O’BRIEN—Located at the junction of Farm Road 2229 and State Highway 6, the rural West Texas town of O’Brien would likely be missed by passersby if they blinked. The population sign reads 106, and the closest city, Abilene, is 70 miles away.
Lance Rogers, pastor of First Baptist Church of O’Brien, grew up in Dallas and jokes that he initially considered the town “40 miles on the other side of the Great Commission.” But after a year and a half at the church, Rogers said the Lord is doing amazing things in this farming community.
Prior to Rogers’ arrival in 2012, the church had not baptized anyone in three years and had withered away to around 20 people. In less than 18 months, they have witnessed an incredible movement of God, baptizing more than 40 and seeing more than 100 in attendance on a weekly basis.
“It’s completely out of my comfort zone because it’s not what I’m used to,” Rogers said, “but I’ve never experienced what God is doing out here ever before in my life, anywhere. There are times when we have more in church than the city population. The baptistry is constantly being used.”
This spiritual outpouring, however, has not come without challenges, the least of which is the adjustment Rogers has made from city life to a rural atmosphere.
“Everything I’ve learned all my life in the metroplex has been a different way of thinking,” Rogers said. “Then I moved out here, and it’s a completely different world.”
“If you come out to a small community with the mentality of ministering in the metroplex, it’s going to be a rough start. Even though I’ve been here over a year, we are still not part of the community.”
Rogers noted that the majority of the families in O’Brien have lived there for generations. Soon after his family arrived, a 90-year-old, lifelong resident joked with Rogers at the local coffee shop that he was happy their family had moved to O’Brien so he would “no longer be the new guy in town.”
Some in the church expressed concern that Rogers, like other rural church pastors, would only be at the church a few months before leaving for something bigger.
“I’m here as long as God keeps me here,” Rogers told them.
Reaching People Through Relationships
The longer Rogers has stayed the more he has fallen in love with the people and the community. When he arrived, he fully immersed himself in every possible activity, event and meeting in the community, including attending pep rallies and football games as well as serving on the school’s PTA and frequenting local restaurants.
“I would just go out and build friendships with people,” Rogers said.
“I started developing relationships without cramming church and the Bible down their throats. They know who I am and where I stand, and we talk about it, but we also developed a connection on a personal level. When God started allowing us to do that, we started seeing people coming to the church.”
“I’ve learned more about people out here in a year and a half than I ever experienced in 40 years of my life.”
Fields Ripe for Harvest
First Baptist O’Brien is but one of many churches in rural communities and county seat towns that dot the American landscape. Despite population shifts over the past century from rural settings to large cities, great potential still exists for these churches to spread the gospel in their communities.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to reach people because there’s not many out there doing it,” T.C. Melton said, who grew up in a farming community and has more than 60 years of ministry under his belt.
Melton served in pastorates across Texas, including 30 years at Elmcrest Baptist Church in Abilene. He has spent the past decade serving in various capacities with the SBTC, primarily as an area ministry coordinator for churches in West Texas. Additionally, he has served as interim pastor of more than 15 churches, many of them in rural communities.
Although Melton said much has changed in the world since he began in ministry, much is the same.
“A guy’s got to love the pastorate wherever he’s at,” Melton said. “People are about the same wherever you go.”
Whether in rural or urban settings, Melton said, “If a guy will go to a (church) and plant his life there, the people will love you and support you. Wherever a guy is at, if the Lord put him there, he ought to enjoy it.”
However, Melton acknowledges that unique challenges as well as blessings exist for pastors in rural communities and small towns. Echoing Rogers’ experience in O’Brien, Melton encourages and coaches these pastors to “adapt to a rural mentality,” including a strong work ethic and a commitment to developing relationships over time.
“You’re the preacher for about the first four or five years, and then you become their pastor. But you can speed that up a little bit if they trust you,” Melton said.
“In rural areas, you’ve got to build relationships. You can’t do much in a rural community if all you have is a pew-to-pulpit relationship. You’ve got to enjoy riding in a tractor and going out and getting manure on your shoes and going to basketball games and senior citizen centers.”
“I don’t care what kind of electronic communication you have, you still have to go where people are. This is especially true in rural areas.”
Melton said one of the challenges in smaller towns is declining and changing populations. Many rural churches experienced booming growth in the 1950s and 1960s and built facilities to accommodate this growth. But with dwindling populations, these buildings can become financial burdens, making it more difficult to support pastors and their families. Thus, he sees a growing need and opportunity for bi-vocational pastors in many of these areas.
In addition to financial challenges, Rogers admits that ministry in a rural setting can feel lonely at times. Isolation leads to discouragement.
For this reason, Rogers recommends pastors maintain connections with godly friends and mentors whom they can call to receive encouragement on difficult days. Rogers said his professors at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth have been a tremendous source of encouragement during his time in O’Brien.
In spite of the difficulties, Rogers and Melton agree that the blessings of pastoring churches in rural communities and county seat towns far outweigh the challenges. Both see rural churches as fertile ground for the Great Commission.
Melton said this often-overlooked mission field needs men and churches willing to trust the Lord and meet these challenges head on.
“I can’t think of anything more exciting,” Melton said, “than going to a rural church and spending the rest of your life there.”
Rogers, too, sees the fields ripe for harvest. He has witnessed a spiritual hunger in his community and appreciates the seriousness with which people treat their commitment to the church.
“When they join the church, they don’t join to warm a pew,” Rogers said. “They join, and they get involved.”
Having served in churches in the Dallas area all his life, Rogers said First Baptist O’Brien is the best church in which he has ever ministered.
“I’m out of place and out of my comfort zone, but as long as I’m here, I’m going to make the most of it. I’ve met people out here and built relationships that will last a lifetime.”
“It gets tough, but first and foremost, God is moving. God has been doing some incredible things. I think every pastor should pastor a church like mine.”