stepped into the sanctuary of the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Church of God on a recent Sunday and found the entire congregation lost in adoration and praise. The people hardly noticed as I began to take pictures for this article. Obviously, they felt an obligation to pay homage and veneration to God, and a stranger with camera flashing would not deter them.
In a committee meeting where this issue of the Evangel was planned, I had suggested the Oak Ridge Church should be covered as a worshiping congregation, and now I was present to gather material for the article.
The key word to describe this local church is involvement, for everyone seems to praise, sing, pray, and rejoice together. As I observed them in worship I wondered if the early church congregations had not been something like this.
After the service I talked to Ray Hensley, the clerk, who has attended the church for 34 years. I knew that Oak Ridge used to be a church of 70 to 80 people, so I asked why the church was now growing so well. Immediately he said the church turned around 10 years ago when they changed their mode of worship.
At that time, he continued, they began to involve everyone in singing and worship, not just the choir or special groups. Then, an expanded staff, such as a full-time youth leader, added to their growth. Hensley, his wife, and four of his six married children and their families attend Oak Ridge.
The human dynamo behind the Oak Ridge Church is the duo of Pastor James Bandy and his wife, Betty. It is obvious that their only interest is leading the congregation. Constantly, they are launching new programs, or changing those being used. For example, the Sunday I was there a printed sheet was given to everyone present which outlined changes in the Sunday morning services, including starting another worship service. However, the change was not announced as a directive. Instead, Pastor Bandy asked the people to take the sheet home, to pray about the change, and it would be discussed later. His handling of this suggested change was a key to his success as a pastor. He carefully considers the will of the congregation in decisions about the church.
James and Betty Bandy went from the pastorate of Clarksville, Tennessee, to Oak Ridge in 1963 where they found a church of 80 members paying about $1,000 tithes per month with 80 in Sunday school. From 1963 to 1970 they had almost no growth, but from 1970 to 1975 they experienced a gradual growth to 1 75 in attendance.
Since 1975 the church has had an annual growth rate of 15 percent to 20 percent. The month before my visit the church averaged 348 in Sunday school and the total income was in excess of $24,000. Sunday morning worship averaged 400, Sunday night 225, and the Wednesday evening average attendance was 140.
Pastor Bandy says that without question the main reason for the church’s growth was the change in the worship services back in 1975. At that time he began to stress involvement in worship, and he emphasized individual participation. No one was to be just an observer. Then (and now) he constantly emphasized the importance of praise and worship in the life of a believer. The passage in Hebrews 13:15 became his cornerstone reference: “Let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.”
Though the church employs a full-time minister of music, Betty Bandy leads the congregational choruses herself. Possessing remarkable rapport with the congregation, she causes the people to worship not only with the choruses, but also with her praising Christ with raised hands and other obvious acts of worship. Her enthusiasm and sincerity is transmitted to the people as they worship the Lord.
The Scripture choruses are projected onto a screen, which permits the congregation to sing words taken directly from the Bible. They sing psalm choruses such as, “Make a Joyful Noise to the Lord,” “Clap Your Hands,” “Glorify His Name,” and “We Exalt Thee.” Practically everyone in the congregation sings, praises, and worships. Besides the choruses, the choir sings several beautiful hymns during a worship service.
Their worship is not shallow nor just emotional; instead, the people have a deep appreciation for the Holy Word. I noticed that as I preached, people took notes of scriptural references and other points. Practically everyone who talked to me voluntarily referred to the worship services. For example, seventeen-year-old Julia Schram, who has attended the church for four years, said, “I like the freedom of worship and the active youth program.” A senior at Oak Ridge High, she attends the church with her parents.
“It is a family of marvelous worship,” said Jack Marquiss, who has been coming with his wife for two years. Jack retired recently after 34 years with Union Carbide. He said that he felt warm hospitality and great peace the first time he attended a service.
When members possess this kind of enthusiasm for their church, they will usually attract other people and the church will grow. The Oak Ridge Church has outgrown its facilities and has bought five acres on a busy corner where it plans to relocate. The architect’s drawing of the magnificent new complex stands on a tripod in the sanctuary of the present church. They plan to begin construction next fall.
The new church plant will be done in two phases with the first phase costing $1.4 million dollars, and the second costing $1.2 million dollars. When both phases are completed, the sanctuary will seat 1,200 people.
Nonetheless, Pastor Bandy, an unusually committed man, is not focusing on a new building, but on people. He seems to be building only because that will cause the church to more adequately minister to more people.
He is constantly leading his people in community visitation, in holding weekly worship services for the area handicapped, in ministering to inmates in jails and prisons, and in visiting nursing homes. “Our church ministers in those places unselfishly, though we know that we are not likely to gain in finances or attendance from them,” he said. “God gives us returns in other places,” he continued.
Pastor Bandy pointed out that God expects the Oak Ridge people to demonstrate their love shown for Him in the worship services by reaching out to people about them. “God cares little about selfish worship,” he concluded.