By T. R. Robertson
In January 2007, 40 people gathered at an intermediate school in Hallsville, Missouri, for the first Sunday assembly of Rocky Fork Fellowship.
Over nine years later, an average of 450 members and seekers show up for Rocky Fork’s two services, still held in the school’s assembly area. In those years, Rocky Fork has outpaced their town’s growth rate. The town numbered around 1,300 souls in 2007. Today an estimated 1,543 live within the city limits.
Finding a Niche
Hallsville and the surrounding area is typical of many rural communities. Many people were born and raised here in a rural lifestyle that stays remarkably unchanged, even as it adapts to the twenty-first century. Others work in the rapidly growing city of Columbia, just 15 miles to the south, and choose to live in or near Hallsville for the peace and quiet of a small town.
About 150,000 people live within a 15-mile radius of Hallsville. Rocky Fork Fellowship’s senior minister, Mark Butrum, estimates upward of 50 percent of the people who attend Rocky Fork travel from homes with a mailing address other than Hallsville.
“We’ve found that niche,” Mark said, “where young folk who are in the county or just outside the city can find a place where they can feel comfortable and get close to God.
“We have a lot of people who need real help. In rural communities you find that a lot. We’re involved in the inter-church council, which takes care of a lot of benevolence needs in town. We have a Back to School Bash, where we raise funds and collect supplies for all the schools in northern Boone County. Last year we supplied some 500 people with supplies for high school.”
The average age of those in attendance is around 28, with a ratio of 53 percent men and 47 percent women. Rocky Fork knows if they get a man into the church, they’ll reach the rest of the family. With that in mind, they do a lot of things to attract the men.
“Just saying to a guy, hey, you want to come help us tear a roof off or put a new roof on?” said Mark. “These are guys who have maybe been to church once or twice, and a lot of times they jump at it. ‘Yeah, I’ll do that for somebody that needs it.’ The next thing you know, we’re working together, we’re talking, and we’re getting to invite him to church for a second time.
“When you work together, shoulder up to a job, you grow quite a bit,” Mark continued. “You get to know each other, who you can depend on. You get a chance to talk about life. There’s this captive moment when someone asks, ‘Hey how’s it going?’ Guys really get it. Let’s talk about it while we work, while we’re doing something.”
The Rocky Fork leaders know it will be important to intentionally preserve their identity as they plan a move to their own building. During brainstorming for the building project, Mark suggested, only half joking, they should make it look like the Bass Pro Shop, with the name Rocky Fork out front.
“That’s us; that’s our identity,” he said. “We’re all about hunting and fishing and doing things outdoors. Just doing things together as a community.”
The church hosts an annual Wild Game Dinner, to which the entire community is invited. They have the usual deer, turkey, rabbit, and a wide variety of fish. They’ve also had bear, raccoon, goose, bison, and alligator.
“We encourage guys to bring their hunting trophies,” added Mark. “It’s really taken off.”
Word of mouth is perhaps the biggest ingredient in drawing new people at this point of Rocky Fork’s growth.
“I grew up in Hallsville,” said Emily, “and my sister’s been coming here for about six years and it made a big difference in her life.”
Why do people stay at Rocky Fork?
“That man right there,” said Emily’s husband, Nathan, pointing at Mark. “Mark’s real passionate. You can tell he’s true, he’s genuine. That’s what we need: genuine leadership, not just a person to tell you things.”
Mark isn’t the only leader who puts a premium on being real.
“You see the elders; you know who they are,” said David, another member. “They’re walking around, involved in what’s going on. They’re greeting people. People see that it’s real for Mark and for the other leaders.”
One of the elders is Bert Adams, whose passion about wanting people to get to know Jesus is unmistakable. His favorite line is, “People don’t care what you know until they know you care.”
“The key is to be real and really care about people,” said Bert. “Genuinely care about them from the time they show up here and realize how privileged you are to see them and to talk to them. Take the religious mask off and allow them to experience what church should be.”
Before and after each service, Mark can be found outside the front door, shaking hands and welcoming people as they arrive. He goes out of his way to make every one of them feel like the most important person he’s talked to that morning.
Mark connects with Rocky Fork’s target audience because he’s one of them. He spent 21 years in the Air Force, including a stint working on stealth bombers at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. His look and personality are what you’d expect from a career military man. Young men easily connect with him. His background is reflected in his preaching style as well.
“I’ve done life on the other side,” he admitted. “I know what its like. I walked for 35 years without knowing peace. I reach back to that: how did I feel, what was I experiencing, what would somebody else be experiencing now? I try to meet them where they’re at and be able to share with them, to bring that out.”
From the beginning the congregation’s leaders have found strategic guidance in the book Simple Church, by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, where they learned to make sure every decision, every program, every action plays a part in moving people forward through the discipleship process. Integral in that process is a What We Believe class, open to seekers and members alike.
“They come to hear what our doctrines are, what are beliefs are,” Mark said. “We have people say, I’ve been going to Church X for umpteen years and I’m not sure what they believe. So we teach them what we believe. Bert and I lay it all out there, let them ask questions.”
Mark estimates they’ve baptized several hundred seekers in the past eight years, averaging 30-40 each year.
“Who’s next?” Bert asked. “Who’s coming our way next? They’re hurting. The broken and the suffering, they’re coming here and you can see them. They’re just barely getting in the door they’re so broken.”
“Our goal is to make disciples,” said Mark. “We don’t get to do baptisms right away. The school won’t allow us to set up a baptistry there or to even bring it on the property. So we travel to surrounding churches, sometimes at a member’s lake.
“What’s really cool is, every time we have a baptism, people show up. We did a baptism yesterday and one of the elders said to me, ‘Look around you. We baptized about three quarters of the people here.’ There were about 60 people at that baptism. They’re excited about it. They come to watch because this was important to them.”
The congregation has purchased 20 acres of property two miles south of Hallsville and are moving ahead with plans to construct their own building.
“This is one church that does so many things right,” said Eric Pendell, president of Alpha Omega, Inc., a church assessment and campaign consultant service Rocky Fork has hired. “Typically we teach a church we consult a lot about how to do outreach, but Rocky Fork is just years beyond most churches at this point. This church will be one to watch in the future.”
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.
Rural Health Priorities
Although 17 percent of Americans live in rural areas, only 9 percent of physicians practice in those regions. Last year the Health Science Center at Texas A&M published Rural Healthy People 2020. “It is our hope to continue to provide support for rural leaders, health care providers, and legislators on the important challenges to providing health care services in rural America,” said Jane Bolin, Ph.D., senior editor of the publication and director of the Southwest Rural Health Research Center. Bolin’s team identified 20 top health priorities of rural residents. The top five are:
1. Access to health care
2. Nutrition and weight
3. Diabetes prevention and care
4. Mental health services
5. Substance abuse