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Married to the Land
A regional commitment that has worldwide impact

Located “smack dab”—to borrow a mountain expression—in the heart of Appalachia, birthed in the womb of a “boom or bust” coal economy is a church whose apostolic dimension extends beyond its small-town borders to encompass missions to Israel and The Netherlands.  To understand that story, however, one must delve into another.  It is the story of a pastor, who as a boy, traipsed at the feet of his “preacher” grandfather, who, when retired, held the record tenure of fifty-three years within the denomination. It is the story of a pastor, who in his forties will tell you that he has planted his feet firmly in his grandfather’s legacy, the belief in the power of long-term commitment to the local church.  Ask Pastor Mitchell Bias or his wife, Regina Bias, of the Delbarton, WV, Church of God why their church has produced one of the most successful lay ministries in the nation, and either will most likely smile, then preach you a mini-sermon titled, “Married to the Land.” 

They’ll tell you about Bias’s grandfather who swapped his job in the coal industry to become a full-time pastor at the recommendation of his father, also a minister. “Son,” he recalled his father saying, “If God has called you to preach, preach full time.”  That new vocation would only pay fifty dollars a month, including the Sunday night offering, and an occasional food pounding.  During the next five decades, Compton would decline positions in larger cities as well as a state overseer’s position.  His response to those offers was always the same: “Heaven is just as close from Delbarton, West Virginia, as it from to New York City.”

That vision of being married to the land proved to be larger than any one lifetime for the Delbarton church, which, for the second time, has outgrown a facility built amidst a cloud of doubt.  “People simply didn’t believe a larger church could survive,” Bias says, “because of the poor economy.”  It has not only survived but also proved that in God’s economy, a small church can prevail in terms of membership, lay ministry development, and tithing.  It’s little wonder that Elder Matthew Gilman longs these days for what members have come to call “the release of the land” on which to build a third church. “Everybody wants a space,” says Gilman, who often juggles meeting places and times for the more than forty plus ministries to operate. 

Six hundred plus people either attend the local church regularly or refer to it as their home church, supporting it with their tithe and offerings.  This growth, Pastor Bias says, was inspired in part by what he terms “a soul-winning breakthrough,” following an evangelism conference where he first heard Brother Leonard Albert speak.  “It was in 1975 that Brother Albert fueled a fire, inspiring Regina and me to train laity for personal evangelism. I remember coming home so fired up about winning lost people to Christ that I could hardly sleep.  That conference was a pivotal time for me as a Christian witness,” says Bias. That inspiration has since become a demonstration for the growing body of believers, who enthusiastically embrace necessary change and put forth effort toward the church’s mission of reaching the lost, making disciples, and raising up leaders.

And raise up leaders they have.  Forty lay ministries are fortified with ministry workers, evidence that the Pareto principle, where 20% of the people do 80% of the work, is not a truism in the church.  The church continually births dedicated workers who are “married to the land.”  Pastor Bias says that the implications of Isaiah 62 are clear and the Scripture that promises restoration of sons and daughters to the land, “constantly speaks” to him. “That God would will restore sons and daughters to the land,” he says, “goes back to the apostolic dimension that Brother Albert also believes in, that out of long-term relationships people are nourished, find callings, and bear fruit, which, in turn, brings joy.”

After attending a Lay Evangelism Conference directed by Albert, present Sunday School and Senior Adult Ministries Director Betty Massey says she, too, returned to her local church with a renewed desire to win souls.  She credits Albert’s lectures, books, and tapes with her success in one-on-one evangelism.

Pastor Bias is known as a servant-leader, and has, over the years, earned the respect and trust of his congregation.  When asked why he believes in people to do the work of the ministry, Pastor Bias replies that through the years, he has come to understand that every set of eyes he looks into represents a life that was, in eternity past, well thought-out and predetermined by God.  This belief, he says, is based upon Jeremiah 1:5, where God reveals to Jeremiah that before he was woven in his mother’s womb, he was known of God.  The scripture, he further states, reveals that God had “before ordained” Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations, that God is no respecter of persons.  “Therefore,” he adds, “If it is true of Jeremiah, it must also be true of every person who ever walked this earth.”

