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There’s a Brand New Church with passion in rural America

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following two stories are part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.

BERGMAN, Ark. (BP)–Driving on Scenic Highway 7 through the small town of Bergman, Ark., on a Sunday morning, you can’t miss it. Oversized “BNC” banners displayed on the sides of trailers advertise that something different is happening at Bergman High School.

Pastor Shannon O’Dell and teams of volunteers arrive at the school’s gymnasium about 9 a.m. each Sunday to set up stage lights, sound equipment, platforms, curtains, chairs, refreshments and the Brand New Church information center and store with lots of BNC logo items available.

The church’s parking team slips on their orange safety vests. They station themselves in the school driveway and parking lot to smile and wave and assure a smooth traffic flow as cars file in for the 11 a.m. worship. The welcome team greets the nearly 900 casually dressed attendees.

Meanwhile, O’Dell and his worship and media teams rehearse the morning’s plan in the transformed gymnasium to make sure that excellence permeates everything that happens during the service. They know that it will be their opportunity to impress many unchurched first-time attendees with the message of a brand-new life in Christ.

What they do is not so very different from what many contemporary churches are doing in exploding suburban communities — casual dress, upbeat worship, high-tech media and a pointed, relevant message, all helping to break down any barriers that might give someone an excuse to not go to church. The surprise is: What works in an urban setting also can work in rural America.

O’Dell and his leadership team would say that the stereotype of the rural church being a small aging congregation does not have to be the rule when the pastor, the leaders and the members decide to do whatever it takes to get their vision from God.

In October 2002, a group of visionaries in the declining congregation of Southside Baptist Church in Lead Hill, Ark., decided they would not be satisfied with giving anything but their best for God. At the same time, O’Dell, pastor to students for six years at First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., sensed that God was calling him to pastor a church that would engage culture and replicate the Acts 2 church. When the two parties came together in January 2003, no one could have guessed what would happen.

The ministry of the then-31-member Lead Hill congregation has exploded to include nine towns in northern Arkansas and is now based in Bergman, a town with a population of 407. In December 2006, BNC averaged more than 1,000 people in attendance each week, with O’Dell estimating that about 60 percent drive from the larger city of Harrison. Others drive from smaller cities like Yellville, Lead Hill, Pindall and Kingston. “When church is done right, they’ll drive from anywhere,” O’Dell says.

When O’Dell came to Southside, one of his requirements was that the church needed to understand and be willing to be “pastor-led.”

O’Dell said he believes God has structured the church “to be led by an under-shepherd or pastor” for the sake of Kingdom growth. “Most churches are structured for it to be congregationally led or democratic. God’s order states: #1 God; #2 the pastor; then the elders, deacons and trustees…. [I]t is the pastor’s responsibility to equip and educate with excellence for continued growth,” O’Dell said.

“If there is one thing I could say to the rural church it is: The reason they don’t grow is that they are structured un-biblically,” he commented. “Families in power want all the power in the small local rural church with no responsibility — you’re so trapped you can’t move forward.”

Southside gave O’Dell the go-ahead to restructure their bylaws, allowing more freedom in their operation. By 2005, the church had outgrown two campuses and needed more space.

“At the first of 2006 I approached our trustees who gave me financial counsel,” O’Dell recounted. With a green light from the trustees, he shared his vision with the congregation to 1) lease space in the Bergman High School, 2) begin holding services there on Easter Sunday, 3) combine their north and south campuses and 4) rename the church Brand New Church. He also shared a philosophy to focus equally on three areas: reaching the lost, educating the new believers and growing mature believers into leadership. He based his dream on Colossians 3:10, “Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him” (NLT).

“Time was short. I told them all of this in one meeting. We lost 11 people. But when we opened Easter Sunday, 611 attended,” O’Dell said.

Prior to that Easter Sunday, 111 people came to be trained to prepare for the change, “to park cars, to do cafeteria, to greet and to do everything excellently,” O’Dell said. They purchased $250,000 in equipment on faith. “The first week we set it up it took eight hours. We trained three weekends in a row. Now 15 to 20 men do it in 45 minutes.”

O’Dell believes in immediately involving Brand New Church members “in what we say we really believe.”

“Instead of setting up around traditional discipleship, we get people involved in serving,” he said. The congregation now has an army of 300-plus volunteers involved in 15 different areas of ministry. “They have never been anywhere to see how it’s being done — they just believe in the vision,” he marveled.

