The first time I spoke to someone from First Baptist in Stephens, Arkansas, was while I was driving in the car with my wife Liz. When we got off the phone, I told her, “I think they are really serious about us.”
Her reply: “They can be serious all they want.”
It was the summer of 2010, and my wife and I were driving to the Houston area to visit family and to meet with as many directors of missions of as many local Baptist associations we could in the Houston area. After a four-year failed church planting venture in the Fort Worth area, we were ready to “come home” and be close to nearly all of our family in the Houston area.
I had spent the previous year teaching high school social studies, finished with seminary, going to the local First Baptist Church. Our church plant’s last meeting was almost two years in the past at this point. I knew God had called me to be a pastor, not a history teacher, and this summer was dedicated to “pounding the pavement” and seeking God in prayer for a place to serve in an established church, and we hoped God would send us back to familiar surroundings.
But we had told God that we were ready to go wherever He would send us. I had submitted resumes to every state convention with a resume service, all over the country, but had gotten little response. So to me, it felt good to get some serious interest from anybody, but to Liz, it seemed like a distraction from the purpose of the trip.
Just a few weeks later, we were driving back west on I-30 from our first face-to-face meeting with the Stephens search committee (a lunch in Mount Pleasant, Texas), and Liz turned to me and said, “I like them.” It was then that I was pretty sure that we were headed to Stephens.
When people around here meet us, they know right away we’re not from around here. When they find out that we’re from Houston and we came from Fort Worth, the first question they ask is, “How did you end up in Stephens, Arkansas?”
The short answer is, “God called us here,” but how do we know that? And why do we still believe that God is still calling us here, as we begin our sixth year?
Nobody really advised us to take this route. When we were meeting with different association leaders in various settings, I generally got two responses. One response was a subtle suggestion that I was abandoning my call to church planting. Why would someone who had “seen the light” about church planting ever want to go back to the established church, especially the kind of small church that would call a failed church planter as pastor? My impression was that these advisers thought I was sort of copping out and setting myself up for heartache.
But looking back at our choice of where to plant the church, it seemed we picked the most natural fit for our interests, personality, and culture. We were going to be a young suburban couple trying to reach other young suburban couples. It was a comfortable fit, but the comfort worked against us. It was easy just to live there and be comfortable. So the decision to plant a church our way, in a place of our choosing, was probably more of a cop-out than the desire to go to an established church we knew could be resistant to change.
The other response we got from association leaders in rural areas during our search was that the cultural differences would just be too difficult to overcome. Someone like me, who was from a large metro area, who liked to try innovative methods, would never fit with these churches. The assumption was that small town churches would not like me, and I would not like them.
Somehow, though, this church in Stephens, population 981, saw my resume, talked to me and talked to Liz, and decided they did like us, and we liked them, too. And God laid it on our hearts that if the churches of the “villages” of America were dying, then a generation of people in these towns were not being reached. And if no one went to these places except as a temporary landing spot, then these churches would never be revitalized. Someone had to go, and God was calling us.
Sometimes you know God is calling you to do something, because even though it’s going to be hard and part of you wants to reject the idea immediately, you can’t get free of the desire to take the leap. God worked independently in my heart and my wife’s heart the week we were in Houston, and by the time we got back, we were ready to really consider the idea that God was sending us to a place like Stephens.
I hope that by writing this blog, some of you who read who are listening for God’s call might consider that He could be calling you to a place you do not expect. And for those who have already answered God’s call to a small church, I hope we can encourage one another to stay faithful and walk out this calling with perseverance.