— Finding a saint among the 170-plus souls who fill the rural Remmel Church of Christ on a typical Sunday can be difficult.
This congregation, in a northeastern Arkansas county where the sheriff estimated that 30 percent of adults use methamphetamines, overflows with sinners.
It’s been that way ever since the church, in a farming community seven miles east of the Jackson County seat of Newport, started reaching out to folks with drug addictions, marital problems and other personal hang-ups.
“One lady said, ‘Well, any old sinner can go to the Remmel church,’” said Lou Butterfield, the congregation’s pulpit minister and one of its seven elders. “And we’ve laughed about that ever since because that’s right.”
These days, a steady stream of cars and trucks — a modern-day wagon train — descends each Sunday on the yellow-brick church that sits next to an old cemetery.
Men, women and children, many dressed in jeans, drive 10 to 20 miles to where the pavement gives way to gravel — to worship at a congregation that stresses hugs and handshakes, love and acceptance, prayer and reliance on the Holy Spirit.
“The people are caring and go out of their way to help others,” said Brody Hubbard, who was baptized along with his wife and two children in February after attending a home Bible study group for about a year.
Everyone is welcome here, even elder Arvil Jones’ black Labrador, Drake, who walks two miles to services each week.
Since 2003, the Remmel church has baptized more than 85 adults and children. About three-fourths of those baptisms occurred as a direct result of evangelistic efforts, according to church records.
“Remmel is a great example of what a small rural church can do if it decides that it really wants to grow,” said Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth in Searcy.
Fifteen years ago, this same congregation was dying.
Younger residents had abandoned the farming life and moved away. The community’s cotton gin and only store had closed. Sunday morning attendance had dipped to about 30, and many of the members who remained were less than on fire for the Lord.
“We had gotten so legalistic that it made everybody sick,” said Karen Jones, 43, an obstetrician/gynecologist who has attended the church since she was 2.
“If someone came in and announced that one of us had died, I don’t think we could have looked any more gloomy,” added Jones, a mother of three whose father, David Bowman, and grandfather, Morris Bowman, both have served as Remmel elders.
Butterfield, a communications professor at Harding University in Searcy, accepted the part-time preaching duties at the Remmel church 14 years ago. “Half of the time, I didn’t want to come,” he said. “It’s like, we were driving 40 miles to preach to 30 people, most of whom didn’t care.”
Butterfield decided he’d preach on serving others and see if the idea caught on. Growth came slowly at first, but attendance crept up to about 50 within five years, he said.
About that time, a handful of women in the congregation approached church leaders about offering a special Sunday night class for the community. The idea: to deal with topics of relevance — sex, marriage, drugs, debt management — in a non-threatening, non-judgmental manner that might lead folks to inquire about the organizers’ faith.
“Our friends were going to hell, and we were not doing anything about it,” said Jones, one of the women who pushed for the outreach effort. “We wanted to do something that was going to help with that.”
At first, Cokes and cookies were offered at the Sunday night classes. Prayers were not. Within a year, about 125 people were gathering each week at the Remmel Community Center, a one-time schoolhouse next door to the church.
One night, a guest asked if the class leaders would make an exception and pray for her sick mother. “From that night on, half the time we spent praying,” Butterfield said.
Many of the attendees found their way to the church on Sunday mornings. At the same time, the congregation hired a marriage and family therapist and offered free counseling. Many of those counseled were converted, too.
In the meantime, young people at the church started attending Camp Wyldewood, a Bible camp in Searcy. “They got absolutely convicted about Jesus,” said Jones, whose twin daughters, now 19, were among the campers. “They brought that home to us and just put us to shame about our pitiful little religion.”
Camp became a top priority of the church.
The congregation offered to send any child in Jackson County to Bible camp for free. Last summer, the congregation spent more than $24,000 to pay camp expenses for more than 100 young people, Butterfield said.
“We have baptized whole families because their kids went to camp,” he said. “If we quit doing everything we do, we’d send kids to camp. That’s our No. 1 evangelistic tool.”
In a similar way, the church found saving water for adults in the Buffalo River, about 100 miles north of here. Hoping to reach the husbands of wives converted to Christ, leaders organized family float trips on the Buffalo — and paid for them out of the church treasury.
“We have church services on the bank of the river on Sunday morning,” Butterfield said. “Nobody has to come. But … we’ve had people come who would never put their foot in the side door of the church.”
Shane Goings grew up in a Church of Christ, but drifted away as he became addicted to meth — a 20-year habit that twice landed him in prison. In 2005, he came to the Remmel church. Members helped him and his wife, Cheyenne, now the parents of 9-month-old twins, Aiden and Blake, financially and spiritually.
“Just through prayer and a miracle from God, I’m not behind those (prison) walls today,” said Goings, who now serves as the congregation’s addictions minister and recently helped convert seven county jail inmates.
“When you walk in the Remmel church, you know you’re welcome,” said Goings, who leads a Wednesday night addiction recovery group. “You just feel like a family. Man, I wouldn’t hesitate telling anybody in there anything I’ve got going on.”
Blue encouragement cards fill the back of the church pews. Members send hundreds of them to people all over the county and beyond. A few years ago, when John Walton’s son, Anthony, now 20, was dealing with a drug addiction, the congregation flooded the family with cards.
“We would also hear from many that we were on the famous Remmel prayer list,” said Walton, whose family knew many members outside the church but had never worshipped there. When members learned of the Waltons’ difficulty paying for Anthony’s drug rehabilitation, they collected $3,000 for the family, Butterfield said.
“We had already been so affected by their prayers and cards, but I will never forget the thing that David (Bowman) said: ‘We didn’t know of anything else to do, but we felt like this would help,’” said Walton, whose family soon started attending the Remmel church.
Sandra Hollenback first visited in early 2005 after a friend invited her daughter, Kaytlin, now 13. “It so happened that the service was a prayer service due to so many of the congregation facing serious illnesses,” Hollenback said. “I was moved to tears and weak in the knees when everyone was asked to gather around these individuals, place your hands on them or those around you and pray.”
Butterfield baptized the mother and daughter in the family’s pool about six months later. Her husband, Dennis, was immersed the following January, and son Sean, now 18, accepted Christ at camp that summer.
In the year after the baptisms, Sandra Hollenback said, “They taught our kids about the importance of purity, the struggles of addictions, took them to visit nursing homes, took them to New Orleans to assist in Katrina recovery … and the list seems endless.”
An airline pilot, farmers, bankers, college professors, homemakers, carpenters and even a funeral home owner make up this diverse congregation.
The common tie: a love of God and a belief that helping hurting people leads them to Christ.
“Remmel lifts up Christ,” Walton said. “People see Christ in the Remmel church, and they are drawn to him.”