Bruce Medley became a paid staff member in 2006 to coordinate the ministry teams including a bus ministry, the set-up team, Sunday children’s and youth ministries, Wednesday children’s and youth ministries, hospitality, media, ushers, worship, greeters, parking, first impressions, information and the BNC store.

“Each team is led by a strategic leader—a volunteer or staff person—who is responsible for weekly contacts to their team,” said Medley, who heads the set-up team. He noted that the team already is concerned about losing their camaraderie when construction on a new building is finished and they no longer have to do the setup. “When you get a staff passionate about serving God, and volunteers passionate about serving God, it works,” Medley said.

But Medley noted, “We are still on a learning curve.” With all of the sudden growth, they are now working hard to form home teams, the small groups meeting in homes, to connect members to one another. Zane Rowland, our community life pastor, says, ‘BNC will turn into a monster, and home teams will be the way to pet that monster.’”

Rowland came from a paid position in North Carolina to volunteer at BNC in his role as the overseer of the home teams. He works two part-time jobs to provide for his family and gives his wife all the credit for allowing him to also serve at BNC during this season of rapid growth.

About 30 home teams meet every other week to view a lesson on DVD taught by either O’Dell or Rowland expounding on the Sunday morning preaching. Then the groups, encompassing about 400 people, discuss the lesson.

While issues remain to be resolved, such as childcare and needing more host homes to reduce the size of some home teams (as many as 50 people in some groups), Rowland is amazed at how quickly home teams are becoming the main support system for one another.

As an example, he recounted, “The home teams take care of the people in the hospital. We have a young woman who is going to have a double lung transplant. The home team leader called me, because they were the first to be called [by the woman’s family]. When I got to the hospital, the home team leaders were already there.”

Rowland appreciates O’Dell’s openness to pursue any avenue that will draw people to Christ. “What’s encouraging to people serving here is that Shannon doesn’t let us make excuses. If someone says, ‘We can’t do that here,’ Shannon says, ‘Why not? Why can’t we try it? Let’s give it a shot!’ Because of that, we’ve seen people who had turned their back on church become a big part of our church.”

Cliff Methvin, a volunteer in the bus ministry, was a member of Southside before O’Dell came. “One of the biggest changes when our church turned the corner was when we changed leadership styles from deacon-led to pastor-led,” Methvin said. “But you have to be willing to go the way God leads you.”

Methvin told how there were some hurt feelings, such as when some pews with people’s names on them had to be pulled out to make room for the children’s ministry to use the space. “One of those funny things,” he said, “but when we got past that, it’s just grown.”

Methvin underscored what many have said, that O’Dell is transparent before others and “bears his humanness.” He is convinced that O’Dell is working only for God’s glory. “He plans his sermons six months out –- he has a calendar with dates. And he spends a lot of time in prayer,” Methvin said.

Methvin drives one of the six buses in the bus ministry that operates on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. On Wednesdays, more than 100 children and youth are brought by bus, then fed a meal before attending the age-graded programs.

The Wednesday programs currently meet in three places in the Bergman area — the former Lead Hill and Bergman church campuses and a rented facility. The children and youth programs encompass about 400 participants. “We have an incredible emphasis on children and youth. About 100 [of the 400] are adults serving those children,” O’Dell said.

After doing most every job himself the first two years of his pastorate in Bergman — “secretary, preschool, youth, and sometimes music” — O’Dell said his primary responsibilities now include sermon preparation and mentoring (formerly known as counseling). “The rest I give to my staff who always confidently and competently get the job done.”

The staff members lead and equip lay leaders to do the work of ministry; the trustees provide financial counsel and accountability; and the deacons serve the benevolence needs within the church.

O’Dell said he regularly shares his vision. “This ‘rural’ area has never seen anything like this, but every believer wants to see people transformed and their church alive. At every juncture we walk them through the process of what it will take to grow…. [B]ut it begins with vision. Churches don’t respond to need, they respond and react to vision,” he said.

O’Dell encourages pastors in rural areas to be certain that is where God has called them, and then to create a biblical structure and just do their job there. “If God called you to the backside of the desert in Africa, your peers, family and friends would celebrate and support you. Why is it we don’t even think about going to the backside of rural America to watch God build an emerging church for His glory?”

    About the Author

  • Kay Adkins