Rural church shows that God still speaks
In one of her Advent messages this year Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball proclaimed that “in faith we can discover that God still speaks and does many great and wonderful things in our world today!”
Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church is located in the rural southwestern corner of Harrison County in the town of Kincheloe, named for one of its first settlers and the creek of the same name that runs through the eastern part of the district. Sitting on top of a hill in the center of the village, Pleasant Hill has a long tradition of ministry to the tight-knit people of Kincheloe since its founding in 1845. The small church exemplifies how to minister to the children of a community all year long and is showing that God still speaks to us in our world today.
And the laity is leading the way.
An open heart moved
Vacation Bible School coordinator Jennifer Paugh says it all started with the heroin overdose of a young man who had lived his whole life in the area. The tragedy caused members of the Pleasant Hill family, including Jennifer, to look deep in their hearts and decide to make a more concerted effort to focus on ministry for their children.
The tragedy made her think about how her church was serving the community. Those thoughts are still vivid in her mind today, 10 years later. “I wondered if anyone had ever invited this young man to church,” she pondered. “I wondered if the church did enough for the kids in our community.” She prayed hard about it and came to the conclusion that, no matter how much the church engaged people in the community, it could always do more.
“If we had reached out to him…if he had attended even one VBS program…would he have turned to drugs?” she asked. She knew that it was impossible to know the answer but also realized that people needed to step across the threshold of the church and do whatever was possible to reach the children in their neighborhood.
The whole church became intentionally focused on sharing the love of God and giving youth a safe, comfortable, and caring place where their basic needs could be met, their spiritual cravings could be fed, and where they could be accepted and loved unconditionally.
As a member of the same cooperative parish as Pleasant Hill, I had heard stories about its innovative children’s ministries. However, I really didn’t take much notice until I started seeing the awesome pictures and posts on the church’s Facebook page this past summer.
When I contacted Jennifer and Pastor Destry Daniels about their summer activities and VBS, I learned that there was much more to the story. Both made it clear that their efforts are intentionally focused on engaging children all year long, not just during special holidays or a once-a-year activity.
Studies show that keeping youth occupied and engaged will help them avoid negativity such as drugs and alcohol, especially in areas where there is nothing to consistently challenge negative behaviors and promote positive activities.
Jennifer and Pastor Destry both agree that for as long as they can remember, Pleasant Hill has had a good VBS program, with an average attendance of 25-40 each year. But both felt, and the church members agreed, that they could step out and do more.
Before becoming VBS coordinator in 2015, Jennifer took her children to Vacation Bible Schools in three different cities, gathering ideas and looking for inspiration. Intentional prayer for guidance, learning to listen when God speaks, and enlisting volunteers was next on her agenda. “My prayer has always been and will continue to be for God to help us to be the fishers of men that he wants us to be,” she stated proudly.
“We made four major changes the first year,” she continued. “First, we shortened the time. Many people have a 20-minute commute to our rural community, so we shortened the time to 90 minutes. Second, we moved VBS outside. By moving it outside, we could set up rotations so the kids weren’t in one spot too long. Third, we started advertising on social media to get the word out. Fourth, we decided to purchase Pleasant Hill Church shirts with a scripture on them for every child. We set up an online registration so we could order the correct number and sizes of shirts.
“I always felt that if we built it, they would come….and they came. We pre-registered 65 kids the first year. They would go home each evening and bring new friends with them the following day. By the end of the week we had 78 participants.”
Pleasant Hill had 116 pre-registrations the second year of its revamped program. The “The Wild Frontier” theme was grounded in Kincheloe’s rural roots. With a bit of nervous anticipation, the church held a prayer vigil a few days before VBS began and anointed the ground with oil. The church prayed not only for the safety of the children and good weather, but also for the salvation of those who did not know the Lord.
PHUMC has no parking, so volunteers hooked a trailer to a farm tractor and shuttled families from a nearby field in their “Kincheloe Uber,” as they called it. The weather was near perfect and by the end of the third night, Jennifer affirmed, 40 children had been introduced to Christ.
At the end of the closing program a fifth grader asked Jennifer what she needed to do to be baptized. Pastor Destry talked with her parents, then announced that they would offer baptisms in Kincheloe Creek. Five youth were baptized.
With more than 137 registered in the summer of 2018, the church faced a new obstacle. Oil and gas activity was booming, and the narrow, winding roads were not accustomed to the heavy equipment and constant truck traffic. It made for a potentially dangerous situation. The church again prayed for God’s intervention. A few days before VBS began, one of the companies working in the area offered to pay for a police officer to direct traffic and watch over the activities each night during VBS hours. Yet again, prayers were answered.
