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Pastor’s passion, transparency undergird Brand New Church

BERGMAN, Ark. (BP)–Shannon O’Dell believed God’s call to shepherd a new church modeled after the pastor-led Acts 2 church where the community of faith was the hub for all of life. But he was surprised that God’s plan was to do it in rural Arkansas.

O’Dell, now pastor of the church formerly known as Southside Baptist in Lead Hill, confessed that when the small congregation first contacted him, he responded, “We’ll pray about it.”

But, in reality, he wasn’t stirred to pray, the 34-year-old O’Dell admitted.

Several suburban opportunities came, but O’Dell also felt led to reject them. Meanwhile, the Arkansas search committee persisted, requesting a video of his preaching.

He gave the church a list of 10 things they would need to agree to before he could consider being their pastor, doubting they would consent to all 10. And he was certain they would be turned off by his casual “jeans, shirt untucked, no tie” appearance in the video.

But the call came: “You’re exactly what we’re looking for.”

O’Dell thought he knew what God was calling him to — and a town of 88 people was not it. “I told God, ‘I can’t do this. I know what You’ve called me to, and I’m better than this.

“And God said, ‘What if I want to blaze a trail that brings Me glory? And not in an area where people are naturally flocking?’

“I said, ‘God, if it’s what You want … and if I get a unanimous vote…. This church hadn’t had a unanimous vote on a coffeepot!’”

But sure enough, 31 members of Southside Baptist voted unanimously to call O’Dell to lead their church on Jan. 12, 2003. “For two years I did everything,” said O’Dell — “the preaching, children’s ministry, youth ministry, answered the phones.” The church grew to about 200 attendees and they drew up plans to build a new worship facility that would seat 425.

The plan to build was scrapped when, in January 2005, a struggling, pastor-less church in nearby Bergman called the Lead Hill church to request support. Soon Southside had two campuses — 200 attending in Lead Hill and 100 in Bergman.

On Easter Sunday 2006, the churches joined forces and began meeting in Bergman High School’s gymnasium, with 611 in attendance. For the first Sunday in December, 861 were in attendance, and 1,348 turned out for two Christmas Eve services. “It has been the wildest roller coaster I’ve ever seen and it makes no sense to me that we are knocking on the door of 900 [average attendance]!” O’Dell marveled.

“But,” he quickly noted, “it’s not about the numbers. It’s about changed lives, about marriages and families being put back together, and drug addicts being set free.” And it’s about a congregation passionate about being biblical in their structure and ministry.

Under O’Dell’s leadership, the rural church counted more than 400 decisions for Christ, topped 300 in baptisms, grown a committed army of 300-plus volunteers in about 15 areas of service, has 30 home groups meeting within a 30-mile radius of the church, and begun construction on a $2.8 million worship facility. And they have a brand new name –- “Brand New Church.”

Based on Colossians 3:10, the name Brand New Church is purposeful rather than “geographically driven,” O’Dell said. When his wife Cindy questioned him about the new name — “What will you do when it isn’t brand new anymore?” –- he responded, “That’s the point. The old nature is gone, you’ve been given a brand-new nature that is continually being renewed. I want my church members, every time they say their name, to know who they really are.”

Shain Satterwhite, a successful owner of several businesses including two Ford dealerships and an Extreme Sports shop, and his wife Tammy are two of the many members whose lives have been made brand new in Jesus Christ via O’Dell’s ministry in the past two years. Tammy grew up in church, but Shain did not. Over their 12 years together, church had never been part of their marriage or family life.

“Our marriage was a very rocky road with lots of ups and downs and bad influences,” Tammy recounted. “We had several big blowouts, and divorce was always thrown around.”

After an extremely hurtful fight on New Years Eve 2004, Shain woke to the realization that he was making a lot of mistakes. His mother had been warning Shain and Tammy that the way they were living wasn’t working and they needed to try something different. She encouraged them to try Southside Baptist Church where she had been attending. She told them the pastor there was a young guy and a different kind of preacher.

So Shain decided to give it a try. “I told Tammy, ‘We’re going to church, and we’re not going to party anymore,’” he said. “And she said, ‘OK.’”

“We went that Sunday,” Tammy said. “People opened up their arms to us and truly loved on us, knowing what we were and no matter the baggage we brought with us.” She said O’Dell phoned them later that day to thank them for coming and offered his home and cell numbers should they have a need with which he could help.

“I just loved the way he talked,” Shain said. “He really connected with me and got me thinking about some things. I decided that if I’m going to go to church every Sunday, this is the guy I’m going to listen to.”

After attending Southside for several weeks, Shain had lots of questions. He called O’Dell to schedule a meeting, and O’Dell said, “How about today?”

Shain showed up at the Neighbor’s Mill restaurant with a pen and a legal pad ready to take notes. “I would hear a sermon, then read and study through the week, and I would have lots of questions,” he said. O’Dell answered his questions — about the Book of Revelation, about the Trinity, about what happens after death and other topics.

But O’Dell also convinced Shain that all of his questions didn’t really matter, because he didn’t know the Lord. And in the restaurant parking lot, O’Dell led Shain to Christ.

“There was such a change in my husband,” Tammy tearfully recalled. She had been baptized in a church at a young age and thought she was saved. However, the change that took place in Shain caused her to realize that she was missing something that he had.

“The day before Valentine’s Day I prayed to receive Christ. Since that day, I can’t even begin to share with you all the amazing things God has done in our life,” she said. She enumerated stories of friends with whom they had once partied who had started coming to Brand New Church and been saved; of her brother and sister-in-law’s restored marriage resulting from her and Shain’s personal testimony and O’Dell’s ministry; of the way Shain’s salvation has affected him as a husband, father, businessman and employer.

