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Church changes perception in Gulf town

NICHOLSON, Miss. (BP)–Mississippi is typically considered to be part of the buckle of the Bible Belt, yet some communities in the state are barely churched and the prospect of spiritual growth seems unlikely at best.

New Life Church in Nicholson has defied the odds and exceeded expectations. In a community of 5,000 people with only 5 percent claiming any church affiliation, New Life has reached people that conventional wisdom would consider unreachable.

Chalk it up to a visionary association, a devoted pastor and resources provided by both the association and the church planting department of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.

Pastor Rusty Kuhn came to lead New Life in a roundabout way.

“I was an Air Force kid,” Kuhn said, “and grew up with an alcoholic dad. I was an alcoholic and a drug addict. I was saved when I was 21. I was at the very bottom, and Jesus took all that away. God put a call on my life, and I spent the next two years supply preaching.”

Kuhn has pastored in Mississippi since 1999. He was pastor of Hepzibah Baptist Church in Silver Creek for two-and-a-half years and Bethel Baptist Church in Poplarville prior to New Life.

Nicholson, on the Louisiana border at the southern tip of the state, has seen a spike in growth since Hurricane Katrina struck two years ago. Many of its new residents are from Chalmette, La., and St. Bernard Parish; others are from Mississippi coastal areas such as Gulfport and Bay St. Louis.

“We’re a little higher than a lot of the areas around here,” Kuhn said, “so the damage from Katrina wasn’t as bad as it was in other places. There are 500 new homes in one subdivision, 200 in another, and there are plans for another 1,200 in a new subdivision.”

While the homes are mostly middle-class, Nicholson is a poor community riddled with drug and alcohol activity.

“I can take you to a drug dealer’s house a half mile in that direction,” Kuhn said, pointing, “and a half mile in the other direction is another. I’m really burdened for folks in that condition.”

Kuhn and his wife prayed for two weeks about the possibility of taking the pastorate at what would be a new work in Nicholson.

“My wife had the same burden,” Kuhn said. “So everything just fell in place for us.”

The church officially launched on Easter Sunday last year.

“We started with a core of 12 people …,” Kuhn said. “We just all clicked at that first meeting. A couple had been raised in this community. Our strategy was to be a church that was not about the building but a church without walls. We went out into subdivisions and trailer parks and surveyed people. We set up a tent with chairs and simply went door to door, announcing that we were going to have church in the tent. We had things for kids — balloon animals, face painting, things like that.

“What we found was that people wouldn’t necessarily come to the tent, but they would sit on their porches and listen,” Kuhn recounted. “We also did a lot of servant evangelism. For instance, we put an ice cream freezer on the back of a trailer and would give out ice cream cones all over Nicholson. We might do 250 or 300 cones at a time. It gave us an opportunity to talk about the Lord, to give out Gospel tracts, and so forth. We became known as the ‘Ice Cream Church.’ We’d also give full service to people at gas stations, wash windshields, things like that.”

So far the church has had about 60 people make professions of faith, and about 40 of those have been baptized.

“The way we’re doing our membership, when somebody is baptized, they don’t automatically become a member,” Kuhn said. “We have a membership class, and people will go through that class in order to become a member. That way we let them know who we are, what we’re all about and what we expect from them.”

New Life has about 35 members, and they meet in a building that belongs to the local Baptist association and used to be the church building for another congregation that disbanded.

Kuhn said there wasn’t a lot of respect for churches in the community, and New Life has worked hard to change that perception.

“We are the only church in town that isn’t the product of, or been part of, a split,” he said. “So many of the new people in town claim to be Catholic, but in name only — they come from Catholic families. What has helped us as much as anything has been the disaster relief work the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board has done. People know us by that, and it has opened up a lot of doors to us.”

In keeping with the “church without walls” strategy, Kuhn and the church divided Nicholson into 12 areas and placed cell groups, or home groups, in each area. The church has attempted to place a small group in each community and each trailer park in Nicholson. Each home is equipped to be a lighthouse or outreach to its area. The church has eight groups active, with two more ready to start. Each group has at least one teacher and one other leader.

“We don’t have traditional Sunday School,” Kuhn said. “We’re not about what goes on within the walls of the building.”

The church holds worship services each Sunday morning.

“When we leave worship each Sunday, I ask, ‘What time is it?’ and the church responds, ‘It’s time to be the church.’ When they leave this place, that’s the time to be the church. The building is a tool, but that’s it,” he said.

New Life is in the second year of a three-year partnership with the state convention’s church planting department, and they hope to be self-sustaining ahead of schedule.

“Rusty and the church are reaching hard-to-reach, unchurched people who have no Christian background,” Ed Deuschle, director of the church planting department at the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board, said. “He is discipling them and giving them a hands-on missions experience, and they’re already talking in terms of doing a church plant themselves.”
Tony Martin is associate editor of the Mississippi Baptist Record. Erin Roach of Baptist Press contributed to this article.

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  • Tony Martin