Missouri lay pastor uses ‘borrowed time’ to help start rural church

By Tobin Perry

CHULA, Mo. (BP) – John Parks’ niece has a name for him – cat of nine lives. To look back at his last decade, one would have to agree.

About 12 years ago, Parks had a heart attack, then a cancer diagnosis. In 2020, he was in the hospital for months with COVID-19. Not long after his recovery, doctors told him the cancer had returned. This time it was malignant. The prognosis wasn’t good. Half of those with a similar diagnosis die within a year. Usually, the other half die within the following year.

But Parks is still here and serving Jesus in the process.

“God isn’t done with me yet,” Parks said. “I’m definitely living on borrowed time. I only have so much time and so much I believe God wants me to do.”

John Parks, a lay pastor with Calvary Baptist Church in Chillicothe, Missouri, preaches to the congregation in nearby Chula. Calvary Baptist is replanting the church in Chula after Chula Baptist Church had to close its doors. Parks began coordinating the ministry in Chula after Calvary Baptist, his home church, took on the work of replanting a church that will serve Chula’s population of 200 people. Photo submitted

One of those assignments from God is in the small town where he spent his teenage years. For the past five years, Parks has worked with Calvary Baptist, his home church in Chillicothe, Missouri, to engage the 200 or so people of Chula, located about 12 miles to the northeast, with the good news about Jesus.

Parks, a railroad worker, and Navy sailor, is the one who makes sure everything runs smoothly for Calvary’s ministry in Chula. He coordinates the preachers and musicians for the weekly worship service. He also serves as one of the volunteer lay preachers, teaching the Bible every few weeks in Chula worship services. In addition, he helps coordinate the Thursday night meal and Bible studies held in the school in Chula.

Each year, hundreds of churches are forced to close their doors, and Southern Baptists are eager to come alongside congregations at risk to help them find vitality again. A replant now underway in Chula provides an excellent example of how one average-sized church can enter the work of serving dying churches so that the Gospel can again be proclaimed in communities throughout North America.Calvary started worship services at the public school in Chula during the fall of 2022. In September 2023, the church began meeting at a building that once held Chula Baptist Church, which closed in 2020. Most weeks, 20 to 25 people attend.

“It’s a miracle he’s still with us,” said Jon Davis, who has served as Calvary’s senior pastor since 2016. “When John presents the message, it’s usually more of a devotional thought, but that works great for this context. In a rural context, the key is he’s connecting with people. They love him, and he loves them.”

While preaching was new to Parks, he had experience teaching Sunday School and speaking in churches with Gideons International.

“The thing I like about preaching is that I have a questioning mind,” said Parks, who has worked as a school bus driver in retirement. “I’m not content with just reading the Word. I want to look into what was happening at the time. I don’t just do a cursory view of the Scriptures. I’m not reading it like you would a novel. I’m looking at it more deeply. I think it has helped my spiritual growth.”

Calvary Baptist Church in Chillicothe, Missouri, is currently holding worship services in their gymnasium while their sanctuary is being repaired. The work taking place on their own campus has not prevented them from helping to replant a church in the nearby town of Chula. Calvary averages 120 people on Sunday mornings and serves as example of a normative-sized congregation that’s helping to replant a dying church. Photo submitted

Lay preachers like Parks are an important part of Calvary’s strategy to re-ignite a Gospel witness in Chula. With Calvary’s attendance of 120 to 130 people per week and a three-person ministry staff, the lay preaching schedule helps to ensure the Chula ministry doesn’t take away from Calvary’s work in Chillicothe.

“My intent would be that over the next couple of years they get solidified,” Davis said. “Chula has a core group of 20 to 25 people there now on Sunday morning. Once they call a pastor, and he’s able to intentionally do ministry with our mission support, I think I think you’ll see some more good things happen in Chula.”

The Chula preaching team has remained fluid over the last 18 months. Retired preachers, seminary students, as well as lay preachers without a seminary degree, such as Parks, have all been a part of the work. Keith Corrick, the associational missions strategist for the Linn-Livingston Baptist Association, led the lay preachers through sermon preparation training. Davis has also mentored the lay preachers.

Parks is working with the Chula core group to develop church bylaws and a constitution as they work toward incorporation for Chula Community Church. Parks recently walked through the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 with the core group.

“As soon as we get the bylaws written, then we can incorporate, and then we can actually hire a full-time minister,” Parks said. “That’ll provide some continuity in the program. I have stage four cancer. I don’t want to leave this ministry, but I’m just as happy being a Sunday School teacher for these kids.”

Published February 21, 2024

Tobin Perry

Tobin Perry writes for Baptist Press.