FIRST-PERSON: From 'absolutely not' to 'come and see'
ARMA, Kan. (BP) -- Growing up in the Appalachian part of north Alabama, I was never aware that I was from a small town. I knew Birmingham and Huntsville had more people than Boaz, but I never thought I was any different because I was from a rural community. I wasn't aware I attended a small church either.
Oak Hill Baptist Church was a little country church outside Horton, Ala. We had an old-school preacher, a song leader and a piano. The auditorium sat 75 people with every pew full. There was no sound system, lighting, overheads or projectors for lyrics. We had three different hymnals. Our song leader had to make sure to announce the hymn number and what color.
We had no youth or children's programs. Crying babies and disruptive kids were the norm. I didn't even realize noisy babies were an issue until we moved to Missouri and all the children in our new church were sent to their designated areas so the adults could listen uninterrupted to the message.
I learned about Jesus in that church. I learned to fear and love God, follow Jesus as Lord, repent of my sin, and have assurance in the perseverance of my faith. I learned salvation wasn't based on our ability to woo God. It rested in the relentless love of God for our souls.
Mrs. Gardner, my Sunday School teacher, would talk about Jesus with tears welling in her eyes. This woman had been rescued by the Lord and was obviously thankful. She gave her life to teaching young people about her Jesus. Her Jesus became my Jesus. God used this country church in the hills of Sand Mountain and its untrained KJV-only pastor who, as the pinnacle of his messages, would herald the cross of Jesus. He is still a hero to me.
I moved away from that church 20 years ago. The pastor is still there, they bricked the building and finally started locking the doors. After high school, I attended a Christian college in Missouri. After graduating, I went on to be a worship pastor in Wichita, a youth pastor in Detroit and a worship pastor of a multi-site mega-church in west-central Illinois. I took a three-year break from vocational ministry to work for a prominent chicken restaurant based in Atlanta. I was burnt out, had unrepentant sin and anger in my life and I needed the time for catharsis.
While managing a store in Joplin, Mo., my wife and I decided that I would serve a smaller church nearby. I began leading worship for a church across the state line in rural Kansas. A strange thing happened. My love for the rural church was awakened and began to grow.
My career at the restaurant was going well but I couldn't shake my calling or passion for God's church. I felt a tremendous burden for areas of the country and churches that are off most folks' radar. Not many men are signing up for churches in communities in decline with the closest supermarket 25 miles away.
My director of missions contacted me because a church in Arma, Kan., had just closed its doors and left its building to the association. I had always wanted to plant a church. But in Kansas? In Arma? After getting more details, I drove up to the little building. I had only one thought, "Absolutely not." It was a traditional white country church with no parking in a poor physical location. What could I possibly do here? Could anything good come out of that little mold-infested building?
Over time, I felt the Lord pressing on me to take that little church and start something He could use to bring people to Himself. Out of that calling, The Grove Baptist Church was born. Today, we have a thriving church in a little town of 1,500 people. We have locals, families from many neighboring communities and university students from a nearby university. We've seen God do something incredible in the most unlikely of places. Our desire is to have a regional impact and assist other smaller churches as we grow. We have an amazing volunteer staff who oversee outreach, communications, liturgy and children. They're essential to what we do.
When I initially sat looking at the building and thinking, "Can anything good come from here?" I had forgotten Nathaniel's response to Philip when Philip revealed that they had found the Messiah in John 1:46. "Nathanael said to him, 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' Philip said to him, 'Come and see.'"
When people ask me why I am a rural church planter or ask what good can come from Arma, my response is always the same: "Come and see." We herald the Gospel. We exalt Jesus. That, more than anything, is what rural churches need -- the perfect Gospel, faithful preachers and Jesus exalted.