On Easter Sunday morning, nearly 600 people heard the message of Jesus at the Atkins Riding Club Arena as they feasted on chicken leg quarters, watched a cowboy work with an unbroken horse in a round pen, and hunted eggs with their children. In that crowd, 47 families were unchurched.
A new church plant in Atkins, Ark., Mercy Tree Cowboy Fellowship is continuing to share the Gospel with these families and others who have never set foot in a church.
“Mercy Tree is not a niche church,” said pastor Kirby Vardeman. “It’s a church that is using the cowboy culture as a platform to reach people—farmers, business people, doctors. Just regular people come.”
Before it became a church, Mercy Tree was an outreach tool called the Horseback Family Ministry. Members from a local church would host rodeos and play days at the Pope County Arena as a way to share the Gospel. The response from the community led to the foundation for a new church.
Kirby was pastoring another church plant at the time, but it was God’s plan that he would play a part in planting Mercy Tree.
Urban and Rural Missions, the Message Remains the Same
Before he became the pastor of Mercy Tree, Kirby and his family were serving in another Southern Baptist church plant in Northwest Arkansas called LifeStone Church. An urban church, LifeStone was also a partner for Rendezvous Church in Toronto, Canada, a city of 6.5 million people with an evangelical presence of 3 percent.
The year of LifeStone’s fifth birthday, Kirby took a team on a two-week missions trip to Toronto and served alongside Rendezvous. They were using outreach events like block parties and food drives in city parks and schools to share Jesus.
It was during this trip to Toronto that Kirby believed God was urging him to step down as pastor of LifeStone Church.
“I felt a strong pull during my prayer and study time,” Kirby said, “and after a month of prayer, it just became clear.”
When Kirby returned home to Arkansas, he ran into Jay, a friend he had known for several years. Jay explained the growth of the Horseback Family Ministry in Atkins and the vision for a new church plant. The church was in need of a pastor. Jay did not know that Kirby would be resigning that very Sunday.
On Monday, Jay called Kirby. “We need a pastor, and I think you might be him.”
Kirby had not known he would be involved in taking the Horseback Family Ministry from an outreach tool to a church, but the Lord answered every prayer as the vision and model for a cowboy church grew in his mind. The context and outreach would be different than those of the urban church plants Kirby had been a part of, but his mission and message would remain the same.
“My family and I were convinced after six weeks of praying through it that God was calling us to plant a cowboy church and reach our little part of the nations right here in Atkins,” Kirby said.
Kirby grew up on the farm, so he is comfortable wearing the classic cowboy hat, blue jeans, and boots. He no longer looks like the Kirby who served as pastor of LifeStone, but he relates to people no differently.
“I’m doing the same thing in Atkins as I did in Russellville through LifeStone and in Toronto through Rendezvous,” Kirby said. “I build relationships by working one-on-one in people’s lives regardless of what their background is in order to share the Gospel and grow the church.
“At the end of the day, all lost people share some things in common. They have a lot of hurts and brokenness. That’s just as true in urban church planting as rural cowboy church planting.”
Reaching Arkansas’ Underserved with the Gospel
The International Mission Board (IMB) identifies unreached people groups who have little or no access to the Gospel. They might be geographically or culturally disconnected, or there are not enough evangelical churches to accommodate the population. In Arkansas, there are people groups who are unreached and underserved with the Gospel.
Church plants intentionally target these groups in order to share Jesus with them. Last year, 34 new churches were planted in Arkansas. Of this number, five were African American churches planted in the Delta Region, three were Hispanic, and one was Marshallese. All reached Arkansans who were not connected to a church family.
“While church plants may focus on a particular group in the beginning, it doesn’t stop there,” said Dave McClung, a member of the ABSC Church Planting Team. “As families and friends are invited in and the Gospel begins to spread, that focus group broadens to create an environment where everyone is welcome.”
Arkansas Baptists make reaching those who are underserved with the Gospel possible. When they give to their church, and their church gives to cooperative missions through the Cooperative Program, Arkansas Baptists are playing an active role in what God is doing through church planting.
Arkansas Baptist church plants receive much of their financial support from churches who give through the Cooperative Program. CP dollars also provide training and certification for church planters like Kirby. The ABSC Church Planting Team, funded entirely by Arkansas Baptist churches’ CP giving, trained Kirby before he served as pastor of LifeStone or Mercy Tree.
“Church planters have a passion for taking the Gospel to those different contexts to reach those different kinds of people whether they are different ethnic, cultural, or socio-economic groups,” McClung said.
The success of a church plant in reaching the underserved depends greatly on support from other churches. Support is vital for church plants’ expenses but also for church planters and their families.
“There is no part-time in church planting,” Kirby said. “As a planter, you are either full-time or failing, and I can’t do ministry full-time while working a full-time job.”
“CP dollars sent to Mercy Tree allow me to do what I do. I just stepped down from a full-time job to a part-time position because of CP dollars. It allows me to be more involved in the community and have time with my family,” he said.
The Cowboy Way
The mission of Mercy Tree Cowboy Fellowship is “to leverage their love of the cowboy culture in a way that always points to the salvation Jesus Christ offers freely so that the world will be saved through him.”
“There is something about the cowboy and his lifestyle that draw us,” Kirby said. “The reason cowboys’ attributes—like honesty, courage, loyalty and hospitality—draw us is because they are attributes of God. God is perfect in all of those attributes, and it’s Him that’s truly drawing us.”
About 50 people regularly attend Mercy Tree’s Sunday night Bible studies. Once a month Mercy Tree hosts the Big Feast, a cowboy style potluck usually involving a few smoked pigs, which draws close to 100 people. But the biggest crowds come to Mercy Tree’s rodeos. Anywhere from 200 to 250 people will be in the stands or the arena, and Mercy Tree will stop the rodeo to have a church service.
Mercy Tree is still growing. Since the Easter event, Mercy Tree has seen a steady stream of unchurched families coming to their events and Bible studies. This month the church will begin its first Sunday morning service—immediately following a biscuits-and-gravy breakfast.
“We’re using this Western culture, this cowboy lifestyle, as an opportunity to reach every man in America, every man in Atkins, Arkansas, every man in Pope County,” he said. “That’s our desire: to use this as a way to reach the nations.”