June 01, 2017
Rev. Jeremy Vickers and his wife Jill both have roots in and hearts for rural America. They have noticed that as many rural areas struggle economically and businesses close, churches close, too. This year at least 16 United Methodist Churches are closing in the Missouri Conference. Most of them are in rural areas.
Decline hasn’t been the story at Grace UMC in Lee’s Summit, where Vickers has been the pastor for 14 years. In the past ten years, it has grown from an average attendance of fewer than 300 to more than 500. In 2012 the church expanded its livestreaming capabilities to extend their worship services to members who were home-bound or otherwise unable to attend on Sunday morning. Southwest District Superintendent Mark Statler and Director of Congregation Excellence (now Bishop) Bob Farr liked what they saw online and said they thought grace could do more with their video service.
The church was already considering becoming a multi-site church so it could grow in new places. Extending worship via video expanded the potential of where that next site would be. So when they were approached with the opportunity of restarting a church in El Dorado Springs, Grace’s multi-site task force said yes.
It was a bold yes. El Dorado Springs is an hour-and-twenty-minute drive from Grace in Lee’s Summit. They connected with (now) Rev. Kevin McNeely and asked him to serve as a part-time campus pastor. The concept of having a video sermon on Sunday morning in a new church start didn’t come naturally to Vickers or McNeely.
“Both of us were thinking that this probably wasn’t going to work,” Vickers said. But they had enough faith to give it try.
McNeely is from Jasper. In sharing his faith story, he can tell you exactly when and where.
“I was saved 12 years ago at Oakton United Methodist Church,” he said.
McNeely was asked to come to Grace in 2015 to close out the church and start a new one.
When he started, he was a quarter-time pastor and a full-time brick mason. The church went dark in August of that year, although some legacy members continued to meet in a little building downtown while the church was being remodeled by a team from Grace in Lee’s Summit. When Camp Galilee was sold by the Missouri Conference, the house located at the entrance to the camp was given to Grace UMC to be used as a parsonage for the church, and McNeely moved to El Dorado Springs.
Only a few of the original members remain, but the church has now grown to an attendance of 50 to 70 each Sunday.
Sunday morning video sermons are streamed from Grace UMC Lee’s Summit for about three Sundays a month, and McNeely preaches once or twice a month. He appreciates how the light preaching schedule allows him to spend more time on building relationships in the community instead of sermon preparation. McNeely said that even when he’s not sitting at a desk actively writing a sermon, he is often preoccupied thinking about it and knows that can distract him from noticing a person in his midst in need of a kind word.
Like much of rural Missouri, the local economic opportunity in El Dorado Springs has become more limited in the past generation. In the short time he has been at the church, McNeely has had 15 of his people leave because they had to move out of the community to find jobs.
Grace in El Dorado is the third United Methodist Church that Helen Ellerman has belonged to in the past 10 years. A lifelong Methodist, Ellerman hasn’t intentionally been moving churches, but they’ve been closing out from under her.
“I was at Harwood, and it closed in 2007, so I went to Shell City, and it closed in 2016,” she said.
Jewell Ellerman, Helen’s mother, made the switch to Grace with her. Although 90 years old, Jewell is still active and made the goulash for the Wednesday night dinner on April 5.
Although there is limited economic opportunity in the area, you can get by on a little. Ellerman notes that the apartment she shares with her mother at the senior center is $388 a month, utilities paid. Meals are $4 at the senior center, and rides on the OATS bus are 50 cents. A lot of the people at the church walk to church, which is located centrally in town and not far from senior housing.
Recently on Wednesday nights, the adults have been watching an Andy Stanley video series about grace. Wednesday nights also have a young adult class, children’s church and a nursery. They plan to start a high school group in the summer. Attendance on Wednesday night has been as high as 50.
“We’re able to reach people on a Wednesday evening who might not be ready to try church on a Sunday morning,” McNeely said.
Although summer is a down time for many churches, McNeely has found it is a time of growth at Grace.
“The kids here in El Dorado don’t go away on vacation in the summer. They are still here and don’t have much to do,” McNeely said.
Having young people in the church is something new. Jim Spencer dates back to the previous church, having been involved there since he moved to El Dorado Springs in 1993. He said they had about 50 on the membership role, but only about 15 in church.
“Most of us were getting up there in years,” he said.
He’s glad those final members did a good job of maintaining the building and were proactive enough to pass on the facility before it started to decline and lose its usefulness.
“Grace taking over was an answer to our prayers,” he said.
The previous part-time pastors lived elsewhere and weren’t part of the community, making outreach difficult. He has impressed with how McNeely has immersed himself into the community, and effectively reached out to hurting people.
“We’re starting to see some growth. It’s a slow build,” Spencer said. “We just have to have patience and hope that Grace Lee’s Summit has patience for us.”
Spencer is putting his hope in Lee’s Summit, but his faith is in the word. He believes Bible-based preaching can bring about renewal in declining congregations.
“We’ve got to get back to asking for people to give their lives to Christ,” Spencer said. “The sermons that are just feel-good messages don’t have the same come-back sauce.”
Barbi Wilson tried Grace UMC after being given an opportunity to recruit for the Christian Motorcycle Association at the church picnic.
“When I walked into the door here I felt the presence of God,” she said.
She appreciates the sense of community in the church and the fellowship, and although she’s always been a Christian, she has a new perspective on the Bible.
“I didn’t really start learning about the Bible until this year. It’s intriguing,” she said.
Joe Hughes and his family had been church hopping for a bit when they gave Grace a try.
“We felt really welcome and at home here, so we stuck,” Hughes said. Now he’s a drummer in the praise band, and is one of two people running the young adult class. The other is Alvin Reasoner, the worship band leader.
Reasoner grew up just a few blocks from the church and never thought he’d be leading worship there. His band had been playing at various places, and he was very excited to be worship leader at Grace. On April 5 he was teaching from Romans 12: 2 in the young adult class. Reasoner advised that to live in the world, but not be of it, people must put effort into forming good habits.
“The two most important habits you can have are praying and reading the Word,” he said.
“We got to let the Bible change us and lead us. It’s not a small thing. It’s life and death.” He encouraged everyone to spend some time in the Bible and in prayer before they met again the following week.
CW Spohn is an usher at Grace. He became involved after meeting McNeely at a summer picnic.
“This is the only place I’ve been that hasn’t turned me away because of my background,” he said. Spohn’s moment of grace came to him inside a jail cell.
“When you let go and let God, that’s when things start to happen,” he said.
When Spohn recently needed a car, rather than a car he got a van, so he could use it to bring more people to church.
“Nothing God wants you to do is small. Everything counts,” Spohn said. “The van helps me with the burden God has placed on my heart – to get people here.”
He appreciates the straight talk he has received from McNeely.
“Kevin doesn’t say what you want to hear. He says what you need to hear,” Spohn said. “That’s why I know this church is going to continue to grow.”
One of the people at the church is Spohn’s mother, Evet Spohn.
“This is the friendliest church I’ve ever been to. It’s like one big family,” Evet Spohn said.
By immersing himself in the community, McNeely has been able to reach out to people like the Spohn’s and bring together a whole new congregation from within the immediate area.
“I believe everyone has gifts, and if they have any desire to use them, there is a place for them here,” McNeely said.