Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to "Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide." ― Jerry L. Van Marter
The best way to reach people is simply to talk to them. That’s been the experience of the Rev. Rick Baggett, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ardmore in Oklahoma.
Located between Oklahoma City and Dallas, Ardmore is a mid-size city in the heart of cattle country. First Presbyterian is an old congregation and is typical in that it has mostly older members but few children.
But Aaron Carland, executive presbyter for Indian Nations Presbytery, said he's seen a change in the three years since Baggett arrived.
"Since he’s been there, there has been a whole new life in that church," Carland said.
Baggett, who previously served in churches in the Southeast, was excited about the call to go to Ardmore.
"I always wanted to be a cowboy," he said, laughing. "Here, someone might call and tell me they need help on a cattle drive and 30 minutes later, I'm on a horse helping to herd cattle."
Baggett, who comes to the office in jeans, is not only indulging a childhood fantasy but is also engaging in one of the key parts of his ministry. Like most pastors, he has a desk, but he doesn't spend much time behind it.
"When you're riding with cowboys on horseback, it gives you the opportunity to look at God’s creation and really appreciate it," he said.
What's more, it allows for the opportunity to talk to people. Baggett often incorporates cowboy stories into Bible studies and sermons because he believes a key part of ministry is bringing one’s story to sermons. He aims to talk to people rather than preach at them, a strategy that’s working for him.
"Sometimes someone will come up to me on a Sunday morning and tell me they really saw themselves in a story I told a week or two ago but on some occasions, it wasn't even a story I told!" he says. "But that's fine with me because what it really means is I got my message through and they got it. They had that 'a-ha' moment. They didn’t realize it but they made it relevant to themselves."
For Baggett, it's about relating life today to God.
"The Book of Order and those things about the church are important too, but more important is loving God," he said. "Do we love the God that Jesus knew and presented to us? Do we make a Sunday connection on Monday?"
Baggett not only incorporates stories into his sermons but designs them for what he terms the "TV audience." He keeps his sermons to 8-10 minutes, noting that if he does well, he can say just as much in that time as he could in 20 minutes.
Baggett also reaches out to the community beyond the sanctuary. He writes a weekly column called "Thursday Musings" for the local paper.
"I just write about whatever is on my mind when I get up that morning," he said. "I've gotten a lot of recognition for that and not just at church. I'll have people come up to me in a coffee shop and tell me they read my column."
As he does in his sermons, Baggett tells stories or talks on an everyday level with his readers. For example, one recent Thursday he wrote about insomnia and counting sheep, an idea he got from hearing other people in town talk about having trouble sleeping. He wraps it up neatly with a message about finding peace and safety in God, sharing the word with his readers in a way that is both non-threatening and relevant to their lives.
Baggett is also a big believer in getting out in the community, and he's found that involvement pays off in many ways.
"Because I'm so involved, I often get invited to community events to speak or offer a prayer, and that allows me to bring my faith to the larger community," Baggett said.
The focus, he said, is on spiritual growth. If you can grow your congregation spiritually, numerical growth follows.
That spiritual growth is demonstrated in some of the work going on within his church. First Presbyterian wasn't much involved in mission when Baggett arrived, but one of his focus points is generosity. He sees generosity as a key way to express joy, a central note of Christian faith.
This year, 15 members will travel to Little Rock, Ark., home of Heifer International, where they'll stay in huts similar to the ones used by recipients of animal gifts.
"It's great to give people gifts and try to help, but sometimes what's really important is getting off of who we are and trying to put ourselves in others lives," Baggett said.
Baggett embodies this idea in the way he relates to his congregation, and the new life, excitement and enthusiasm First Presbyterian has shown are proof that it works.
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.