The Little Brown Church In The Vale

I was called to be the pastor of Lifegate Baptist Church in Wildwood, MO in October of 2021. My history with this church is lifelong. As a point of fact, my Dad started Lifegate Baptist Church right after he finished Bible College in 1975; the story of how God brought him and my mother here is exciting by itself – but that is for another time. My older brother, Nathan, was born the week before my parents moved to the St. Louis area to start this church; I was born one year after in July of 1976 and attended this church until 1986 when God moved my Dad to another place of ministry. I came to faith in Christ and was baptized in this church as a boy. My younger brother, Stephen, and my sister, Naomi, where also born in St. Louis and spent their early adolescent years in this city and church. My younger brother, Daniel, was born in St. Louis one week before we moved to the Detroit area in 1986. After we moved away, Dad and Mom stayed in touch with many of the folks here and we would visit on occasions when we were passing through. Most of our family was able to reunite here in 2015 for the church’s 40th anniversary. We were able to re-connect with many people that we had known over those years at Lifegate – and social media helped too.

When my family and I were leaving St. Louis after attending the 40th anniversary celebration of Lifegate Baptist Church, I told Carol, “if I ever lived in a large city, I would want it to be St. Louis. I’ve always loved this city.” I’m definitely a Missourian! Often when we would cross the Mississippi on the way to see my parents, Carol would look at me in the vehicle and see my involuntary smile and say knowingly, “you love Missouri, don’t you?!” However, in 2015, I had been pastoring in rural, east-central Illinois for 10 years. Grace Baptist Church in Paxton was were God had called me to pastor and I was completely satisfied and focused on the work there. I fully expected to pastor in Paxton for my entire ministerial life – I believe very strongly in the value of a long-term pastorate. The Lord blessed our time in Illinois; I spent more than a third of my life pastoring in Paxton. The emotions are still very close to the surface in my heart and mind. I love – and always will – the people of Grace Baptist Church in Paxton, IL. I love the community of Paxton, IL. I loved so many things about that place and that time in our lives. However in 2020, there came a point in our family, where it was obvious that there were areas of change that needed to take place in our family and those changes couldn’t be made in Paxton. So, in July of 2020, we made the hardest decision of our lives, to leave our beloved church family at Grace Baptist Church, and many lifelong friends in Paxton.

The next 15 months were guided by Providence. We moved to NC where I worked in carpentry with my younger brother, Daniel, and helped in the ministry of Crossroads Baptist Church with my older brother, Nathan. I led the choir and the music in the church as well as preached often and taught the adult Sunday school class. We began homeschooling our children again. During that time, we went through the heart wrenching loss of Nathan’s wife, Jenny, to cancer. Our oldest son joined the marines. Our daughter met her future husband. We sold our house in Illinois. But, even though I loved Crossroads Baptist Church and working in the ministry there, the desire of my heart to pastor not only never abated, but actually increased.

Once Carol and I were convinced that God was ready to move us back into vocational ministry and I began talking to a few people, we were suddenly overwhelmed by suggestions of dozens of churches from all over the country which were in need of a pastor. (I’m deeply burdened by the shortage of men available to pastor N.T. churches). Carol and I – and our children – talked and prayed long and hard about what our direction would be. I wanted my kids (the ones still at home) to be satisfied with where we might go to minister. Carol and I thought seriously about inquiring at a couple of different churches, but never felt much peace about most of them, so we waited. My younger brother, Michael, and I were talking one day and he encouraged me to consider Lifegate in St. Louis (my hometown and church); their pastor had recently left and since Michael was home from the Solomon Islands because of Covid restrictions, he had been available to fill the pulpit for them on several occasions. I had heard several months earlier that Lifegate was without a pastor, but had not really given it much thought. But now that I was actively looking to begin pastoring again, I decided to go ahead and put out some feelers. So, I contacted Pastor Squires, one of Lifegate’s former pastors who had come back to function as an interim pastor for a few months. He and I talked on the phone and he then sent me the church’s doctrinal statement and pastoral questionnaire, and asked for my doctrinal statement. I filled everything out and returned it to him and he passed it all on to the pulpit committee.

