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Small-town church says ‘come as you are’ & 300 do

LINGLEVILLE, Texas (BP) — As keyboardist for country music legend Johnny Lee, Ryan Hurt played “Lookin’ for Love” with Lee’s band in a whole lot of places across Texas and the U.S. in the early 2000s — until a drunk driving accident led him back to a place where love never runs out.

Called in 2015 to be the pastor at Lingleville Baptist Church, the tattooed and bearded Hurt has seen the congregation grow from around 50 to more than 300, remarkable in a central Texas town with a population of 91.

Hurt grew up Baptist, playing music from a young age. Proficient at the piano, he became a professional musician rather than go to college, learning some painful life lessons along the way.

Success came with a vengeance and at a cost.

“I traveled around and played for a long time. We opened for a whole bunch at Billy Bob’s [a famed Fort Worth dancehall],” playing with musicians such as Neil McCoy, Red Steagall, Johnny Duncan and others, Hurt said.

The temptations inherent in traveling with the band resulted in Hurt’s abuse of alcohol and drugs, until what he calls the pivotal moment in 2003, a DUI incident when he and his new wife crashed head-on into a concrete wall.

“We ran off the road. It totaled my truck. It was bad, real bad. The road went one way, and I kept going straight,” Hurt recalled, calling their survival a “miracle for sure.” The impact crushed the front of his pickup.

“It sounds so cliché, a prodigal story,” Hurt acknowledged. “By God’s grace we didn’t hurt someone else or ourselves. It turned our lives around. I knew something had to change.”

Following the accident, Hurt’s wife Melissa, whom he had met when she worked in a club where he played, became a Christian. They settled in Hurt’s hometown of Grandview, Texas, where Daniel Hancock, then youth pastor at First Baptist Church, answered his “many questions,” discipling him in Christian doctrine and living.

“Daniel began to pour life into me. He showed me by example what it meant to be a Christ follower,” Hurt said.

By 2005, Hurt was leading worship at FBC Grandview. His desire to preach and teach the Gospel grew, culminating in the moment he sensed his “true calling” during worship at a Houston church in 2009. The next year, he was asked to work in student ministry at Grace Baptist Church in Grandview, where the pastor and elders encouraged him. Five years later, Lingleville called him at age 39, the father of three.

“Ryan came and filled the pulpit a few times. We started praying about it and realized, this is our guy,” said Monty Williams, a Lingleville elder and longtime church member.

Hurt said the small church stepped out in faith financially when they hired him fulltime on June 7, 2015. Growth came quickly.

“By Jan. 7, we had outgrown the sanctuary and moved to the family life center,” Hurt recalled, referring to the large metal gymnasium building erected years earlier.

“We always knew the right guy here would bring growth,” Williams said, remarking with a chuckle that Lingleville is not in the “middle of nowhere” but in the “middle of everywhere,” close to Stephenville and other communities.

The church was poised to grow before Hurt arrived.

Williams praised the loving spirit of the congregation, adding that many had sponsored and participated in the Walk to Emmaus — a three-day ecumenical Christian discipleship course — prior to Hurt’s arrival.

“We are not the typical Baptist church. He is not the typical Baptist pastor. Our deal is come as you are. We believe in reaching the common people. If you are already saved and living for the Lord, you may need to stay at the church where you’re at. These people didn’t come from churches. That’s what we want,” Williams said of the growing congregation, about half of whom are new believers.

“They were ready; the harvest is ripe; everything just happened when it needed to,” Hurt said. Growth necessitated change and risk.

“We had to step out, take chances,” he said.

Hurt started by approaching the older generation in Sunday School, explaining the rationale for shifts in music and worship.

“I shared my heart with them. I was respectful and they’ve been very accepting as we have changed to a more contemporary worship service with some hymns incorporated.”

The older generation became fans of Hurt, evidenced by the many seniors who joined in as 250-300 packed the family life center Oct. 24 for the year’s final family night featuring homemade chili, cornbread, desserts and worship.

“Wait till you hear the music tonight,” 82-year-old Sudy Williams told the Southern Baptist TEXAN. With fellow senior Beverly Hudson, she enthusiastically described an upcoming trip to the “Promise” production in Glen Rose their group would be taking with the Hurts.

Hurt lauded the older men and women of the congregation for becoming involved with younger members through events such as the multi-generational Man Camp and other discipleship opportunities where generations mix.

“Senior adults feel they are part of this church. These are their words,” Hurt said. “I need them to reach our community and the young people. They have gotten involved in youth ministry, teaching things like cooking, canning vegetables, manners, things that have been lost through the years. We are all in this thing together.”

Hurt also praised the church’s worship team and the many members who volunteer as teachers and leaders in RAs and GAs, youth and college ministries and Bible classes.

The church is active in the community, too. A back-to-school outreach provided all 270 children in the Lingleville school district with backpacks and school supplies.

Since Hurt’s arrival, the Christmas season finds church members providing 65 needy children with gifts from wish lists. Families are notified by mail when to come to the church to pick up the packages.

A nativity & a live camel

A Christmas tradition in its third year is Lingleville’s live nativity, scheduled this year for Dec. 15-17 on the church grounds, the perfect outreach for a farm community with livestock.

“The whole parking lot will look like Jerusalem,” Hurt said. “All of our kids dress up. We have goats, sheep, guys on horses dressed up like Roman soldiers. Each scene is delegated to a certain church group.”

“We even have a live camel,” Williams exclaimed. “A guy down the street has three and lets us use one.”

This year’s nativity will depict the life of Christ. Around 600 came last year to walk through the displays. Hurt expects at least that many in 2017.

Regarding the future, Williams and Hurt said the debt-free church hopes to build a new sanctuary on adjacent property bordering the local high school. With the area’s large Hispanic population, Spanish-language services in the present facilities are also in the works.

“It’s a neat season right now,” Hurt said.

The church’s motto is “Come as you are,” a concept modeled by a member once known throughout the community as a heavy drinker.

“Everybody was talking about this tattooed-up preacher. He said he had to go to see if it was true,” Hurt said. Six months later, Hurt baptized him in a stock tank.

Hurt shares his own experiences with substance abuse with the congregation. “I preach very openly. That helps with the people who are struggling with addiction. They feel like they can connect with me. I am honest about my failures.”

A rustic pavilion beside the family life center is called the Tabernacle. Designated a historic landmark, the structure hosted camp meetings during turn-of-the-19th-century boom days when four colleges and multiple churches called Lingleville home.

A century later, revival is stirring there again.