Small rural church strives to look outward
By Jeff Campbell
The Rev. Roger Whitaker likes to tell people he didn’t become a minister until age 63, after he’d spent most of his adult life in prison.
That’s true, but not the way you might think.
Whitaker worked in law enforcement in rural Florida for 25 years, before retiring from his work as a guard and administrator at a nearby state prison. When he retired, he looked forward to spending time on his 40-acre farm, working with his cattle and spending more time with his family, including 11 grandchildren.
I had lots of plans about what I was going to do ... But then, as the saying goes, if you want to hear God laugh, just tell him your plans.
“I had lots of plans about what I was going to do,” Whitaker said. But then, as the saying goes, if you want to hear God laugh, just tell him your plans.
Whitaker began volunteering as music director at Red Hill United Methodist Church in 2010. “I’d always liked to sing, so when some of the members asked me if I would lead the music, I said I would until they could find somebody,” Whitaker said. “Well, they didn’t find anybody and I kept doing it. I enjoyed it, of course, but I’m the first to tell you, I am not a trained musician.”
In 2015, the church found itself without a pastor, which “coincidentally,” was the same year Whitaker strongly felt God’s calling on his life.
“They asked me if I would fill in,” Whitaker said. “I told them I would until they found someone else, someone who had been to school and knew what they were doing.”
In July 2016, he was appointed pastor and is still there.
God is probably still laughing.
“A part of my calling to this position stems from the acts of Nehemiah who returned to Jerusalem to lead the people in rebuilding the wall,” Whitaker said. “In my first year as pastor, we adopted the theme: Rebuild, Restore, Revive. We yielded ourselves as instruments through which God could work in our community.
“I began by preaching and teaching about the true church and its purpose, emphasizing we are all workers in God’s vineyard and ministers of the gospel,” he said. “I firmly believe God is looking for people who are willing to yield themselves to him, lay aside their agendas and follow the Holy Spirit in doing his work in the community. I am blessed to be leading people who are willing to follow and accept change.”
Whitaker led the church to accept that their number one objective is to go out and form personal relationships with the people of the community, establishing friendships and demonstrating the love of Christ.
The best work of the church is outside the walls of our buildings. We must go to them instead of waiting for them to come to us, so we adopted an inside out mindset.
“That is what Christ did and as disciples we follow his example,” he said. “The best work of the church is outside the walls of our buildings. We must go to them instead of waiting for them to come to us, so we adopted an ‘inside out’ mindset. Personal invitation is crucial.”
Whitaker said a personal passion of his is to reach out to other churches in the area faced with the same dilemma Red Hill had, a declining congregation with limited programs and ministries.
“I made it my goal to reach out and form relationships with other pastors” he said. “I believe when small churches combine their resources and come together for a common cause, great things are accomplished.”
That vision became a reality when Red Hill partnered with East Mt. Zion UMC, another small rural church, who had just totally remodeled their facility to accommodate contemporary style worship. People in several churches in the area were interested in adopting a more contemporary style of worship, but no one church had enough musicians to do that. That didn’t stop Whitaker and the others.
“We found plenty of good, talented musicians who wanted to lead music; we just found them at several different churches!” Whitaker said with a laugh.
They held their first Saturday night praise and worship service at the Mt. Zion facility and had more than 60 people from the community in attendance and nine different churches represented from various denominations.
In 2016, Red Hill’s average Sunday morning worship service attendance was 16. Today it is 33. Whitaker has baptized seven people during that time, conducted two infant baptisms, and performed two marriages.
“God is doing some great work around our little area and the community is reaping the benefits,” Whitaker said. “I feel so blessed that I can be a part of it and bring my people along with me. Making disciples is my passion. Getting outside the church broadens our vision and makes God’s work seem very clear.”
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