Immersed in the Community
When Greg D. Wheat and his wife, Janell, first saw Christian Life Church in Lexington, Oklahoma, it looked more like a disaster area than a place for worship. A jungle of weeds, vines, and bushes hid much of the building. Most of the shingles blown off the roof. The entry doors rotted away. Broken sanctuary windows had been patched and repaired with duct tape.
The inside looked even worse, with only half the ceiling lights working, and the remainder dangling and broken from their wiring. The red carpet displayed water stains from constant leaks. The seating consisted of a few scattered lawn chairs.
Craig Dacus, then a presbyter and now assistant district superintendent in the Assemblies of God Oklahoma District, had taken the Wheats on the visit in hopes they would accept the pastorate. Dacus explained that property and utility costs consumed most of the church’s finances; there wouldn’t be money for a pastor’s salary for quite some time. Lexington is a town of 2,200 people located 35 miles south of Oklahoma City.
A graduate of Southwestern Assemblies of God University, Wheat, 53, has spent 31 years in full-time ministry — the last 23 of those in Lexington. He had always taken the side of the underdog, and he knew Christian Life Church presented a challenge the Lord had placed in his path. Thankfully, Janell agreed.
“It would have been easy to walk away from such a challenging situation,” says associate pastor Jesus O. Solis, 23. “But Greg felt strongly that God was calling him to this place that had been passed by, overlooked, and even rejected.”
High school sweethearts who married just before Greg started college, the Wheats understood hard work. They sold their home in Oklahoma City and moved into two classrooms in the educational wing of the church. Wheat spent many long hours on the church’s flat roof pushing off water or snow to try to minimize damage from leaks. Before services, he could often be found emptying a dozen five-gallon buckets of water.
“When you are in the desert trying to create an oasis, it can feel very lonely,” Wheat says. “God, grit, and the desire to make a difference got us through those years.”
As a restart church, only eight regulars attended initially. The Wheat family comprised half the congregation, including 4-year-old daughter Kylie and newborn son Kyston. Janell worked in different positions through the years to help support the family. The couple often used personal funds to help with repairs or needs in the church.
“Change doesn’t come overnight, it comes over time,” Wheat says. “We had to have a marathon mentality and be willing to bloom where we were planted.”
In 2000, to take some financial strain off the church, the Wheats opened Fireworks Outlet OKC and, in 2005, they opened Christian Life Daycare. These businesses allowed the Wheats to better support their family as well as to meet needs in the church and the community. Funds from the day care, along with the new families it brought into the church, allowed Christian Life to pay off the building, hire staff, update and maintain the campus, and provide for community events and benevolence.
The church, which now numbers about 120, gives back to the community in many ways. The Holiday of Hope program has provided boxes of food, household products, and gifts to needy families each year. The annual Helicopter Easter Egg Drop at the local high school features inflatables, food, and fun games while gathered residents await candy-filled eggs. The church honors, recognizes, and feeds local sports team athletes and coaches each year, and provides a free lunch for teachers and administration annually. Christian Life also gives several scholarships to graduating seniors every spring.
Wheat has worked to build strong relationships with the town and school leaders. He is an executive board member in the Heart of Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce and a board member for Leadership Mid-America. In his spare time, he likes to take his Camaro and his customized 1994 Side Shift Bobber motorcycle to car and bike shows, where both have won awards. He also has been a power lifter most of his life and has set state and national records. As a member of the Natural Athlete Strength Association, he enjoys both competing in and judging events.
Because of the family’s keen interest in health, the couple opened a fitness gym, The Sweat Shop, in 2020. The Wheats knew this would not only help meet the physical needs of the community, but also offer another connection point to touch lives.
Wheat hopes to help bring awareness to the need for pastors willing to locate in rural communities and revitalize churches.
“Many young people feel called to the mission field and are willing to dedicate their lives to make a difference,” Wheat says. “I want to encourage this younger generation to see that rural churches deserve that same kind of commitment.”
Wheat isn’t the only AG rural pastor in the Sooner State who has made a long-term sacrifice to ensure the survival of a church. Jason S. Byers is pastor of Barnsdale Assembly of God 40 miles north of Tulsa.