The Rev. Don Barber comes from a family of Presbyterian ministers, and his father taught him, “Go to church where you are.” So he tells his congregation to go to a local church and bring back a bulletin when they are on vacation. “Some jokingly refer to it as their golden ticket or hall pass for missing church on Sunday,” Barber says. “But what I enjoy is reading how other churches and denominations are reaching out to their communities."
Barber pastors Rabun Gap Presbyterian Church in northern Georgia. When he came eight years ago, they had a congregation of 18–24 on any given Sunday. Today they are holding two services and using folding chairs in the aisles to accommodate 150 plus.
“You just love Jesus and love the people; the rest will happen,” says Barber. This may be true, but there are many other things happening here. This small church was almost merged with another because of the all-too-common challenge of finding a full-time minister. Rabun Gap is a small resort area made up of mostly weekenders and people with second homes. “Our congregation has more gray hair than spiked hair,” laughs Barber.
Ironically, Barber’s history is with large churches. He was ordained at Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta in 1997, where he worked through 2003. While on staff he created an alternative adult Sunday school class that grew in attendance and eventually became a television program, first broadcast locally, then nationally and internationally. He eventually left the staff of Peachtree to do the program full-time. It was during that time that he first visited Rabun Gap and was touched by “this special little church” and their earnest desire to exist.
Even so, no one was more surprised than Barber when the call committee came knocking. It had never occurred to him that God would lead him there. Considering the size of his television audience at the time, pastoring this small congregation wouldn’t seem like the logical next step. “It always seems like big churches get big preachers, but the passion for mission here is no less real or important,” Barber says.
“They are vibrant and engaging and want to do mission beyond sending money.” For the people of Rabun Gap, that means something local, something they can be involved in personally and that engages the community in the life of the church.
That passion was brought to life in Rabun Gap’s food ministry. Food needs in their part of Appalachia have never been greater, as evidenced by the sobering statistic that 76 percent of students in their county schools participate in the free lunch program. The congregation’s food ministry was birthed to meet this need, and has since grown exponentially. Today they are supplying 12,000 pounds of food a month to over 300 families.
On one particular distribution day it was extremely cold. So Barber made some cheese and sausage grits for the volunteers. However, he underestimated how much a five-pound bag would actually make, and so volunteers approached the cars lined up to pick up food and asked those inside if they would like some grits. Thus was born the “grits girls.” Now, during every food distribution day, volunteers take trays of grits and distribute them to those in their cars, all the while sharing a “good morning” and a “God bless you”.
Many of these people live in their cars—and the conditions are indescribable. “But once you put your head in a car to help someone in need, it will change your day and, quite possibly, your life,” says Barber. The volunteers sign up months in advance and bring their children and grandchildren with them so they can demonstrate the model of serving. Last year, the retail value of the food they distributed was $680,000.
They took this one step further when school teachers recognized that students came back on Mondays less focused and realized it was because they often went without food over the weekend. So the church stepped forward and, with the help of a local benefactor, started a backpack ministry. Every Friday, 250 students go home with a backpack of nonperishable food.
“You can’t pray in school, but don’t think everyone of those backpacks haven’t been prayed over by the volunteers,” Barber says.
Currently, there are 138 households active in the congregation. Attendance outnumbers membership every week. When Barber first came to Rabun Gap, the Sunday service combined contemporary and traditional worship styles. “It wasn’t working. It was divisive.”
“We have been blessed with a world class organist that should be at a large steeple church. Once we made the commitment to traditional Presbyterian worship, our growth began. It was the right thing for this congregation,” Barber says.
Recognizing the need to engage the youth in their community, the congregation has for two years sponsored a monthly youth event that consists of music, food, games, and devotionals. The attendees include members and more. “This is just one of many doorways into the life of our church.”