Bias, citing Acts 2:23 as a reference, adds that the priesthood of believers is substantiated because God has a “determinate counsel and foreknowledge, by which he determines and plans each person’s particular gifts and abilities.  Acts 17:26 states that at some point before birth God predetermines their times—chronology— and the boundaries of their habitations.”  Making reference to I Corinthians 12:18, he says that God sets people in His church as He wills to serve in their significant, God-ordained gifts and callings. 

Walk the corridors of the Delbarton church, and during most days or evenings, you’ll hear the sounds of people operating in those callings as they minister to the needs of every age group, proof that people are indeed fruitful when their giftings are discovered.  It’s one of the things that draw people to the church, something leaders hear over and over.  “It was one of the things that drew me to the church,” the late Vickie White once shared.  “I first came here for a quilting class, then returned to help write a letter for a grant.  What amazed me the most was that I was accepted even though I wasn’t a Christian.  Many churches wouldn’t let you pick up a broom to sweep if you weren’t a Christian.  I felt loved.  There was just something about being in this building. Church wasn’t going on, but people were in the sanctuary and in other rooms all over the building.  I could hear them working and laughing, and felt an immediate connection when I walked through the door.  Other events later orchestrated my coming here, but I think it was that initial contact that did it for me.”

Greeters Ministry leader Bonnie Gilman believes so much in the importance of that initial impression that she and her staff often pray an hour before church.  “We need to be prepared in prayer and reading the word so that we can be the hand of Christ extended,” the courthouse reporter says.  As for her pastor’s influence, she laughs, “I could talk all day about the Jesus in Mitchell Bias,” explaining that she was saved through a weekly Bible study at the courthouse, where people from all walks of life—banking professionals, attorneys, secretaries, mechanics, probation officers, and judges— study at lunch the Bible under the direction of Pastor Bias.

Christian Education teacher Debra Catron, who holds a Master’s Degree in Social Studies, understands the historical implications of being married to the land.  “Our vision of being married to the land,” she says, “was denied most of the last century due to economic restraints.  West Virginia’s long dependency on a single extractive industry, coal, led to a bleak economic setting for the youth of the region.  They could not marry the land without jobs needed to support those newly married individuals.”  Catron says that in addition to the commitment to the local church, she believes the success of the lay ministry lies in the church’s teaching:  “Our pastor teaches humility, that we are to always seek a servant’s heart that is satisfied to elevate others at the expense of self.  I think he lives that message every day because he is willing to have that humble character in his life.” 

Testimonies of commitment to the ministry stir passionate testimonies.  “We were bus kids ourselves,” laughs Brenda Roberts, speaking of herself and her husband, Jerome, who serve together as the Bus Ministry Directors for the buses which run on Wednesday evenings.  Weekly the Roberts', like other ministry leaders, extend themselves to the unchurched.  “Nine entire families have been saved,” Brenda says, “as a result of our outreach.” Team members do more than bus the kids to church—they witness to each child’s family, sometimes taking clothing and food to those in need.

Dr. Kathleen Runyon, Missionary and Director of Zion Ministries, says that Pastor Bias has provided her with “anointed, stable leadership.”  She adds, “It’s easy to follow a pastor who is a servant-leader, who has instilled that divine quality in his laity.”  As a servant-leader, she says that Pastor Bias, “unreservedly affords innumerable opportunities to the laity, allowing God to move within the church to bring about His divine will.”

When people from the Delbarton church speak of being “married to the land,” it is clear their ties are not just to their region, for, without doubt, God is continuing to birth “prophets to the nations” through a long-term pastor who understands the meaning of being married to Him. 

-Authored by Debra Zabawa and the Late Vickie White
(Revised)