GILBERTSVILLE, Ky. (KT) – East Marshall Baptist Church has a faithful congregation of about 25 every Sunday.
But when Gov. Andy Beshear said to not gather in groups of more than 10, “that was the end of it,” said James Keeling, the church’s 81-year-old pastor.
The end of it in person, that is.
Keeling’s technology knowledge belies his age and getting out the gospel message to his church became a priority. So one of the most senior of the senior citizen Kentucky Baptist pastors went where not many his age would dare to go – he taught himself Facebook Live.
"I didn't want to cancel my church service," he said.
Keeling gave his message on Sunday morning from a room in his farmhouse home and, to his surprise, found it reached far outside his own congregation: East Marshall Baptist Church was worldwide.
“I am not amazed when I see a pastor 50 or younger using technology in ministry,” said Larry Purcell, a Church Strategist for West Kentucky with the Kentucky Baptist Convention. “When I see a pastor 80-plus years old not just personally calling all his congregation, but spending hours learning Facebook Live, I am now amazed but not sure why. When a shepherd loves his sheep, he crosses any barrier caring for them.”
Keeling said he "self-taught himself with the help of some grandkids and children. I still struggle with the text(ing) stuff.”
Keeling sat up his laptop in a quiet room of his home and looked into the computer and preached. “All I could see was that old ugly face of mine,” he said. “It was kind of strange when I first started doing it. I did a dry run Saturday and I was ready to go Sunday morning.”
Keeling had the service at the regular morning time and will have a Wednesday service as well. He said there was no music – “I sing but nobody wants to hear it,” he said – in the 27-minute service.
“I couldn’t pass the offering plate but told them they could mail checks to the treasurer,” he said. “We have our costs we have to pay to keep our ministries going. If you want God’s favor, He loves a cheerful giver.”
Keeling’s online congregation more than quadrupled the regular attendance at the church. He had comments from all over Kentucky and even from Oklahoma and Florida.
“On a good Sunday, we’ll have 25,” he said. “According to Facebook, I reached 80 people (on Sunday morning). That’s per household. One of my members has three children at home but it only showed as one. I thought it was great. It kind of motivates me, when this thing is over, to try and get it going. We have a whole big field of evangelism open for us.”
Keeling has lived to see polio affect half a million children in the 1940s and 1950s and watched as rations were handed out during World War II. But the coronavirus outbreak is unique, he said.
“I don’t remember anything closing. In World War II we had rationing but people were flocking to churches. It was a lifestyle, we don’t have that lifestyle now.”
Keeling said what’s happened with the coronavirus is a “clear message to the church. We need to be the church whether we can go to church or not. We need to be not just at home moping about what we can’t do but praying for things that we can do.”
Looking around Facebook on Sunday morning gave Purcell a glimpse of the gospel being spread around the world. Pastors, like Keeling, who never dreamed of using this technology as a tool for God, are now looking at it as another way to share the gospel with a lost world even outside their own church walls.
“What I’m looking at and keep sowing to these guys, this is an opportunity to impact more people,” Purcell said.
Purcell said Keeling is an example of “turning adversity into opportunity. You have to see opportunity in the midst of the challenge. That's when you see God demonstrating His greatness and glory.”