People who left the church after difficult experiences and are hesitant to return are a main focus of West Oaks Church in West Columbia, Texas, a church plant striving to meet people where they are and fill a need in an average Texas town.
“We’ve said all along we want to be a church for the unchurched and the de-churched, the skeptics who just don’t trust the church,” Colby Wallace, pastor of West Oaks, said.
West Columbia is about an hour south of Houston, and within a span of 10 years the town has grown from 4,000 to 7,000 people — attributable in part to an expansion by Chevron Phillips Chemical Company.
“What has been really cool is to see people who were burned by the church begin to come back, and life being breathed into broken marriages and people coming to know Jesus,” Wallace said. “We have a really broken community because our community is predominantly shift workers, and they have a really high divorce and debt rate. Just seeing those families finally have a church where they feel welcome has been exciting to see.”
Wallace grew up at First Baptist Church West Columbia and served as a student pastor there for 10 years before God led him, through the suggestions of his pastor and a few others, to plant a new congregation in the same town two years ago.
“We went to the deacons, and the deacons said, ‘Can we be your sending church?’ No one in the deacon body was against it,” Wallace said. “They were unanimous: We want to support you to plant a church in our town, and we want to give you seven families to help you make this happen.”
‘It’s OK if you’re a mess’
Though West Columbia had several churches at the time, none of them were full on Sunday, Wallace said. “Let’s say you made all of them full. You still weren’t reaching half of the community.”
Wallace identified a significant need in small towns: a place for people to go after they had been “burned on traditional church.”
“For us, we just said, ‘We need to go to where they are, and we need to help them see they can come to church if they’re a mess,’” Wallace said. “It’s OK if you’re a mess. You don’t have to get dressed up to come to church. We just want you to be there, and we want to just know you.”
West Oaks launched with 250 people in February 2020 and met at a high school five Sundays before COVID-19 shut them down. During that time, they got creative with outreaches, such as asking people to sign up online if they would like to receive Easter egg baskets.
“We took over 250 Easter egg baskets, just drove and dropped them off to people,” Wallace said.
At the two-year mark, West Oaks has 100 members and sees 250 to 300 people most Sundays, the pastor said. They’ve had more than 35 baptisms, and they recently purchased 14 acres of land in town for a future campus.
“There’s a hunger in our community for authentic Christianity, so our entire approach to ministry is relational,” Wallace said. “We want to build relationships. People are responding to just interacting with Christians who are normal people who love them and are listening to their stories.”
Wallace emphasized to the core team the importance of community involvement in order to reach people. He became president of the Little League board with that goal.
“I joined that with the intent of meeting those people,” he said. “Now all but two of them go to our church, and none of them really went to church before.”
Others are involved in city organizations such as the West Columbia Chamber of Commerce. West Oaks has won first place for best float in the past three local parades, Wallace said.
‘We actually feel like we’re wanted’
The pastor told about an older couple whose grown children joined West Oaks. The couple hadn’t been to church in more than 35 years, but they started attending because their children asked them to go.
The woman “kept saying, ‘We just feel welcome. In the past, every church we were part of, we just felt like we weren’t good enough. We didn’t fit the part. In this one, we actually feel like we’re wanted,’” Wallace recounted.
When FBC sent Wallace and seven other families out to start West Oaks, it averaged around 125 people on Sundays, he said, so it was an act of faith.
“It’s a church that took a chance to send some of their best people out to do something like this, which is a really tough task,” Wallace said. “I’m grateful for them because their desire is to see God’s kingdom come, not just their church’s.”