East Texas church has one explanation for the renewal it’s experiencing—Jesus

Ed Fenton (left) and Casey Perry are seen during a recent time of prayer. SUBMITTED PHOTOS

Making the impossible possible

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very morning, Scott and Brandi Plemons get on their knees and say a prayer like this: “Lord, thank you for our blessings. Thank you for our struggles. We are nothing without you. Please keep us from our addictions.”

Drugs and alcohol have been a part of their lives almost as long as they’ve been part of each other’s. They grew up in Arlington (in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex) and met several decades ago as teenagers. Both grew up in the church and both ended up walking away from God. 

Scott’s destructive path began around college, when he said he began to take advantage of the freedom most teens discover after high school. But his choices didn’t liberate him; they shackled him—literally—landing him in prison.

Brandi began to stray from the Lord after a crushing series of deaths in her family, including the loss of her mother when she was 13. Angry at what she perceived God had taken from her, she ran as far from Him as she thought she could.

“I just kind of went left and didn’t stop,” she said.

After trips in and out of jail and numerous failed attempts to shake their addictions, Scott and Brandi decided to flee the city and, on the advice of a family member, move to rural East Texas—where they thought they’d have a far better chance to stabilize their lives. Before long, they began attending a church, where they were saved and baptized.

But the hooks of addiction were still deep within them, so much so that they began to fear they were on a path to certain death. Scott said he has always felt like he and Brandi were meant to help others, but as they wallowed in the mire of addiction, they couldn’t even help themselves.

“I kept telling Brandi, ‘This isn’t how life’s supposed to be,’” Scott said. “‘God’s got something greater for us.’”

In their quest to get help, Scott felt led by God to find the man who had pastored him at the Arlington church he grew up in. He was Scott’s pastor from grade school through high school, until he left the church to answer God’s call to lead the First Baptist Church in Malakoff. Scott, who now lived a short drive away from FBC Malakoff, learned from a friend that his former pastor was still at the church, though no longer as the senior pastor.

So, on a Sunday morning Scott and Brandi set out for FBC Malakoff to find his former pastor, to see if maybe—just maybe—he might be able to help them break away from the bondage of addiction. When they pulled into the drive that morning, they were met by one of the church’s parking lot greeters. They explained to the greeter they were looking for a man they were told would be inside.

The man’s name was Casey Perry.

Scott and Brandi Plemons are married by Casey Perry, who served as Scott's pastor when he was a child.

‘I was praying without ceasing’

Casey Perry doesn’t have a go-to place when it comes to his prayer life. He prays everywhere. He prays in his bedroom. He prays in his truck. He prays in public places. He prays for people he knows. He prays for strangers. The sum of all this is that he can’t begin to tell you all the places he prays or all the faces he prays for—for the most part.

Perry, who will turn 90 next April, clearly remembers the two things he was praying for most fervently as the calendar flipped to 2020: He was praying the Lord would allow him to live long enough to care for his wife, Lettie, who was struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, and he was also praying for the First Baptist Church in Malakoff.

Perry served as FBC Malakoff’s pastor from 1992 until 2000. Those were good years. Among other blessings, he recalls how FBC Malakoff started eight new churches during those eight years. It was also a time of tremendous growth fueled by young families bringing their kids, who, in turn, invited their school friends. 

But as 2020 wound down, and with Perry now a member having long ago stepped away from full-time pastoring, the church found itself without a senior pastor and in decline. Salvations and baptisms slumped. Attendance followed suit. There was a general sense in the congregation that the movements of God so fondly remembered by its longest-standing members were just that—memories. 

“Every time I’d think of it—and I thought of it often—I’d breathe a prayer for the Malakoff church.”

Watching the church struggle grieved Perry’s heart, so he did all that he knew to do. He prayed.

“It wasn’t just daily,” Perry said. “It was kind of like Paul said—I was praying without ceasing. It was a constant time of prayer. Every time I’d think of it—and I thought of it often—I’d breathe a prayer for the Malakoff church.”

Perry wasn’t praying for a return to better days. That, in a sense, would be praying backward. Instead, he prayed forward—for God to move in a fresh way, opening new doors to reach the lost through the ministry of the church. He also prayed for the man he was certain God already knew would be the next pastor to lead the church into that season.

Yes, God knew precisely who that man was. But Perry didn’t, and as the time for accepting resumes ticked down, neither did the pastor search team prayerfully sorting through them.

As it turns out, one resume made it onto the stack toward the end of the process. It was from a worship pastor with no senior pastor experience serving at a sister church 30 miles down the road. His name was familiar to some on the search team, as he had previously served as FBC Malakoff’s worship pastor.

The man’s name was Ed Fenton.

