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Chitwood visit puts spotlight on small churches

OWENTON, Ky. (BP) – Surrounded by cow pastures and hayfields, South Fork Baptist Church is small enough to fit into a corner of many big-city church sanctuaries.

International Mission Board President Paul Chitwood has never let that stop him from preaching in this rural Kentucky church that has a long history of supporting Southern Baptist missionaries around the world.

“At South Fork, we take seriously the biblical call to be the Lord’s witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,’” Pastor Roger Alford said. “What Dr. Chitwood’s visit tells us is that he understands the importance that every church, regardless of size, plays in reaching the nations.”

South Fork Baptist Church serves a rural swath of Kentucky that has faced a series of economic hardships in the past two decades. The latest came three years ago when Owenton’s only factory closed, putting hundreds of local residents out of work.

“A number of our folks lost their jobs,” Alford said. “They had no choice but to look for work in distant cities. Many commute daily to the Cincinnati area, to Louisville and to Lexington.”

Chitwood and his wife Michelle are intimately familiar with the community’s plight. Chitwood was pastor at South Fork for two years while he was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He preached his first sermon as a pastor at South Fork 27 years ago this month. He marked the occasion by returning to South Fork to preach in two Sunday morning services.

“South Fork Baptist Church was the perfect place for us to begin in ministry,” Chitwood said. “Michelle and I were welcomed into the small, rural church as members of the family and as the family grew, so did we. I recall a pastor friend telling me at the time, ‘Paul, if you can learn how to work with the people at South Fork, you’ll be able to work with people wherever God might take you.’ I found the people of South Fork to be very easy to work with, and I’ve also found the lessons that I learned from them helpful to me everywhere I’ve served, just as that friend said. Looking back, I realize that the people of South Fork shepherded me more than I shepherded them. And I am grateful for their investment.”

Michelle Chitwood said the church was just as foundational for her.

“Because of South Fork Baptist Church, I was given the chance to be a pastor’s wife,” she said. “Because of South Fork, I made lifelong friendships. Because of South Fork, I was shown grace. Because of South Fork, I grew as a Christian and as a person. Because of South Fork, I saw the beauty of healthy marriages. Because of South Fork, I am not afraid to follow God’s will for my life. For South Fork Baptist Church, I am thankful. This church will always be a spiritual marker and one of my richest blessings in life.”

The church had fallen on hard times over the past decade, seeing average Sunday morning attendance drop to about 20 people. Church leaders were actually considering closing the doors. Alford arrived a year and half ago and found a group of people eager to do whatever necessary to revive the nearly 150-year-old church.

“We began a revitalization process that triggered quick growth before the COVID-19 pandemic hit,” Alford said. “There’s tremendous potential here. The county has a population of more than 11,000 people. Of those, less of 1,000 are in church on a typical Sunday. So we believe the Lord can grow a church in this community that can do significant ministry. Think about it. If we could reach 10 percent of the 10,000 unchurched people in the county, we’d have 1,000 people in church. If we could reach 5 percent, that’s 500 people. If we could reach two and a half percent of them, that’d be 250 people. So we’re jived about the opportunity here.”

South Fork Baptist Church was built back in the days when families walked or rode horse-drawn buggies to church. With a population so sparse at the time, there was no need for a large building. The sanctuary seats only about 80 people.

“To accommodate the community’s unchurched population, we really need more space,” Alford said. “The current economic climate here makes that difficult, but we’re trusting the Lord to take care of that.”

Glenn Mollette is a retired Southern Baptist pastor and writer whose newspaper columns appear nationally.

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