RANGER—In a bit over two years, The Woodbridge church plant has grown to about 170 mostly unchurched people of varied ages in Sunday morning worship, and at least 40 baptisms.
Church planter Jared Johnson has done this with shoe leather, acts of service and simply inviting folks to the church that meets in the Ranger Academy of Martial Arts.
“America has voted on whether or not they want to go to church, and the church is dying,” Johnson told the TEXAN. “You can do all the neat gadgets and tricks you want to get people there, but they’re not going to come on their own unless they feel love and trust.”
The Woodbridge’s story starts in 2005, when a pastor told Johnson, “If I would start a church with five people who weren’t steeped in tradition, I’d be further along in one year than with a church that started with 100 people steeped in tradition.”
Johnson traces his call to church planting—and to church planting with a focus on the unchurched—back to that remark. In 2015, he left a church staff position to begin a one-year church planter apprenticeship under Nic Burleson, pastor of Timber Ridge Church in Stephenville, which had just started in 2011.
Plan A was to start a church in an under-churched big city. Plan B was to focus on a section of a city and make a more focused impact on the unchurched.
“Then,” Johnson said, “I began to ask myself, ‘How big would that section of a city be?’ And as I was passing through all the little towns on my way home from the big city, I felt like the Holy Spirit tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘This big.’ That’s when we began to see the value of ministering to a small town.”
He and his family—wife Laine and four children under 8—didn’t know anyone when, in February 2016, they arrived in Ranger, a community near his hometown that he had rejected the first nine times it came to mind.
Ranger sits just off Interstate 20 about 75 miles west of Fort Worth. It had a population of about 50,000 during its early 1920s heyday as an oil boom destination. Today, only around 2,400 people remain. An initial demographic study showed only about 10 percent of the town’s residents attended church, most of whom were senior citizens.
“I went around Ranger and asked people to help us start a church, people not in church,” Johnson said. “We started a launch team and probably had 20 folks, give or take, who were pretty invested and excited before we had our first church service.”
Jared and Laine Johnson met weekly in their home with the launch team. Three preview services in August 2016 led to the grand opening service that about 75 people, all from Eastland County, attended. SBTC’s church planting ministry added strength to the effort by providing basic training, financial support and coaching.
The Woodbridge worships with contemporary music and a four-instrument praise team. A monthly rotation provides leadership for KidBridge, aimed at children between birth and fourth grade and coordinated by Laine Johnson.
Those fifth grade and older stay in the worship service. Youth meet Wednesday nights in their “One80” group, while students from Ranger Community College meet Thursday evenings. Adults meet during the week in three life groups.
Sunday mornings start early, with volunteers rolling up the martial arts mats and punching bags, setting up the chairs and children’s classrooms and then replacing everything after the service.
The Woodbridge story mostly takes place in the community.
“If the city is doing it, we’re involved,” Johnson said. “We try to partner with the city with everything we can—city, school, whatever.
“We’ve done a lot of things to earn a good reputation,” Johnson added. “One of our most effective ways of discipling people is to put people in charge of something and walk with them. We ask people early on to serve.”
The Woodbridge returned the city park to a place of useful beauty, including transforming the unused tennis court into a regulation basketball court, painting playground equipment and park benches, landscaping and more.
For the last three summers, the church has provided free family movie nights in the park. Other community outreaches include popsicles and water at the summer parade and popcorn and hot chocolate at the winter parade, a harvest event in October that includes a pumpkin smash and pumpkin toss for parents and a variety of activities for youngsters, including a hay maze.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” Johnson said, referring to the church’s emphasis on local involvement. “We don’t make it into something religious. We just try to bless the community and invite people to church.
“With whatever we do, we invite people to church. We tell people there’s no bad day to bring somebody the first time.”
Johnson’s advice to his volunteers each week: “Find a heart and heal it. Find a need and fill it.”
The church’s name—a bridge between God and people, joined together by a now-empty wooden cross—reflects its mission.
“Our goal is to bring people closer to God, to the unchurched, de-churched and atheist,” Johnson said. “A lot of people don’t come to church because they don’t know anyone there. They don’t feel loved.
“My job as pastor is to teach people to love people. We stress the importance of loving, so love them, and invite them.”