East Texas planter discovers compelling— and surprising—need in hometown

When God called Teddy Sorrells to plant a church in 2020, he expected to be sent to San Francisco or Denver, one of the popular church planting cities. Instead, a quick demographics study led him to plant in the small East Texas town he’d been trying all his life to leave.

“I was born in Gladewater. I joined the Army to leave Gladewater. I came back to Gladewater and raised my sons here. I pastored a little country church just south of Gladewater. I thought, ‘Now is the time for me to leave Gladewater,’” Sorrells said. 

At his wife Marilyn’s prompting, Sorrells requested demographics data on Gladewater from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. “I didn’t think I was going to read through it and find anything surprising because I’d been in Gladewater my whole life,” he said.

God used two statistics in particular about the town of 8,000 to grab Sorrells’s attention: half of the town’s residents are millennials or Gen Z, and a quarter of the homes are led by single mothers. 

“Marilyn was raised by a single mom. I was raised by a single mom. These families are next-generation families that need a church that will love them and care for them and minister to them,” said Sorrells, who was saved and called to the ministry 20 years ago at age 29.

He was surprised to learn of so many younger residents because he doesn’t necessarily see them around town, he said. Maybe that’s because 83 percent of homes in Gladewater are rentals housing laborers who commute to nearby Longview or Tyler. 

With a strong motivation to plant in Gladewater, Sorrells began building a core group and casting a vision. “I put the word out, and real fast God started bringing folks that were either in my past or folks that I had known just by acquaintance that wanted to be a part of what we were going to do.”

Living Water Church launched in September 2021 with 122 people attending the first day.

Living Water Church in Gladewater has baptized eight people since its launch a year ago. They use a local lake for baptisms. Photo Submitted

Something unique is that they started with a building and with two services. Sorrells had driven by a Family Video store in Gladewater and mentioned to Marilyn that he didn’t see how they could stay in business with so few people renting videos anymore. 

Days later, a “going out of business” sign appeared, and Sorrells was able to lease the building for his church plant. Now the church has a prime location on the main road in Gladewater. 

“God has met and exceeded every expectation we’ve set in planting Living Water Church.”

Also, the worship space accommodates 70 chairs, so two services allow room for growth. Living Water is averaging 70 people between the two services now, and they’ve baptized eight people.

“One of the things I wanted to do was partner with our city,” Sorrells said. “I wanted people to come to our church on Sundays, but I wanted people to know us by what we’re doing in our city.”

They’ve had multiple block parties, and for teacher appreciation week they provided food for teachers at the local middle school and gave them gift baskets. Sorrells was invited to be the chaplain for the high school football team.

“It just blows me away how many students we have in Gladewater that have no idea who Jesus is,” he said. At the end of football season, the church hosted the players and coaches and offered games, food, a worship time, and a gospel presentation. Four students were saved and six rededicated their lives to Christ.

"I wanted people to come to our church on Sundays, but I wanted people to know us by what we’re doing in our city."

Teddy Sorrells, pastor of Living Water Church in Gladewater, tried to leave his hometown, but God set his heart on fire for the people there.

Sorrells contacted the local code enforcement office to ask if any residents were having trouble getting their homes in compliance. A missions team from a partner church helped an elderly couple clean up their home and yard as “the hands and feet of Jesus.” 

“Our city is impoverished, so there are like five housing projects in our city, and low-income earners live in our city,” Sorrells said. “There are not a lot of churches that are excited about reaching that demographic, but I am.”

Church planting is important even in a church-saturated small town like Gladewater, Sorrells has come to realize, because it’s biblical. God has called the church to advance the gospel, he said, and that means churches need to multiply exponentially.

The apostle Paul traveled to communities planting churches, Sorrells said, and that’s the model. 

“That’s why it’s important to plant churches in places like Gladewater, Texas, where in the middle of the Bible Belt you have 100 churches in our area that are either plateaued or dying because there hasn’t been a new work of God come through here in forever because we’ve quit multiplying,” Sorrells said.

“That’s small town and big town, rural and urban. All of those have the same problem: Lost people need Jesus, and God has called the church to go tell lost people about Jesus.” 

Block parties are one way Living Water Church in Gladewater is getting to know its community in order to share the hope of Christ.
TEXAN Correspondent
Erin Roach
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