By TR Robertson
Walk through the doors of First Christian Church in Belle, Missouri, on a Sunday morning and it seems, at first glance, like a typical rural church. There are farmers and blue-collar workers in semicasual dress, older women settling in to their usual seats, and children burning off energy before Sunday school starts.
And then there’s the rest of the congregation.
“I’ve been in church my whole life,” says FCC deacon Kevin Brown, “but I’ve never been in a church that had this many tattoos, this many bikes outside, this many leather jackets. We’ve welcomed people who have been in prison for murder and everything else. [There’s] not one problem anybody’s got that we can’t cover. That’s cool. That’s fun.”
Recognizing the Need
Mitchell Seaton grew up in Belle, a town of about 1,500 in the hills of the northerly Ozarks. He left home to attend Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri, but halfway through his time there, he got a phone call asking him to fill a sudden need for a preacher.
What he found at FCC was no surprise. A remnant of faithful believers was keeping the congregation alive. Attendance averaged 40 to 50.
Attendance began to pick up as people discovered they liked this young, homegrown minister and his plainspoken ways.
But Seaton wanted more for the church and for his hometown, so he gathered a small group to talk about the greatest needs of the community. One pressing need rose above all others.
“Belle is a great town, full of some really hard-working and very talented people,” Seaton says, “but like many small towns, it’s plagued with addiction.”
Tony Baretich, a police officer for the city of Belle, agrees. “It’s meth, marijuana, heroin. But actually, in my experience, the biggest problem is alcohol, because it’s socially acceptable.”
“That small group brainstormed ways we could be a light in the darkness when it came to addiction,” Seaton says. “The truth was, at the time, most of the people in the church hadn’t dealt firsthand with addiction or recovery. We concluded that praying about the situation was our best option. So we did. Those prayers didn’t really become public. We simply prayed, and left it at that.”
About four years later, the church began changing.
“God was bringing people into our church who didn’t fit the normal mold,” Seaton explains. “These were men and women who had overcome alcoholism and meth addiction, and even some who were known manufacturers and dealers. Plus, God combined that group with law enforcement officers who were showing up at our church. That was an interesting combo.”
“I’ve been here since June 4, 2014,” says Tim Long 3 (his father is known as Tim 2). “That was the first day I came to church here. And Tony arrested me in the parking lot. After services, of course.
“I had recently been arrested and made a promise to God that if I got out of this, I would never turn back to the street,” he explains. “I was playing around, reneging on my promise, and God let me know. He let me come to church and then he had me arrested after church.”
Long was just one of several recovering addicts who were becoming involved in the church.
“We could see the sort of people that were coming,” says John Tackett, one of FCC’s elders. “We figured a recovery program would be a good way to do what we could to help these people. It took off from there. It was the right thing to do.”
Shawn Barbarick, another elder, agrees. “From being in the community, we knew the need for it. Somebody had to step up, and we felt like the church should be the ones doing it. It’s what we’re here for.”
Long certainly needed it.
“June 14, 2014, was my first day clean and sober,” he says. “It took a while to clean the mess up I had created behind me. Only God could do what he’s done the last three years.”
“We’re now known in town as that church that does the recovery program,” Seaton says.
Celebrate Recovery (CR) meets every Friday evening at the church building. On Monday evenings several of the participants return for “step studies,” an in-depth study of biblical principles that relate to the 12 steps of CR.
Another session, “The Landing,” is also held each Friday for young people who are dealing with addiction and other “hurts, hang-ups, or habits.” The high school and middle school students are divided into separate groups, each with their own adult leaders.
“God has taken that small group’s prayers, provided the right leaders and the right timing, and transformed our church from the inside out,” Seaton says.
The Sunday morning crowds now run between 140 and 175.
“It’s been organic growth,” Seaton says. “People off the streets. People who have been arrested by our resident cop and simultaneously invited to church.”
The congregation has welcomed the newcomers warmly.
“To come through these doors and for everybody to have open arms,” says Clayton Johnson, a former atheist and addict. “That door’s 1,500 pounds the first time you open it, but once it swings open, you just have a feeling that it’s God’s arms hugging you and welcoming you in with so much love and grace. That’s the blessing this church has brought us, to welcome everyone. This is a place for you literally to come as you are.”
“Not only are people getting recovery through CR, a lot of people are coming to Christ,” says Todd Hohlt. “Everybody knows they need something, they know they need some help, they can’t do it alone. They come in and try to get help from the people here, but then they find out help actually is in Christ.”
Folks with questionable pasts are welcomed not only as people in need, but as active participants in the work of the church. The weekly bulletin includes the names of several CR members among those leading and volunteering for a wide variety of church activities.
“One day at VBS,” Long says, “I looked around and said, ‘Isn’t this amazing what God can do? All of these convicts out here playing with the kids.’ Not all of us were convicts, but we should’ve been.”
Changes & Challenges
Not everyone has been as positive about the changes at FCC.
“It definitely has brought difficulties,” Tackett says. “There were a lot of mixed feelings. It opens you for criticism from people in the community, because of how the church has accepted these people who have hang-ups, hurts, and habits.”
“Some people weren’t used to the diversity of people,” Barbarick says. “They were more used to churches being made up of people just like them. We brought in people they never really expected to come in our doors, but, in my opinion, it made us grow a lot. At least it did for me.”
There are also challenges in dealing with the problems that arise naturally from meeting the needs of recovering addicts.
“It’s not always been 100 percent perfect,” says Kevin Brown, an FCC deacon. “You don’t win them all. You lose some. Sometimes it hurts. We had one person commit suicide, someone we all had become friends with. Once in a while you get pulled back to reality.”
The recovery program has forced some changes to the church’s overall approach.
“We get to start with people from square one,” Seaton says. “We don’t assume people know what we’re talking about. We get to share real, raw stories of lives changed on a regular basis, and it’s not just about addiction.”
Church discipline has also become more important for FCC.
“We confront sin,” Seaton says. “Much of that happens in one-on-one conversations between brothers and sisters in Christ, just like the Bible directs. Many of our people have learned assertiveness in things that matter most. There’s less beating around the bush or putting off those hard and awkward conversations that are necessary.”
“Church warrants,” says Long. “That’s what we serve to hold people accountable. Knock on their door and serve that accountability warrant.”
Proving God Right
“It’s not a golden street for revival, by a long way,” Tackett says. “It’s work.”
“It is work,” agrees Barbarick, “but anything that’s worth it is.”
“There are plenty of naysayers,” Seaton says. “We can feel their presence. They look on, waiting. Sometimes it feels like they’re hoping the whole thing will come crashing down, that these lives that are being changed will fall apart. But FCC decided at the beginning that our goal is not to prove people wrong, but to prove God right. And we get to have front-row seats to his continued faithfulness.”
TR Robertson is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Missouri.