Pastor sees church thrive amid corn, soybean fields
HARDIN, Ky. (BP) -- With corn and soybean fields in every direction, this rural community of 564 people is an unlikely spot for one of Kentucky's largest churches to sprout up.
Or is it?
In this community of tractors and pickup trucks, there are no chain restaurants or strip malls or housing developments. Out of this rural setting, a congregation approaching megachurch proportions has sprung forth.
"Brother Ricky and the folks at Hardin have shown that it's not the size of the community that matters most, but the size of the God we serve," said Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
Cunningham said the Lord taught him to be a pastor through farming.
"It's obvious to farmers that there's a direct correlation between sowing and harvesting," he said. "If you skimp on planting, it's going to affect you in the harvest. If we're going to win souls for Christ, we really have to be sowing Gospel seeds."
When Cunningham, 56, arrived as pastor at Hardin Baptist Church in 1983 as a 22-year-old student at Mid-Continent Bible College, he realized he couldn't be the only one doing the work if the region was to be reached for Christ.
"The question occurred to me: What if everyone in the church is sowing seeds?" he said. "I realized that if that were to happen we would have a much larger harvest. As a farmer, I can't do all the work by myself. Most pastors fail by trying to do everything themselves."
That approach to ministry has allowed Cunningham to experience life as pastor of a small church, a medium church, a large church without ever leaving Hardin.
Todd Gray, the Kentucky Baptist Convention's team leader for evangelism, said one of the keys to the growth of Hardin Baptist Church is that the membership bought into Cunningham's vision to involve everyone in outreach.
"This church has reached people through personal evangelism and kept them by good preaching and solid ministry," Gray said. "Brother Ricky sets the pace in personal evangelism. Years ago, when it came time to take the pastor's picture for the annual church directory, the ladies in charge told Brother Ricky that they were not going to take a picture of him preaching or sitting behind a desk. They wanted a picture of him knocking on someone's door to share the Gospel because that was where he was likely to be found."
Cunningham said he has followed the biblical admonition to equip the saints to do the work of the church. That, he said, allows Hardin Baptist Church to increase both sowing and harvesting. It also allows all the church members to help shepherd the flock, tending to the needs of one another.
"When I go to the farm, I take a feed bucket into the pasture," Cunningham said. "I holler for the cattle and put feed in a trough, and every one of them come up. I count, and if someone isn't there, I know it. If a cow is healthy, she's going to be at the feed trough. If I'm not feeding them something nutritious and good, they're not going to come to the feed trough. If one doesn't come, I know that it is injured or calving or out in somebody else's pasture."
Cunningham believes that if all pastors would employ basic agricultural principles, they'd see their churches experience revival. He points out that these are the very same principles Jesus taught during his earthly ministry.
"When I step into the pulpit on Sunday mornings, I'm going to feed my people," he said. "And, so, my weeklong prerogative is to make sure that on Sunday morning I'm able to equip my people to be the best saints they can be, to exercise their gifts in ministry. On Sunday mornings, we count, but not to see who's here. We're counting to see who's not here, because we know if you're healthy and it's Sunday morning, you will be in church. We've developed a system so that we can check on our people if they start missing."
Cunningham recalled a religious conference he attended years ago in which the leader listed the most important factors necessary for churches to grow.
"We didn't have any of them," Cunningham said. "We didn't have location and we didn't have any of the resources. I smiled and said to myself: 'Isn't God good. He has supplied all our needs.' I was amazed when we got to 100 people. I was amazed when we got 200. I was amazed when we got 500. I was amazed when we got 1,000. I am just amazed at what the Lord has done."