Leaders also helped the children and their families learn about God’s grace through the sacrament of baptism early in the week. Subsequently, 28 children and adults were baptized this summer.
“The church does not revolve around the minister”
As a small church in a rural community, Pleasant Hill has faced many obstacles throughout its history. The current church building was built in 1905 and has had few upgrades over the past 113 years. There are no classrooms and no fellowship hall for events. Members acknowledge that their facilities are outdated. “Frankly, our well water stinks,” Jennifer joked.
Even with all of these apparent roadblocks the church is growing. Jennifer said that with God’s help, PHUMC has learned to adapt.
Like many congregations in the West Virginia Conference, Pleasant Hill has shared a pastor on a multi-point charge for many years. Because of its remoteness to its sister church and not having a pastoral presence every Sunday, the church readily identifies itself as lay-led. Jennifer noted that, “Although the minister is an important part of the church, the church does not revolve around the minister.”
Pastor Destry, a Licensed Local Pastor who has been assigned to Pleasant Hill and New Bethel churches for the past 10 years, agrees. He also knows from where the energy and passion comes. “We are experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit in never-before-seen ways and are experiencing the fruits of healing, lives being changed, and captives being set free,” he said. “Our growing, thriving congregation is full of new ideas that are reaching outside the walls of the church into the lives of the youth in the area.”
To further highlight the congregation’s adaptability, Jennifer remarked that, “Our church is transparent. We don’t have a lot of meetings, and final decisions are made by the entire congregation. The culture of our church has always been consistent. We are one body in Christ.”
Engaging Youth All Year Long
During a time when many churches have moved away from a formal Sunday School program, Pleasant Hill centers its Sunday worship on more than just traditional services and orders of worship. “Because we didn’t always have a preacher every week, we have always had an active Sunday School program,” Jennifer explained. “We find that Sunday School is one reason why young families are coming to our church. We have developed a good program that is age specific and biblically sound for all ages.”
Jennifer said another innovative program that has taken root in the church through a “nudging of the Holy Spirit” is an annual youth-led worship service. Five years ago, Youth Sunday was started “as a way to get the kids together to worship God in a big way.”
That first Sunday, three churches participated: Pleasant Hill, New Bethel, and Harvest Evangelical Methodist Church in Good Hope.
The kids performed several songs and led scripture readings. One of the youth, Garrett Davis, preached the sermon (he has continued to share God’s word many Sundays since). After the service, the church served lunch and organized an ATV ride through the community.
The program has grown since that first Sunday, and is now held yearly at Jackson’s Mill, followed by a picnic and pool party. According to Pastor Destry, more than 250 people participated in this year’s event.
As Jennifer outlined, some of PHUMC’s other “Sunday” activities and events include:
- Pennies for Hunger – The children collect spare change from the congregation every week. Once a year those pennies are donated to a local food charity.
- Birthday offerings – The children sing to those having a birthday, who then make a special offering of a penny for each year of their lives. Proceeds are used to support the flower fund.
- Stump the Preacher – Each week the kids take turns coming up with a Bible verse from the New Testament and omitting one word. The preacher has to fill in the blank. If he fails, the kids choose either to put a pie in his face or put him in the dunking booth at VBS.
- Memorial Day cemetery decorating – Every year on the Sunday before Memorial Day, the children go to the church cemetery and help put flags on veterans’ graves. The kids learn where the veterans are buried and to pay respect to those who have protected us.
- Christmas Eve & Easter morning children’s programs – For at least 60 years, both of these programs have featured a youth-led play.
- Movie nights, game nights, pool parties, outdoor church services, etc.
The congregation hesitates to accept praise for its successes. But members are extremely proud of what God is doing in their community and how their ministry has gone outside the church to change people’s lives, including their own. According to Jennifer, they are “just a group of imperfect people who are following the call of God’s ministry” in their lives.
She also wants people to know that it doesn’t take a big budget to do what PHUMC does. God always provides, and there are “a ton of things anyone can do that cost only a little bit of time and a whole lot of prayer.”
“Has our church grown?” Jennifer summarized. “Yes, we’ve grown, but we still have empty pews. Is it worth all this effort even if you don’t see the kids again until the next event? Absolutely! We are planting seeds that may not be harvested in our church, but we must take advantage of every opportunity, and it truly only takes a spark to get a fire going. Even the smallest light can shine bright for Jesus…even in Kincheloe.”
Jim Minutelli is a Certified Lay Minister and serves as the Wesleyan District Communications Coordinator.