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Gospel emphasis, community connections lead in rural church’s growth

SIMPSON, La. (BP) – Sitting 35 miles west of Alexandria, the village of Simpson doesn’t have much. Not on the surface, anyway.

There’s a blinking light and a Dollar General, a small convenience store and school for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Many of the area’s residents drive anywhere from 10-40 miles to work at Fort Polk, in the oil fields, with the state police or as teachers.

The rural setting – both the U.S. Census and locals use the “village” description – can be a challenge for churches. But the area’s focus on a sense of community has factored into growth at Simpson Baptist Church, which in turn is led by a focus on prayer and preaching God’s Word.

When Pete Keough began as senior pastor at Simpson on April 1, 2021, his first worship service witnessed a higher-than-normal attendance due to its being Easter Sunday. Average attendance began to climb, however, from 58 to approximately 200 now. Wednesday Bible study/prayer meetings see 30-40 adults and just as many students. On July 3 the church had five baptisms, joining the well over a dozen in the last year.

“It’s been about God’s grace,” Keough said of those figures. “Trust God completely and He will do it.”

A 32-year career in the Army culminated in Keough’s role as a senior chaplain for the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. That career took him to serve local churches and military chapels throughout the country as well as overseas in Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan. Ministering within a local context and the importance of becoming a part of the community became apparent to Keough.

He had witnessed it in Simpson. While stationed at Fort Polk about 21 miles away, he preached at the church numerous times.

“I really got to know the congregation,” he said. “When I retired and they were looking for a pastor, I ended up coming here.”

The church had always had an active outreach program. That continued alongside Keough’s expositional preaching style. A recently begun study in the Book of James follows an 11-month dive into Ephesians.

It’s typical for such a jump in attendance to be credited to the new pastor, and Keough’s leadership has been a factor, certainly. But in his bivocational role he remains working full-time as an Army contractor at Fort Polk even though he is officially retired.

That places a significant load on deacon leadership and part-time staff. All have answered the call, Keough said.

“Shelly Clutter, our youth leader, has done a dynamic job in building and leading our students,” he said. “Kyle Compton is a young man who is currently active duty in the Army but has surrendered to the ministry. He’ll be coming on board as an intern with the intention to make him an associate pastor. Ginger Stucky has been here a long time and done an incredible job of incorporating a blended worship program. Our secretary, Stacy Spillers, is amazing and keeps day-to-day church operations running seamlessly.

“Our deacons are Scottie Benjamin, Jerry Blair, Dale Albritton, Travis Bolton, Herschel Boswell, Tommy Jackson, Sammy Edwards, Brannon Edwards, Joe Pope and Roger Williams. These 10 men are amazing. Most are retired and are serving our widows and needy families by cutting grass, bringing meals and doing visitation in the community. Every church should have men like these.”

The church’s Vacation Bible School last month saw more than 100 children and volunteers. A competition between the boys and girls resulted in more than $2,100 going toward the Louisiana Baptist Children’s Home.

Perry Hancock, children’s home president and CEO, told Baptist Press that would be one of the largest gifts through a VBS in the state.

“What’s so special about those offerings is that it’s children giving to children,” Hancock said. The donation is even more special to him because he served as pastor to Simpson Baptist in the late 1980s.

“The growth at Simpson the last year or so has come through a lot of hard work by the staff and its people,” he said. “Pete’s done an incredible job.”

The church recently opened up a new $1 million facility with a 300-seat sanctuary, education wing and office space. Further construction will include a family life center. With a membership of just under 300, the church raised three-quarters of the amount to build it.

“It’s been a phenomenal example of giving. There is a sense of God doing something amazing in this community, and people want to be a part of it.”

A native Floridian, Keough again pointed back to the importance of becoming a part of the community.

“Embrace it,” he said. “I’ve learned to say ‘Geaux Tigers’ and eat crawfish. Always preach the Word faithfully and trust God. Be in the community and they will open up to you.”