50 years: White’s Ferry Road School of Preaching
The White's Ferry Road School of Preaching in West Monroe,…
WEST MONROE, La. — Walk into Carol Ogle’s country home on the first Monday of the month and you’ll find a dozen women from the White’s Ferry Road church gathered for a meal and Bible study.
It’s a scene repeated in homes, coffee shops, restaurants and storefronts throughout the community every day of the week — Christians from this congregation gathering to study, support one another and form the kind of relationships that keep them connected to God and each other.
The small group at Ogle’s home creates an opportunity for women to connect on an intergenerational level, she said. Relationships and Bible teaching form the framework for many discussions.
“Our church is large, but we get to know these younger women on a personal basis,” said Ogle, a part of the Hearts to Home program since it began four years ago. Now, more than 135 West Monroe women participate in these small groups.
“White’s Ferry Road is a church of small groups,” said Joneal Kirby, director of the Christian Counseling and Resource Center at the church. “There is nobody in our church who is not in some small group.”
A MISSION AT HOME
West Monroe sits just off U.S. Highway 20, astride the Ouachita River in the northeastern part of the Pelican State.
The unmistakable smell of paper mills permeates the air in this hard-working, factory town.
Across the river is the neighboring city of Monroe. Surrounded by tall pines and blackjack oak, they are known as the Twin Cities of northeast Louisiana, with a combined population of 65,000.
Add the farm-filled suburbs and smaller communities within driving distance and the numbers swell to roughly 200,000.
The congregation of 1,000 recently celebrated its 50th anniversary — a milestone made more special by the commitment of its members to stay in the area despite the lure of larger cities with more amenities.
“You couldn’t find any better people than our elders or our members,” said Wayne McDaniel, a police officer. “This is not a very prosperous area, and people have offers to leave Monroe, but they choose to stay here because of the church and its elders.”
For many years, this Louisiana congregation has stood as a beacon among Churches of Christ — with an influence felt far beyond its humble hometown.
White’s Ferry Road Relief Ministries, World Radio Gospel Broadcasts, AMEN (American Military Evangelizing Nations) and the now-defunct White’s Ferry Road School of Biblical Studies are among the high-profile ministries associated with the congregation. That’s not to mention the well-known songbooks published by Howard Books, a West Monroe-based company founded by the late Alton Howard, a longtime elder and song leader at White’s Ferry Road.
But since the mid-1990s, White’s Ferry Road has undergone a kind of transformation at home, refocusing on developing relationships within the local church and intensifying local outreach, said Alan Robertson, one of two pulpit ministers along with Mike Kellett.
Today, members say launching small groups has transformed the congregation into a close-knit, extended family with many new outreach opportunities.
“The other ministries are still vital and necessary, but this emphasis has made us a lot more relational and more connected, which was our goal,” said Robertson, 43. “We got into the lives of people.”
ROAD TO RECOVERY
With that increased involvement and emphasis came discoveries that led the congregation on a journey that may be its longest ever: recovery.
In a more informal, confidential setting, flanked by those they trusted, members and visitors felt freer to open up about their problems, struggles and addictions. They wanted help and accountability, and they wanted it from a Christ-centered perspective.
Kevin Nieman, clinical director of the Christian Counseling Center, a resource for the church and the public, said this level of intimacy is critical to White’s Ferry Road’s new mission.
He and Carl Allison, an elder who has been on staff for 40 years, say members really knowing what’s going on in each others’ lives creates the kind of non-judgmental atmosphere where people can be honest and seek healing.
“We have responses just about every Sunday, and when people come forward, no one ever comes down alone,” Allison said. “Anywhere from five to 25 people come down with them.”
Kirby, in her counseling capacity, called the small groups important evangelistic tools because enthusiastic members, who enjoy the personal and spiritual benefits of the groups, invite their friends to participate along with them.
In consultation with the elders, Kirby and Nieman have used small groups to integrate mentoring programs into the women’s and men’s ministries.
“I am in a great place to direct my clients to resources every day,” said Nieman, who leads a men’s ministry where participants work through issues of identity, integrity and intimacy.
“I can send them into these groups because they are going to meet four or five guys, including an older and more mature Christians, and they are going to know their names and start looking for them at the meetings.”
‘NOT ABOUT THE STUFF’
Another successful small-group ministry and major outreach tool at White’s Ferry Road is a model Celebrate Recovery program. Mac and Mary Owen, who became involved with alcohol and drugs in high school, lead this Christ-centered recovery ministry for “hurts, habits or hang-ups.”
They began an “overcomers outreach” in 1990 for drug and alcohol addicts.
By 2003 that ministry grew into a Friday night Celebrate Recovery program with a meal, testimonials, fellowship and small-group discussions that range from addictions to sexual abuse.
“We started with a goal of reaching one hurting person and ended up being the largest local outreach in our congregation,” Mac Owen, told The Christian Chronicle.
An average of 30 people per year have been baptized or restored, Mary Owen said.
During the past five years, attendance has grown from 30 to nearly 150, including people such as John Grigson, 51, whose life was once filled with alcohol, drugs and broken marriages.
“I was all about the stuff, the material things,” Grigson said. “But Mac put me in touch with a group of people who realized that life was definitely not about the stuff but about their walk with the Lord.”
He credits the love and acceptance of White’s Ferry Road members with changing his life and bringing him to Christ. “It is neat to see so many people who are now Christians involved in church who never were involved before,” said Mac Owen, who is now an elder.
Mary Owen agrees. “The Lord has taken the ashes of our lives and turned them into something beautiful,” she said. “We can’t stop telling other people what God has done in our lives.”
COMPASSIONATE, RECEPTIVE ELDERS
Church members cite a compassionate, open leadership as one of the reasons the church has been able to embrace and absorb people with major problems who are working through difficult life situations.
“The leaders have the love of God within them,” said Robert Dixon, a former resident of Alexandria, La., who got a new start at West Monroe. He calls the church his “forever family.”
”They started this church with a burning desire to reach out and touch people with the compassion that Jesus had,” Dixon said.
Knowing one another on a deeper level and being able to respond lovingly to one another’s needs have changed the church for the better, said elder and former pulpit minister Bill Smith. He has been part of the church staff for 45 years.
More than any other program, Celebrate Recovery has helped the church break out of legalism, though the congregation had been trying for years, Smith said.
Now, people respond weekly to the gospel at White’s Ferry Road with candid confessions such as “I’ve been committing adultery for eight years” or “I’ve been on drugs and lost my family.”
For the first year or two after these candid confessions began, some people in the congregation were mildly shocked, Smith said.
“But soon it was all gone, members were seeing the changes, and they were saying, ‘What a wondrous thing!’”
LOCATION: Northeastern Louisiana, across the Ouachita River from Monroe.
WEB SITE: www.wfrchurch.org
SUNDAY ATTENDANCE: 824.
MINISTRY STAFF: Alan Robertson and Mike Kellett, preaching ministers; Heath Arthur and David Bromley, youth leaders; and Paul Stephens, senior adults minister.
LEADERSHIP: Elders Carl Allison, John Howard, Randall Kirby, Steve Idom, Mac Owen, Phil Robertson and Bill Smith.
MISSIONS: The church supports work in Mexico and the New Orleans area.
HISTORY: The congregation started in 1958 when members began meeting at 3201 N 7th Street. Including 40 members of the Slack Street church, the first service had 78 present.
FACILITY: The 125,000-square-foot building is covered with a heat-resistant surface that makes it look like stucco. Four additions to the original building created a larger auditorium, additional classrooms and a total of 25 offices.
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.