“We have a relationship that is truly Christ-centered,” she said. “We now know what it means to truly love — it’s not always feelings, but commitment. I can see such a difference in the way we love our children and the way they love us. All that is just from my husband being the spiritual leader in our home.”

Not quite two years old in Christ, Shain and Tammy already have become a vital part of Brand New Church. They host a home group and Tammy heads up Wednesdays With Friends (WWF), the Wednesday night children’s program attended by about 80 kindergarten through fourth-graders. Shain serves as a strategic leader for signage and the parking team and recently was voted to be a trustee.

“Shannon is our pastor and our friend,” Tammy said. “He lives it day to day. You can see him living it and passionately pursuing what God wants for our church. It’s been an amazing ride!”

Tammy’s sentiments are echoed throughout the congregation of Brand New Church — words like “vision,” “passion,” “integrity” and “real” often are used to describe O’Dell’s leadership and walk.

Zane Rowland had served under O’Dell as a youth intern at First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., and until recently was a student pastor at a large North Carolina church. He and O’Dell saw each other again at a church leadership conference at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas.

When he heard what was happening at Brand New Church, Rowland said, “I just wanted to be a part.” Though the church has brought on several fulltime staffers this year, there was not an opportunity open for Rowland to serve in a paid position.

But Rowland left North Carolina and came to Arkansas anyway. He currently works two jobs — one for UPS and one in construction — to provide for his family while serving at BNC as the community life pastor. Rowland organizes the “home teams” — the BNC term for small groups meeting in homes. Currently nearly 400 people meet two nights each month in 30 host homes spread out over nine communities within a 30-mile radius of the church.

What excites Rowland is that BNC “isn’t growing because unhappy Christians from other churches are coming. It’s that lost people who had no clue about God are getting radically saved. I love the authenticity of the people. It’s come as you are; bring in your baggage. Honest, real people loving Jesus and living life.

“It has been incredible watching people — marriages are being saved, restored, families are being healed,” Rowland continued. “There is a real positive peer pressure to have a great marriage — Shannon always talks about having a ‘hot marriage.’ Stories are countless about people who had divorced and got remarried in our service.”

Rowland believes people appreciate O’Dell’s willingness to be transparent, and they see his vision. “He’s not just knocking around, he’s an incredible visionary,” Rowland said, citing times he showed up at O’Dell’s house long before daylight to go hunting and O’Dell would be doing his quiet time.

Rowland noted that many times people are impressed that a pastor seems to have a perfect marriage and family. “But,” he said, “Shannon tells you when he has wronged his wife or kids. People know they aren’t the only ones.”

Bruce Medley serves on the BNC staff as the volunteer coordinator, organizing 300-plus volunteers in 15 areas of service. Medley, a member of Southside for 19 years, chaired the search committee that called O’Dell.

Before O’Dell came, a desire began to stir in Medley and some other members to see God do more in their church. They began by investing in the children of the community and grew their Wednesday night program from six children to about 70. Then he stumbled across an article in Christianity Today about Willow Creek Church 20 years later.

“That article lit me up. I remember reading about Saddleback and ‘The Purpose-Driven Church.’ I bought the book and read it and then bought a case for the church. I said, ‘This is where we’re going.’”

When a gentleman passed away and left a sizeable amount of money to the church, they had the resources to start looking for a pastor. “We could go out and get the best — that being Shannon O’Dell who has taken us to heights we never dreamed of,” Medley said. “We believe Shannon is sent by God. He came for a drastically reduced rate — but he saw things happening in the church.”

Medley also is O’Dell’s accountability partner. “We meet every week to talk about our relationship with God, our family and our ministry,” Medley said.

O’Dell believes there are two important areas where pastors should be held accountable and whereby a congregation can sense he is “on the right track.”

First, is the church growing? “Many pastors have told me, ‘I am called to pastor a small church.’ But I don’t see that in Scripture,” O’Dell said. “It can be small, but it must be growing. My Bible teaches that anything alive grows.”

He continued, “If our bank account or 401K was the same today as it was 20 years ago, we would make some changes. The church, though, tolerates average, declining and mundane leadership. But if the waitress didn’t bring out the right order, we would be in her face about poor service.”

Second — “and equally important,” O’Dell said — does the pastor have a “hot marriage?”

“A pastor can often fool his congregation, but he can never fool his wife. If he is passionately in love with God, it will be reflected in his marriage.” O’Dell and his wife Cindy go on a “hot date” once a week, and one of their absolutes is that he, Cindy and their four children — Anna, Evan, Sarah and K.J. — have dinner together at least three times a week. “We don’t let our kids’ schedules dictate our family calendar,” he said.

Medley noted that O’Dell excels in helping couples restore their marriages. “I’ve seen marriage after marriage find God’s will and be put back together. I see it about every two weeks — people on the verge who talk to him as one last resort. And he uses God’s Word to put those marriages on the right track.”

“Shannon’s leadership is second to none — and so is his passion for his wife and family and church,” Medley said. “He’s ready to do whatever it takes to win as many souls for Jesus Christ as he can.”

Though O’Dell says he misses having an Outback steakhouse nearby, he loves the rural setting. “I love the intimacy with our community and our rich friendships,” the pastor said. “Everywhere I go I see changed lives as a result of a God who loves the rural church with the same passion as He loves the big city church.”

O’Dell encourages churches to get God’s vision and to not be afraid. “I don’t care where you’re at, even in a rural area. God is at work in areas of obscurity. Don’t be afraid.”

    About the Author

  • Kay Adkins