New Life from a Deathbed Plea
In 2013, in the last 24 hours of his life, 78-year-old pastor Oscar Barton of the Assembly of God church in Caledonia, Missouri, received a visit from presbyter Dwight I. Jones and hospice chaplain Dale S. Stringer.
Barton looked up at Jones and pleaded, “What will happen to the church?” Reaching an arm around Stringer, he implored, “Can this guy keep it going?”
Due to Barton’s extended illness, the church in Caledonia met only on Sunday morning and comprised about 20 elderly congregants.
Stringer, 43, had been a hospice chaplain for just one year while attending the church Jones pastored, Harvest Christian Centre in Park Hills, Missouri.
Southern Missouri District Superintendent Don E. Miller contacted Jones, asking if Harvest Christian Centre would consider taking on Caledonia as a parent-affiliated church. Jones asked Stringer if he would fill the pulpit in Caledonia. After two months of doing so, the church in January 2014 unanimously voted Stringer in as pastor, with Jones supervising.
Jones remembered assuring Barton, “If the Lord leads, we will take good care of your church.”
Caledonia has a population of just 130 people, 38 percent of whom live below the poverty line. Stringer and his wife, Lori, began reaching out to the community, especially the children. They encouraged the remaining elderly congregation to seek God for a vision to not just keep the doors open, but for the church to grow.
By July 2017, the church had increased to 90 attendees and Jones sensed the Caledonia campus should be its own entity.
“I think of this as a ‘catch and release’ ministry,” Jones says. “This church was ready to swim on its own.” The Caledonia campus became Hope Church of Caledonia, a full-General Council church, in November 2017.
Stringer continued to work as a hospice chaplain. While making the drive in early 2018 to visit a client in Viburnum, Missouri, 30 miles west, he felt God telling him that community of 660 consisted of many sheep without a shepherd. Early during his ministry as a children’s evangelist, Stringer had services at the AG church in Viburnum, but it closed in 2007. He began to pray for the town.
Stringer did not mention this prayer need to others, but a year later, Kelly Eaton — who along with her husband, Roger, served as children’s ministers in Caledonia — asked to meet with him. Kelly, 32, told Stringer that God had given her a burden for Viburnum, where she lived.
“I do not know where to begin, but I feel God leading me to pastor,” she told Stringer. He asked her to make a list of unchurched people she knew in Viburnum. They began to pray for direction.
In August 2019, Miller called to check on Stringer, who casually mentioned the seeds of a vision for starting another church in Viburnum.
“Well, what are you waiting on?” Miller asked. “It sounds like you’ve got a leader and some possible members.” Miller received approval from the district presbytery and the church obtained seed money from the Church Multiplication Network. The first service for Hope Church of Viburnum campus took place just two months later, with 60 people in attendance.
The church began with Stringer doing most of the preaching, slowly working Kelly into more time in the pulpit — before the COVID-19 crisis forced both churches to suspend services. However, both pastors sprang into action providing meals for any local resident under 18 years old, seven days a week. They also have personally delivered gift bags to each of the 81 children who attend services where they pastor. The church in Caledonia took advantage of the shutdown to renovate part of the building, paying cash for the project.
When the Viburnum campus stopped meeting in early March, the church averaged 50 attendees. As a result of outreach during the shutdown, many unchurched locals expressed interest in learning more about the church when it reopened on Mother’s Day.
“When I first came to Caledonia I just hoped I wouldn’t fail miserably,” Stringer says. “Now we have two churches, together running about 200, and I’m hoping that Viburnum will be self-sufficient by the end of 2020.”
Photo: Kelly Eaton (left) and Dale Stringer are helping bring new life to the area.