Ministry varies from urban to rural setting

Draw a circle around every place in Texas with a zip code that begins with 797 and you find a good contrast in urban and rural life.

Stretched along Interstate 20 between Coahoma on the east side and the intersection with I-10 on the west, the urban areas of Midland and Odessa offer skyscrapers rising out of the vast Permian Basin region, each city with populations of near 100,000.

At a fourth that size, Big Spring weighs in at more than 25,000 residents, making it a big city by Texas standards, while surrounding towns like Andrews, Monahans, Pecos, and Fort Stockton each have fewer than 10,000. Spaced many miles apart are even smaller towns like Fort Davis, Gail, Iraan, McCamey, and Sheffield. And yet every one of them has a church affiliated with Southern Baptists of Texas.

While it stands to reason that most of the lost people live in the heart of the huge cities–a reminder that the North American Mission Board offers when making the case for an urban strategy for evangelism, there are over a thousand towns in Texas with less than 50,000 people. About a third of those measure their population in the hundreds. None of the six largest metropolitan areas in which two-thirds of all Texans live fall within this zip code boundary.

So while Texas is growing by leaps and bounds, there’s a whole lot of Texas that remains small. It’s not hard to find committed pastors serving in those towns and cities that begin with a 797 zip code. Many of them make a strong case for the advantages of long-tenured ministry to the same flock of people, even when the prospects of an area’s growth are less hopeful.

When Bill Melton received a call from Calvary Baptist in Andrews, he got out a map and found the location just 40 miles inside the Texas border near New Mexico. “I saw where it was and didn’t consider it any more,” he told the TEXAN. Eight months later the discipleship pastor called again.
“The more I talked with him, the more it seemed to be a real fit methodologically.”

The population of Andrews is one small town likely to see some growth as a result of the recent upsurge in oil production. Still, it was quite a change from Northwest Arkansas where Melton pastored a planned community aptly named Holiday Island. “The kids were entering junior high and I figured it was time to stay or go.” He’s glad he gave it a shot. Through small group meetings every other week,
Melton said, “Relationships continue to build greater connectedness beyond Sunday morning service. This has been a great fit for what I thought a church should be.”

Far to the western edge of the mapped region is Pecos where Ron Garcia pastors Calvary Baptist Church in a strongly Catholic area. He finds his members are committed to studying God’s Word, but recognizes that churches in the area have plateaued with no new move-ins. “People move into a big city. People move out of a small town,” Garcia explained.

Like most smaller towns, the senior age group provides the strength of the church, though Garcia has seen some success in reaching young couples where future growth lies. As a bivocational minister, the time he can give to ministry is limited, but he’s convinced God called him to serve Pecos.

“We have rebuilt, refurnished and remodeled all of the church–debt free,” Garcia added, seeing that as a testimony that his church will not “surrender to the world,” but continue to offer a witness in this West Texas town.

There are plenty of SBTC churches are in the Midland-Odessa area where a quarter of a million people live. The economy is healthy and pastors like Ivy Shelton at Sherwood Baptist are seeing new families move in and participate in the life of the church. For the past seven years, Sherwood has utilized the FAITH evangelism strategy to offer the gospel message to the neighborhoods surrounding the church.

And yet the lack of assimilation and discipleship of new members has been frustrating to Shelton and other area pastors. This fall Sherwood is launching a year-long new member’s class, hoping to overcome any discouragement felt by the committed evangelistic teams.

Compared to the church he pastored in a smaller nearby town, Shelton sees opportunities in an urban setting that rural churches usually doesn’t attempt, such as ministering to prisoners and halfway house residents, and addiction-related ministries. “However, when I was in a rural setting, I did feel like more of life centered around church life and that the church body was a bit more cohesive.”

In leading the church through various changes, Shelton said they have emphasized agreeing to disagree without ruining the unity of the church body. “When a decision needs to be made and there is disagreement there are times we will table it, pray about it, and come back to it later. Usually, we will then have much more of a consensus.” And when disagreement remains, Shelton said had asked the church to remain unified as he leads decisively. “If you make enough ‘trust deposits’ with your people, they will give you a great deal of room to make ‘hard decision withdrawals’ even if they disagree with you from time to time.”

Another Odessa pastor who has served in both rural and urban settings appreciates the benefit of a strong core group of members. “We have a good overall commitment to unity of purpose based upon doctrine,” stated John Taylor, pastor of Kingston Avenue Baptist.

Compared to pastoring in a small town, Taylor finds, “People have a lot less time in the city and you aren’t given a lot of time to build relationships.” Most of the church’s additions have been by conversion and Taylor is encouraged by seeing “more of God’s activity this year.”

SBTC churches in the area seem eager to help those in more isolated settings, often sending teams out to provide specific ministries. The pastor of First Baptist Church of Ackerly said the willingness to help
each other out is typical of relationships forged by generations of West Texans.

“We have to band our little churches together,” explained Ray McMorris, adding that the association to which he relates has no director of missions. “We have to take care of our own.”

He has little patience for younger ministers who view smaller churches as a stepping stone to something larger. “It takes five years to get to know the congregation, but the average pastor stays only two or three years. What’s the point?” he asked.

“So many pastors want to minister on the I-35 corridor,” added Mike Wright of First Baptist Iraan. Serving in his first church, Wright said he identifies with the West Texas culture. He described life as more laid back than an urban area, noting the importance of building relationships and becoming oriented to the community. “My giftedness is in small church settings. I am a person committed to the long haul.”

Whether in a big city or small town, that kind of patience makes it possible for pastors to lead congregations through needed change, stated Tim Ellis, a speaker at last year’s SBTC SENT Conference in Austin.

Ellis described many small-town Texas churches as family-run going back many generations. “They believe in evangelism, missions, an inerrant Bible and are generally loyal Southern Baptists,” he said, but the pastor is often viewed as a chaplain.

Currently serving as an associational missionary in East Texas, Ellis said small town and rural churches can adjust to change if given enough time, he said. “Pastors who understand this stay and have successful ministries. Those that do not generally struggle and have short stays.”

Compared to his previous experience of ministering to youth in a Lubbock church, Bobby Floyd of College Baptist in Big Spring takes advantage of worthwhile large-scale activities that draw many youth groups together regardless of size.

“Our youth group isn’t really big enough to do its own camp by itself. The cost alone would put us way under,” he said. “It was really good for our church to get to be a part of Centrifuge in Glorieta. They had a chance to meet other youth from all over the country and see how God is working in other places.” Out of that experience, Floyd said the teenagers returned to share what God had shown them throughout the week of camp.

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