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When he first arrived, Dan Epperson wondered how to reach people in the small, rural California town were he had agreed to be a pastor — at a church where Sunday morning services averaged 15 attendees.
His solution included a children's outreach that would involve giving away 500 shoes at the town's school, handing out backpacks, and a weekly hot dog feed for kids at Wednesday evening church services.
Shortly after arriving nearly 13 years ago as pastor of King's View Assembly of God in Ione, California, Epperson walked around the town 30 miles southeast of Sacramento, praying and seeking direction.
“We were trying to figure out what we were going to do next,” Epperson says. “I said, God if you set me up with the kids in the community, we'll take care of them.”
From the beginning, ministering to the children of the town with a population of 3,814 has been Epperson’s focus. On Wednesdays, kids started showing up at 4:30 p.m. for a free hot dog meal at 6.
“We have a bunch of folks in the community who aren't good at life, so their kids go hungry,” says Epperson, who in addition to being a pastor of one of eight churches in town is also Ione’s mayor. “So we try to take care of them the best we can. We let them know that God loves them.”
Meeting the needs of children has helped bridge the gap between the church and the town, and King’s View AG has grown as a result. The Sunday before Christmas, attendance reached an all-time high of 121.
Two years ago, Epperson teamed up with Rural Compassion, a ministry of Convoy of Hope. Rural Compassion’s objective is to empower those in rural churches to work outside the building’s four walls to address the needs of the community.
“We challenge the pastors that we work with to be the light on the hill,” says Laurel Harvey, a pastoral trainer with Rural Compassion with her husband Kim. “But when that light isn't shining anywhere, how are people supposed to find it?”
Partnering with King’s View AG, Rural Compassion worked with a shoe company to obtain a new pair of shoes for every student and teacher in Ione's elementary school, from kindergarten to fifth grade.
“When Jesus fed the 5,000, He didn't just feed the ones who were starving,” Kim Harvey says. “He served everyone who showed up. Everyone had an opportunity to have a meal. That kind of generosity shows God's love.”
Rural Compassion seeks to change a congregation’s DNA into making it a service-oriented church.
“We talk about building friendships with the stakeholders,” Kim says. “Also, just getting involved with whatever is going on in the community calendar, getting connected, and being a part of it.”
By building that bridge, Kim says the community begins to look to the church for help.
“Our goal is for people to know Christ,” Laurel says. “We just look at evangelism a little differently.”