Permian Basin church refocuses on its community and oilfield camps

GARDENDALE—“The first step toward solving a problem is to recognize that it does exist” is one of the acclaimed sayings of the late Southern Baptist motivational speaker Zig Ziglar.

Members of First Southern Baptist Church of Gardendale recognized their problem: the church was on its last legs.

“In the latter part of 2017 came an awakening that our finances were dwindling, our attendance was dwindling, and no young people,” said Terry Easley, pastor since 2005. “We didn’t see a future. That’s when we knew we needed a change.”

In its first summer with a new vision, First Southern Gardendale already is reaping the rewards of reaching out to the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention for its help in revitalization.

Easley contacted Kenneth Priest, SBTC director of convention strategies, who connected him with revitalization consultant Mike Landry. The men and the congregation looked at the church’s past and present, and envisioned “a future blessed by the Lord,” Easley told the TEXAN.

When Easley had arrived as pastor in May 2005, a dozen people welcomed him. That grew to such an overflow situation for the 125 attending Sunday morning worship that in 2012, the church built a new 299-seat worship center, eight classrooms, nursery and office space.

“In 2015 is when the decline started,” Easley recalled. “People started moving out, retiring, some of them even moving out of state. We lost about 12 families and couples.”

The congregation that remained was for the most part, older. Church leaders discussed building a gym to bring in young people, but there was no money. It had all gone to the now debt-free 2012 construction project.

“We prayed about it and went with the revitalization program,” the pastor continued. “We liked that the intent of the program was to not only grow the church but to strengthen the church to be able to reach our community.”

SBTC provided First Southern Gardendale with a demographic study, which showed “a lot of potential growth within three miles of the church,” Easley said. “We learned there are many uncommitted people near us.

“We all humbled ourselves,” the pastor continued. “We all began to pray. We realized we are not in control, and God just started moving.”

Revitalization starts with prayer, Landry, the revitalization consultant, told the congregation. For 40 days last spring, First Southern Gardendale members prayed in their home with the help of a prayer guide from SBTC.

On “Launch Sunday,” June 24, Landry offered a stirring sermon about the “dry bones” spoken of in Ezekiel, and how “if you give it to the Lord, he’ll bring it back to life,” Easley said.

Gardendale, a town of less than 500 permanent housing units in far West Texas, is mushrooming as a result of the Permian Basin oil boom, where output is expected to double between 2017 and 2023, according to IHS Markit, an industry intelligence tool. With the need for housing far surpassing availability, oil companies and private contractors have attempted to fill the gap with portable housing.

Some housing is dorm-style, with two or more men to a room in what are known as “man camps.” Some areas have “family camps,” which are clusters of RVs and fifth-wheel trailer units.

“We have an estimated 3,000 people in man/family camps within a three-mile radius of the church,” Easley said. “We’re seeing some of them come to our church but as far as getting a long-term commitment, they have a church home where they come from.”

While Easley’s main focus is on Gardendale’s permanent residents, as the church’s ability to do so grows, it wants to grow in its ministry to the people staying in the camps, the pastor said.

He mentioned an Asian family attending that includes five youngsters and their parents. They own a nice home in Tennessee, but wanted to stay together when the father took an oilfield job, so they live in a 32-foot fifth-wheel parked on the dry, hot and treeless West Texas land.

One of First Southern Gardendale’s first outreaches in the early stages of its revitalization was to provide an evening VBS in late July. It drew youngsters from the permanent community and the family camps.

“We had 35 to 40 kids per night who attended,” the pastor noted. “Eleven made professions of faith and from that we had 20 join the church. Since then we’ve had 13 professions of faith, three baptisms and six families join, one of which had five kids.”

Easley spoke of another oilfield worker in his 40s, who started attending with his wife and three half-grown youngsters. Within a month he made a profession of faith in Jesus.

“We set a date for his baptism, and he told his employer he needed that Sunday off,” the pastor said. The boss said no. The employee on Thursday asked again for Sunday off, and was told no. On Friday, he asked again and the boss said, according to what Easley said he’d been told, “No way you’re getting off on Sunday. You’re not getting into that Jesus stuff.”

The new Christian employee quit, was baptized on Sunday, and on Monday found a job with more pay plus benefits and every Sunday off. Since then, his three children all have made professions of faith, and his Christian wife is helping in First Southern Gardendale’s children’s ministry.

“It’s not anything we do,” Easley said. “It’s what God does through us.”

About 50 people now attend First Southern Gardendale, which just completed a study on the seven churches noted in the New Testament book of Revelation.

“One thing I have to stress,” Easley said. “It was really nothing I did. I just tried to do what the Lord was leading us to do. It’s just being obedient to what he’s wanting our church to be.”

“The discipleship part is very vital,” the pastor continued. “But if you don’t get them there to start with, you can’t disciple them.”

This fall First Southern Gardendale plans to start teaching ESL classes. At an interest meeting in August, 14 people showed up to learn more how to help.

Reaching people, seeing people making professions of faith and being baptized, is the bottom line of revitalization, Landry said.

“One thing about Bro. Terry,” the revitalization consultant said, “he has bought into the hard work and vision necessary for revitalization. Revitalization requires a pastor getting his vision back. Bro. Terry really wants to see God do his work in Gardendale. He [Easley] is committed to that, and that will make the difference.”

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