook for the future is dim.
McNeal challenged the congregation earlier this summer to adopt a vision statement, “To love God and others by making disciples of Jesus.”
“Everything we do runs through this vision statement,” he said. “We can show the love of Jesus to our community in a practical way.”
Soon after that message, God provided an opportunity to minister to residents of North Knoxville.
McNeal met Jason Cochran, a former member whose parents still attend North Knoxville Baptist, while he was in town visiting his family. Cochran now works with a nonprofit ministry out of state called “Changing Footprints.” The organization provides shoes to people in need.
He offered to provide shoes to the church so they could connect with the community, McNeal said. Describing the offer from Changing Footprints “as a gift from God, we saw this as a great opportunity with school slated to start in early August.
“We also recognize that people have basic needs. That is why we are giving away the shoes.”
The organization provided 600 pairs of new or slightly used shoes for the “2023 Great Shoe Give-Away” held July 29 at North Knoxville Baptist.
Though the giveaway was held in conjunction with the start of school, the shoes were available for any family member, including adults.
McNeal put the message on the church’s Facebook page as well as his own personal Facebook page and the church set up a registration page on its website.
People shared the message with others and word soon spread. “We were slammed,” McNeal said. The website had 44,000 “hits” in the last two weeks and more than 55,000 “hits” on the church’s Facebook page in 14 days.
The church had to close registration six days early because they already had requests for 731 pairs of shoes, the pastor said.
Though they had only about 600 pairs on hand on July 29, McNeal said everyone who preregistered will get the shoes they requested within the next few weeks.
“The event exceeded my expectations,” McNeal affirmed.
Students receiving shoes also received backpacks with generic school supplies that were purchased with funds from the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions that were designated for compassion ministries.
Answer to prayer
In addition to the shoes and school supplies, everyone who attended received a gospel presentation.
“Why do an outreach event if we don’t share the gospel,” he asked. “God has given us the opportunity to share the gospel with 600 people in one day.”
Knowing the event would tax the aging congregation, North Knoxville had help from volunteers from other area churches. Among them was Laura Osborn of Callahan Baptist Church who knew McNeal when he previously served at Callahan.
“We were told there was a need and we wanted to help Jim in what he was doing,” she said. Osborn also said the effort provided an opportunity to include her children and allow them to see “missions at work.”
Church member Angi Cochran, whose brother-in-law arranged for the shoe distribution, noted that while it took a lot of work, “it has been rewarding to see the need we are helping to fulfill.”
Volunteer Rhonda Tarver, a longtime member of North Knoxville Baptist, observed that “it has been a long time since we had an open ministry to our community.
“It’s good to see the faces and the smiles. Hopefully this will help them with their school needs and also meet their spiritual needs,” Tarver said.
Community residents were appreciative of the church’s ministry, the pastor said. “We had one family reach out and said this was literally an answer to prayer because her daughter did not have shoes to go to school.”