ASHLAND, Ky. (KT) – The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ’round.
Just ask Mike Williams. He’s watched them for going on 38 years as a bus ministry champion at Rose Hill Baptist Church in northeastern Kentucky that remains a viable soul-winning and outreach tool.
Williams, 62, started working in the bus ministry in 1981, about a month after he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.
“A woman in the church said, ‘Come out and visit on the bus ministry.’ I said, ‘OK, what’s the bus ministry?’ She said, ‘Come and find out.’ When you first get saved, you’ll do anything. So I did go and found out.”
It has been his passion ever since. While bus ministry work has declined in a lot of churches for several reasons, Williams has not been swayed from taking his foot off the pedal. He spends about two to three hours every Saturday visiting, then brings children to church and back home every Sunday. If a bus family has a physical or spiritual need through the week, he’s a phone call away.
“It’s a wonderful ministry,” he said. “I’m telling you, if more churches would take up the banner of doing that, the ministry opportunities haven’t lessened one iota since the early 1980s. As long as the Lord gives me health and strength to do it, I’m planning on doing it.”
Bus ministry decline?
Like a lot of churches, Rose Hill once had a booming bus ministry. Williams remembers the church sending out five buses on five different routes when he started. Unity Baptist Church, which is located only a few miles into town from Rose Hill, was running about that number of buses or more during that same time in the 1970s and 1980s.
But because of safety concerns with the older buses that churches purchased from school systems, new laws were put into place and insurance rates skyrocketed. Also, drivers were required to have a commercial driver’s license to drive one of the big school buses.
“The bus ministry has had ebbs and flows. The insurance liability has absolutely played a role,” said Rose Hill Pastor Matt Shamblin. “The socioeconomic change in reaching kids has definitely affected that too.”
The Carrollton bus crash in the spring of 1988, when a drunk driver crashed into the bus and ignited an explosion that took the lives of 27 and injured many more, was the worst in U.S. history. It brought many of the changes in bus safety to light. Legislation was crafted and the rules changed, including much stiffer drunken driving laws.
Some of the older buses that were being auctioned used unleaded gasoline instead of the less flammable diesel, they did not use flame retardant material for the seats, had fewer emergency exits and did not require a protective cage around the gas tank. All those were reasons why the Carrollton bus crash was such a tragedy.
To be road worthy, it became a financial burden for churches to upgrade and run a fleet like they did in the 1970s and 1980s.
Churches went more with the 15-passenger vans that did not require a commercial license, but the days of bringing hundreds turned into dozens.
Shamblin, who said his mother came to church through a bus ministry, has been a bus ministry advocate in the churches he has pastored.
“One of the most evangelistic men I know drove one of the buses at North Charleston (W.Va.) Baptist Church,” Shamblin said. “He would saturate those kids with the gospel. Once he got them to the house, he not only led the kids but the parents to faith in Christ. We led the state of West Virginia in baptisms.”
Bus pastor meets needs
In that same mold is Williams, who has never wavered from doing the ministry that he feels called to work. Rose Hill averages bringing around 20 children every week but recently has brought in as many as 30, he said. The church also feeds them breakfast. For some, Williams said, that really important because they come hungry.
Williams takes his job as a bus pastor seriously and that means regular door-to-door visitation, soul-winning when the opportunity arises, hospital visits and even helping with physical needs like groceries, past due utility bills and sometimes rent payments.
“Seldom does a week go by when somebody doesn’t contact me with a spiritual or physical need,” he said.
Shamblin marvels at the work ethic of Williams who he calls “a good, godly man.”
The personal touch
Williams said the shift away from bus ministries have caused Southern Baptists to lose some of the personal touch that’s needed to reach lost members in communities, depending more on social media for outreach.
“How much more meaningful is it if a person shows up where you live?” he said. “That’s what we’ve lost.”
Many on his bus route first expressed surprise when they heard a knock on the door.
“People are actually shocked,” he said. “They’re like ‘I can’t believe you came out to my house to see us.’ I get that all the time.”
Williams said he’s not downplaying the tools that social media offers to reach the masses, but the sound of knocking on a door and meeting someone face to face beats a ping on the impersonal computer “because they know it took some effort. It demonstrates you really care.”
He shows a boldness in ministry when knocking on doors when he has no idea what kind of reception he’ll receive from the other side. “Most of the kids we pick up are disadvantaged or lower economics, a lot are from broken families. It goes back to people being unwilling or unable to do door-to-door soul-winning visitation. A lot of that is incorporated in bus ministry.”
Williams said he was taught and inspired to do bus ministry work through L.S. Wright and Wildcat Conley, two men who were in their 70s and still knocking on doors in the 1980s.
“I strongly believe revival of the bus ministry and soul-winning visitation is greatly needed in Southern Baptist churches,” he said.
Recently, Williams picked up the grandchildren of one of his former bus route kids for church.
“It’s kind of surreal,” he said.
Unlike when he started nearly four decades ago, Williams said the rules have changed. He can no longer go directly up to children playing and ask them about coming to church. The first contact is with the parents every time.
However, the rewards of bus ministry have been unending, he said. “I definitively feel gifted to this ministry.”
Shamblin said there’s a place for the bus ministry and there “may be a need for it to return to its roots of being evangelistic rather than just bringing Christians to church.”
The bus ministry was incorporated with Rose Hill’s popular Vacation Bible School and the bus was bumping with children. “Because we had a lack of drivers, I took about 60 on one bus and then came back and brought another 25 or 30 with another one,” he said.
Williams did the visitation to recruit the children to VBS the week before it started. Nearly a dozen accepted Jesus and were baptized.
“That was a long two weeks, but it was worth it,” he said.
Williams has had incidents, including once having to put out an engine fire and once when the exhaust system fell off the bus. He’s also cleaned up his share of vomit from aisles.
But the wheels keep going ’round and ’round.