Ten years ago seven people met in the living room of the Ikels home in Marion to start The Country Church. As the church approaches their 10-year anniversary, the group of seven has grown to 2,300 members, with an additional 1,000 people meeting at their nine church starts.
The Country Church of Marion, however, is more than a single congregation. It is also a model for a unique approach to ministry and the flagship church of a church planting movement that is gathering momentum across Texas.
“The Country Church stands as a testimony of his power and his glory,” pastor Butch Ikels said.
The blue-jean-casual atmosphere, barnyard chic décor, twang-laden country Gospel music, and homespun sermon illustrations fit well for people accustomed to the rural lifestyle.
“There are three kinds of people in Texas: those who came from the country, those who live in the country, and those who want to live in the country,” said Jim Gatliff, SBTC shared ministry strategist.
“The Country Church is a model for doing church that is, from the horns to the hoof, truly Texan.”
Gatliff estimates that a minimum of 30 percent of the Texas population would feel at home in a country church.
The common love for the simple country life and “plain folks” community are among the threads weaving together the diverse membership of horse trainers, veterinarians, bank presidents, factory workers, tradesmen, teachers, and ranchers.
Some members will drive as far as 60 miles to attend services. Attendance is so high on Sunday mornings, the church needs a sheriff’s deputy to help dismiss traffic onto FM 78. Ikels said they are the only church in the county needing this assistance. On any given Sunday, the attendance of the church will exceed the total population of the town of Marion.
“Many people might confuse the country church movement with the cowboy church movement, but the two approaches are as different as hogs and dogs,” Gatliff said.
“The Country Church has preserved the public invitation in the worship service, but most cowboy churches do not have altar calls. The Country Church has Sunday morning Bible study classes, but most cowboy churches have only short-term home-based Bible study groups. The Country Church has organized visitation and intensive follow-up classes for new Christians, where most cowboy churches rely on more informal approaches for outreach and discipleship. For the cowboy church, arena ministry is central, but for The Country Church, it is just one ministry among many others,” Gatliff said.
Other differences between country churches and cowboy churches and traditional rural churches are harder to spot. Most Baptist cowboy churches in Texas have an elder-led polity, but The Country Church is more pastor- and staff-led in its approach. A group of trustees serve as an accountability group for the pastor. Although the church has an unusually large number of deacons who serve in the church in numerous ways, they do not function as a decision-making body.
“The highly empowered pastor and staff may be as responsible as anything for the country church’s explosive growth,” Gatliff said. “If the staff feels led of the Lord to do an outreach event or something, they are able to gather up some folks to help, and they get it done without having to go through a bunch of committees and red tape.”
The Country Church of Marion, in fact, has no committees and very rarely has business meetings. Every dollar received by The Country Church in its general offerings is “pre-budgeted” on a percentage basis to missions, building expenses, ministry expenses, and staffing.
“The percentage approach enables us to pay for everything as we go, to never spend more than we have, and to do what we need to do,” Ikels said. “Instead of sitting in endless committee meetings, our approach enables our members to spend more time in visitation and hands-on ministry.”
On rare occasions the explosive growth of the church has required that the church depart from its simple budgeting formula. Three years ago, when weekly crowds overwhelmed the existing buildings, church members responded to a call to pray and give to the $175,000 needed to purchase eight acres of land for expansion. One week after the call to give, the milk cans in the aisles used to collect the building fund each week held a total of $191,000 in offerings for the purchase.
“Some said it [the model] would work when the church was small, but not when it grew … it works better now with 2,300 than it did with nine,” Ikels said.
The hallmark of The Country Church is evangelism.
“Sixty-one percent of our members have come in by conversion and baptism,” Ikels said. The church sends out teams of members to do outreach visitation several nights each week.
For Abel Garcia, the visitation program is an opportunity to see “the Lord bring another soul to his kingdom … that’s what I enjoy the most.”
Garcia met Ikels when he visited his home, and invited him to a Thursday evening service. That evening he made a decision for Christ, was baptized Sunday, and joined the visitation ministry Monday.
Throughout the week church members can also be found in the county jail doing prison ministry or helping plan a county-wide country breakfast at the church. Senior citizen church members lead the benevolence ministry, where 300 people have made salvation decisions through the ministry.
A Thursday night meal that is free and open to anyone is another important entry point for people to come into the church. The church also hosts community-wide meals at certain times of the year. An annual car show is another avenue the church uses to discover prospects and evangelize people.
A recent addition to The Country Church is their arena, where the church regularly presents the gospel at various equestrian events. One such ministry that has opened numerous doors in the community is the church’s breaking and training of a mustang each year to compete in a series of wild horse events across the state.
Ikels and the other pastors of the congregations that make up the Community of Country Churches have a Texas-sized vision for starting many more churches of their kind. According to Ikels, just about any county seat, town, or wide place in the road is a potential location for starting a country church.
“Texas is a mix of lots of cultures and people groups. It takes Bible-believing churches of all styles to reach them … because our mission field is so vast,” said Robby Partain, SBTC missions director.
“The Country Church has done an exemplary job of evangelism. They are a missionary expression of the body of Christ reaching a unique part of the Texas mosaic. I’m glad they have a heart for church planting. We need more expressions of the country church model in the Texas mission field,” Partain said.