Gun Barrel City, Texas, population 5,672, has a lone Assemblies of God congregation. First Assembly numbered only half a dozen congregants until Easter, when it partnered with Rural Compassion to hold its first outreach to the local school district, equipping teachers’ lounges with supplies received at a Rural Compassion event. The church also gave away 221 pairs of shoes to schoolchildren in need.
That connected local residents to the church. At Easter, three people accepted Christ as their Savior. A citizen not a part of the church was so moved by the shoe giveaway that he donated $5,000 to the congregation. Today, 30 people are attending First Assembly regularly. The church is planning upcoming holiday community outreaches.
The growth began after new pastor John Carabin likewise connected with Rural Compassion to hold outreaches. Additionally, Living Proof organized activities designed to give back to the community such as highway and post-storm yard cleanup, a barbecue cook-off, and a young moms support group. The efforts so impressed a local nondenominational Pentecostal church that it donated its property to the church. Its septuagenarian congregation of three couples joined Living Proof.
North Texas AG District Superintendent Rick Dubose and Mike Harper, the district’s church planting and development director who heads Target 1000, envisions planting 1,000 healthy churches across the district, urban and rural alike. Close to one-third of the North Texas District consists of towns with populations of fewer than 8,000 people.
Enter Rural Compassion, a ministry of Convoy of Hope. Rural Compassion is an AG initiative birthed from the heart of U.S. missionaries that aims to help churches and pastoral leaders in outreach and revitalization. Tim Ware, an AG U.S. missionary with Church Planters & Developers, and founder of Advancement, spearheads the North Texas Rural Compassion team. Founded four years ago, the team intentionally connects the district’s rural pastors who have attended Rural Compassion training events.
In addition to assessing needs and developing relationships with stakeholders in local communities, “The training focuses on becoming the best friend of your school and community involvement,” says Kent Anderson, Rural Compassion church network coordinator who, with his wife Judy, conducts weekend rural pastor outreach training sessions. So far, he says, 70 North Texas churches have participated in a Rural Compassion event.
“Rural Compassion brings a practical strategy for connecting in a community and some immediate resources to help jump-start those connections,” Anderson says. Each rural church commits to at least four outreach events in the year after training. Follow-up includes meetings and phone calls over a 12-month period with North Texas District leaders to empower effective outreaches.
“Rural churches became lost in the megachurch world,” says Ware, noting that rustic regions suffer higher poverty levels and greater joblessness than urban areas. “Our belief is that every church in every community in every demographic in every cultural group should thrive with the gospel.”
Ware believes that rural churches have unparalleled opportunity for significant community influence.
“I know multiple rural churches that have 10 percent (of the local population) in attendance,” Ware says. “It’s really about churches becoming outreach-oriented instead of staying inside of their own four walls.”
In Groesbeck, 100 miles south of Dallas, the Rural Compassion partnership inspired community involvement beyond shoes and backpacks that likewise meet community needs. Living Proof Church Pastor John Carabin is now Groesbeck’s fire department chaplain and a lieutenant volunteer firefighter. The fire chief is worship leader. The deputy chief heads the greeters. Meanwhile, other churchgoers care for the town by scrubbing statues and cleaning up graffiti and carrying out other projects. Carabin prays over the mayor and town council at meetings.
“There’s a lot of stuff out there where you can serve the community that has nothing to do with benevolence,” Carabin says. “We need to be a resource to the community.”
The outreaches have brought an influx of new families into the once-moribund church. But with the congregation approaching 200 attendees (around 90 are children) and programs outgrowing its 4,500-square-foot building, those in the congregation prayed for the Lord to provide.
Unknown to them, a dying local church with six elderly people and no pastor had been praying over what to do with their own property. In September, that church approached Carabin, offering to give Living Proof its 20,000-square-foot facility. It has a larger sanctuary, full gym, huge nursery, and nine classrooms on 3.7 acres at the gates of Groesbeck’s largest neighborhood.
Living Proof’s original property will become a clothes closet, food pantry, and emergency shelter. The old children’s building will become a safe house for women at risk. The owner of a tract adjacent to the new church is selling Living Proof his 2.5 acres to the church for $10. The church will use that land for a community garden, basketball courts, a soccer field, and a skate park.