After two people were baptized following nearly a year of stilled baptistry waters, three more would follow before year’s end. So far in 2023, 24 have been baptized.

Undeniably Him

In May 2022, Ed Fenton began keeping a prayer journal. He doesn’t remember exactly what prompted him to start, other than he wanted some kind of record to help him identify and remember the work of God resulting from his own prayers and those lifted up corporately at FBC Malakoff.  

The first entry is dated May 2, 2022: “Last week was one worth remembering. For seven months, we’ve been praying for God to work and move among us, and the Lord blessed in some unique ways. On Wednesday (April 27), the church celebrated its first baptism since June 2021—my first baptism as a senior pastor. On Sunday (May 1), we celebrated our second baptism. … On top of that, on Wednesday (April 27), my youngest daughter, Brenna, trusted Christ to be her Savior and Lord. He is doing a work that’s undeniably Him.” 

Undeniably Him. He’s not sure, but Fenton feels like that phrase is starting to resonate with church members. Not only because it is spoken often at worship services and during Wednesday night prayer meetings, but also because members are seeing—no, experiencing—things that seem to happen only because God made it so. 

After two people were baptized following nearly a year of stilled baptistry waters, three more would follow before year’s end. So far in 2023, 24 have been baptized. Worship attendance has grown from about 160 in the fall of 2022 to 250-300 this fall. The next gen departments are blossoming, with the kids ministry more than doubling and the youth growing from fewer than 10 regular attenders to 35-40 students showing up for midweek services. Weekly visitation—spearheaded by Perry and Stan Smith, the church’s missions team leader—is thriving. The church is reaching people who are subsequently joining the visitation team to reach others with the saving message of Christ that once reached them.

New leaders often bring with them a renewed sense of hope and excitement, which, in turn, can boost attendance. New ideas and textbook church growth strategies can be effective in bringing people outside the circle in. Fenton credits none of those things—nor the preaching, nor the music—for what is happening at FBC Malakoff. The church, he says, is experiencing what it is experiencing only because people are desperately and more frequently calling out to God in prayer.

Fenton the worship pastor turned to prayer before answering God’s call to leave nearby Rock Hill Baptist Church to accept a new role as senior pastor. Fenton, the new senior pastor, turned to prayer when trying to figure out how to lead the church in Malakoff.

Servants at FBC Malakoff help build a wheelchair ramp for a local resident.

“If it’s going to happen here,” Fenton said, “it’s going to happen because our people have been on their knees praying and asking God to do it. … We have staked the success of the ministry of this church on God answering the prayers of His people.”

For Fenton, pastoring has been an emotional tightrope—one of learning how to balance the celebratory shouts lobbed from the congregation as a new follower of Christ takes the baptism plunge with the tears of hopelessness he sees on the faces of people in crisis. It’s seeing a sanctuary filled to near capacity most Sunday mornings but knowing that same room faces no such threat during Wednesday night prayer meetings.

There is still so much Fenton feels like can happen—needs to happen—at this church. 

Even so, FBC Malakoff has come a long way.

“I just believe this so much—God can take 20 serious people who are desperate for Him in prayer and He can do the impossible,” he added. “He has done that and He is doing that.”

One way God is doing that is through transforming the lives of those desperately seeking Him.

The church works hard to reach out to the community, hoping for opportunities to share the gospel.

‘He can do the impossible’

It’s a Tuesday night and Scott and Brandi are sitting inside a Dairy Queen, staring across the table at a young couple they invited to dinner. A few minutes earlier, Scott and Brandi had gone to the young couple’s house during FBC Malakoff’s regular weekly visitation. Their own history of substance abuse helped them quickly recognize the tell-tale signs of addiction displayed by the young couple now sitting in front of them. As the young couple bickered, a thought ran through Brandi’s mind:

“We’re looking in a mirror at our former selves.”

Only months earlier, it was Scott and Brandi sitting in a rural diner across the table Smith and Perry—who met them for breakfast days after the pair were reunited with Perry after decades that first Sunday morning at FBC Malakoff.

“Tell me what’s going on,” Perry inquired.

“Brother Perry, we’re both struggling with alcohol,” Scott replied.

“Well,” Perry matter-of-factly shot back, “we’re going to whoop that.”

God has transformed Scott and Brandi in so many ways, not the least of which is this: they who once had a great need to be ministered to are now ministering to others as members of FBC Malakoff. Even as they minister alongside people who feel like family and under a pastor in Fenton who they say has been there for them anytime they’ve needed him, Scott and Brandi readily admit they have not conquered all their struggles.

But they’ve come a long way.

Digital Editor
Jayson Larson
Southern Baptist Texan
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