New church, new pastor. Grace Baptist celebrates new name, life in 40-year-old church building
Christians know that God works in mysterious ways. The newly reorganized Grace Baptist Church in Gainesville is a good example of how he uses unexpected tools to accomplish his works. To relaunch the church on Highway 160 west of town, which was known since the 1970s as Calvary Baptist and more recently as Way of the Cross Baptist Fellowship, God used the Rusty Moon quilt shop in Willow Springs.
The church, whose membership had been declining in recent years, “was about to shut down,” the congregation’s new pastor, Nathan Phenix, told the Times last week. “They called another church for help.”
Responding to the call for help, Wilson’s Creek Baptist Church near Springfield asked Bernie and Marlene Heinz to step in. The couple, who had recently moved to the Ozarks from Colorado, are missionaries whose work is “rescuing” churches in decline.
They came to Gainesville and began working with the small congregation of loyal members who continued to attend the little church that has stood next to Gainesville Ag Supply and Livestock Auction since 1979.
Of course, the work of the couple and the congregation focused strongly on prayer and faith. They believed change would come. They just didn’t know how it would happen.
Then came the day when Marlene Heinz, a quilter, drove to Willow Springs. She thought she was going there to visit the Rusty Moon quilt shop. And Kurt McKinney, who owns the store with his wife and mother, thought Marlene was there to shop. But while they were talking about fabric and quilt patterns, the subject of churches came up.
“One thing led to another, and we started talking about different affiliations of church and so forth,” said Kurt, whose family attends Pottersville Baptist Church, where Kurt is youth pastor. He told her that he and his wife and mother had started the shop three and a half years earlier as God’s business. “We’ve always been clear about that. He’s blessed us with it and given us so many opportunities just like this one,” he said last week, referring to what happened when he met Marlene Heinz.
As they talked, Marlene asked, “What Bible do you use?”
Kurt said, “My comment was that, as far as I’m concerned there’s only one Bible. I don’t squabble with people about it. But it’s the King James Version. I said that, and Marline said, ‘Hallelujah!’”
Kurt invited Marlene and her husband, Bernie, to visit the Pottersville church, where his friends Nathan and Renae Phenix were members. Kurt knew Nathan was a man who had answered God’s call to preach and was in search of God’s will for his future, knowing that someday he was going to pastor somewhere.
“I told him, ‘Hang in there. You keep your eyes focused on him, and God will make it right,’” Kurt said.
‘We fell in love with the place’
Nathan grew up around Bakersfield, the son of Rob and Fran Phenix (now Fran Collins). His family operated a dairy farm and “lived a pretty simple country life,” he said.
His grandmother, Wanda Phenix, took Nathan and his sister, Amanda, to church during their childhood summers and also introduced them to Vacation Bible School.
“Everybody should have a grandma like that, one that prays and reads the Bible,” Nathan said.
He dropped out of school and went to work in the construction business, building houses. Later he earned his GED. In his spare time, he enjoyed bull-riding at area rodeos. At one of those rodeos, he met Renae Beach, a high school student from West Plains who was working in the cook stand.
They were married in 2006 in Thayer.
By then, his parents had divorced, and his mother had remarried and moved to Pottersville. Nathan had started attending Pottersville Baptist Church, and she soon started going with him. It wasn’t long until the Lord called him to preach, Nathan said.
Since then, for the last five or six years, he’s done fill-in preaching and served as interim preacher at churches around the area, but he and Renae, who’s now a registered nurse, were hoping to find a church where he could fully live out the calling he felt God had given him.
Bernie and Marlene Heinz responded to Kurt McKinney’s invitation to visit Pottersville Baptist Church, and while they were there, they talked about “how they help churches without pastors,” Nathan recalled.
He introduced himself and told them a little about his calling. “I said if they ever had a place where they need someone to preach I’d love to do it,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re in Gainesville now,’ and they invited me to come.”
When they responded to the invitation, Nathan said, “We fell in love with the place.”
Two things immediately won him over, he said. “First, was the singing, how much it seemed like it had the touch of the Lord in it. There were maybe 12 to 15 people, but when they sung, it sounded like a church full of people.”
And then, he said, there were the “three or four members who’d been here since the 80s. They had been faithful and supported the church through all the times, good and bad. Seeing that, those two things, just really made us want to come here.”
And so they have. The Phenixes have moved to Gainesville, and their two older children, Hudson, 12, and Haley Jo, 10, are enrolled in Gainesville schools. They also have another son, Reed, who’s 3.
Renae is currently working in West Plains.
‘A great church to be at’
The congregation changed its name to Grace Baptist Church, and now it’s working to update its building, including remodeling the church’s classrooms and fellowship hall with new sheet rock and paint, and rebuilding the upstairs bathrooms. New signage is up, welcoming area residents to join them in enthusiastic worship.
“We are independent Baptist,” Nathan said. “We’re not affiliated with any larger denomination, not part of any association. We are able to serve the community and meet the needs of the community in the way we think works best.”
Sunday services begin with Sunday school at 10 a.m., followed by the morning worship service at 11 a.m. Then the congregation shares a potluck lunch and gathers to worship again at 1:30 p.m. Bible study is held at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Grace Baptist member James Walley Jr. says he hopes area residents will come for a visit and experience the excitement he feels in the reborn church. “When you walk into Grace Baptist, they immediately make you feel like family. That, combined with Nathan’s preaching straight from the Word, is what makes it a great church to be at,” he said.
Grace Baptist is hosting a fall festival for the community beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24. Timber Knob Volunteer Fire Department is bringing firetrucks for the youngsters to explore, and live music is planned. A chili cookoff and pie cookoff will be part of the festival, along with horseshoes and games for the kids. Everyone is invited. Those bringing chili are asked to bring it in a slow cooker and have it at the church by 4 p.m.
Kurt McKinney has brought “a busload” of his Pottersville youth group to Grace Baptist to visit. “What a blessing that was,” he said. “We sat there, and Nathan got out photo albums showing things at the church back in its hayday. I told him, ‘We have to remember he’s still the same God, and he can still do those things. We’ve just gotta keep believing.’”
Thinking back on how his conversations with a quilt shop customer several months ago has resulted in new life for a reborn church, Kurt says he’s thrilled with how things worked out, but not necessarily surprised. “I was just a tool in the Lord’s cupboard,” he said. “You have to remember, God can do anything. He used a donkey to preach.”