Jamie and Doug Chappelle at Thelma Baptist, Wetumpka, Alabama



My hope was restored in “small town church” this past weekend.

Brenda and I were invited by an old friend, whom we’d met many years ago in Mobile, Alabama, while newly-married and brand-new parents to Josh and Betsy. Since those formative years, my friend Doug Chappelle went his way and we went ours, following the calling God had on both of our families. Doug went on to become a senior pastor and I continued on my path as a worship leader and song writer.

Fast-forward to the beginning of this year, 2014.

I received a call from Doug to come to his rural church on the outskirts of Montgomery, Alabama. He asked me to encourage his praise team with a Saturday workshop, and to lead his congregation in worship on Sunday.

When driving up to the church property, you are immediately greeted by a traditional white steeple that rises high above the red-brick facade, characteristic of so many churches in the rural South. The property is lovingly maintained, and the rows of pews that fill the sanctuary make their way to a fairly traditional stage, with a piano on the left, but with the modern exception of a small band setup on the right. The pulpit has been replaced by a comfortable bar stool-type chair and a high-top table to hold Doug’s notes while he preaches.

As I made my way through the teaching notes I put together for the Saturday workshop, the team members, including several from the student worship band, leaned forward in their seats, engaged and anxious to learn. They were excited to raise their level of musicianship, making an effort to better serve their congregation as leaders in worship. The team also has a choir of about 40, and Bill, their music director, brings much enthusiasm and heart to his leadership.

In the service, I was blown away by the two-minute-warning countdown video that included a segment with a rundown of the week’s announcements, led by a very talented young lady who could easily make the cut on a local news team here in Nashville. In the middle of the service, they showed a video testimony of a couple who had recently given their lives to Christ. The video spot was well-produced and edited, with the flair of any CBN 700 Club piece.

When I came back to the microphone to lead the second half of worship, I told the congregation that they were the coolest small town church in America. The sanctuary erupted in applause.

The care with which they treated us, their generous offering and the outpouring of interest in my CDs and book made me blush, to be honest.

Most churches with a steeple out front and a cemetery out back are holding on for dear life; the startup churches that have exciting, explosive one-liner-names are taking the young people away, one family at a time. It’s sad, really.

There is room for all kinds of churches in all kinds of settings. But with a pastor like Doug Chappelle, and a strong ministry team surrounding him—with a heart for people, a foundation on the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit—small town churches can still be an effective beacon in the community.

I’m convinced: where there is life, people will flock to the hope and encouragement that flows from a Christ-centered place of worship. I saw it there in abundance at Thelma Baptist Church, in Wetumpka, Alabama, this past weekend.