The next few weeks passed quickly. The church did want me to come and preach, and then they would decide if they wanted me to come and candidate. Carol and I made a trip to St. Louis where I preached and met with the pulpit committee for questioning. Three of the men on that committee had been members of the church when my Dad was pastoring there; he had either led them to Christ or discipled them when they were young in the faith. We obviously had an instant connection and camaraderie. We had a very good visit and they invited us back to candidate. However, we still had some questions as did some of the people at the church, especially some who had not known me as a kid, or perhaps had come after my Dad pastored there.

When we returned a couple of weeks later to candidate, we brought our children with us and I had decided that if the church voted “yes” to invite us to move there to Pastor, that I would wait to answer until we had been able to spend some time with the kids to get their feelings for it.

I preached the morning service and the church then had a public question and answer time after which they dismissed us to go have lunch and then they would vote. While we were eating lunch at Cracker Barrel, one of the men called to tell us that the church had voted to extend the invitation to come and pastor Lifegate Baptist Church.

It may have seemed like an obvious “yes” from our point, but there were still several unresolved concerns in both me and Carol. The church had been through a difficult time the previous year and there would be some healing and rebuilding to do. I wanted some assurance sure that my children wanted to be there. Most importantly, I wanted to make sure that Carol was at peace that St. Louis was where God wanted us.

So the question was, “is this the will of God for us?” I believe that the will of God is not pursuing a mystical course designed for me before the world began, but rather making Biblical and Spirit-led decisions in every situation set before me. We had a situation before us in which we needed to make a Biblically based decision. We had many good reasons to go to St. Louis, but there were also reasons which could have caused us to doubt or question whether we should. There wasn’t a passage of Scripture which would jump out and say, “Go!” or “Don’t go!” We were dependent upon the Spirit of God to lead us to a heart of peace – and He did!

Here is how it happened. First, understand that I’m a Cessationist (meaning that I believe God’s special revelation has ceased), but I do believe that God can still guide us through circumstances and by giving peace or a lack thereof. As Carol and I were in the hotel room on that Sunday afternoon after Lifegate had voted to call us, we were openly discussing what we should do. I had just finished teaching through the book of Colossians at our church in NC in which Paul addresses the Colossians as “the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colossae.” Carol quoted that to me, and said “these people are the saints of God and they need a pastor.” Her point was that as the saints of God, it was His will for them to have a pastor. The question was whether it was to be me or someone else? I responded by saying with a little levity, “yes, only these are the saints in St. Louis.” Then, my perpetual need to be completely accurate with my words jumped in and I laughed and said, “well actually they are the saints in Wildwood!” (Technically, Lifegate Baptist Church in the city limits of Wildwood, MO, a suburb of St. Louis.) All of the sudden Carol and I looked at each other and we both remembered the old song and almost said in unison “The Church In The Wildwood.” Then as we chuckled about that memory, I subconsciously began singing the words to the song (Thanks to L.D. Christy for singing it often for congregational music when I was teen). When I came to the words “no spot is so dear to my childhood as the little brown church in the vale” – I couldn’t hold back the tears and neither could Carol. This was in fact “the spot so dear to my childhood.” I had learned some of my first lessons about God in that very building. It was as though the Lord had graciously directed our minds, our memories, and our hearts to that song as an almost tangible seal of peace upon our decision. As a point of extreme interest, Lifegate Baptist Church is a brown building and does in reality sit in a beautiful little valley of a couple acres, it is idyllic! To show you, you can watch our introductory church video at www.lifegatebaptistchurch.org.

I’ve since looked up the history of the song The Church In The Wildwood; the story with a picture is at the top of the page, and the words of the song on there for you to see (they are from Charles Johnson’s book One Hundred And One Famous Hymns). I listen to the song about once a week on a particular recording. Every time I listen to it, I’m reminded of how the God of heaven and earth works to direct our steps. When I was born when Lifegate Baptist Church was only a year old, God knew I would pastor here. When we moved away in 1986, He knew I would be back 35 years later to pastor His people here. He has been preparing me and my family to bring us to St. Louis. There is no peace or confidence like that which is found when you are exactly where God wants you!