BALLARDSVILLE, Ky. (KT) – Justin Walker stood in a warehouse building and looked out from behind glass doors at 11:03 a.m. on a Sunday morning 10 years ago.
It was already past time for the service to start at Salt and Light Baptist Church and nobody was there except him.
“I looked up at the sky and said, ‘Are you sure, Lord?’’’ Walker said. “Then my brother-in-law, his girlfriend and daughter showed up. They all rode together. They said, ‘Are we doing this?’ I said, ‘Yes we are. Where two or more are gathered…’ I pulled out a table and we sat around it to make it a little more comfortable.”
Walker looks back at that service 10 years ago as a milepost for the church that has grown exponentially since March. Walker doesn’t attribute it to anything but God Almighty. He says there’s no other explanation for what has happened.
“We grew to about 30 people in two years and stayed between 30 to 40 for 9 ½ years,” he said. “Then COVID hit. Meanwhile, Ballardsville Baptist Church gave us a building on our seventh anniversary almost to the day. We opened on June 5, 2011, and our first Sunday in the new building was the first Sunday in June 2018.”
They were given a building that could hold 150 people, even though they were running only 30.
“When we said we were leaving, several decided not to come with us,” Walker said. “That took us down to 18. We grew back to 30 or 40 within 2018 and then fast-forward to COVID.”
Salt and Light was struggling and was told it had to shut down. They had $4,000 in the general fund and didn’t have a plan for livestreaming. He tried to use his iPhone on a tripod “but it looked like you are probably thinking it looked,” Walker said. “We spent almost all of our general fund on camera equipment.”
He said the church leaders met and decided, if nothing else, they owned the building and they could meet, even if they had to open up the windows.
“Everybody was OK with that,” Walker said.
On Mother’s Day weekend in 2020, they reopened and 20 people came. In the following week, 40 showed up, and then the next week, they had 60 in attendance.
But later in the summer, the church faced a tragedy. Walker’s wife, Sarah, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He was a bivocational pastor with six children, including five at home. They had adopted two kids, ages 10 and 2, when the couple was 20.
“So at 26, I was teaching my 16-year-old daughter how to drive,” he said.
When they received his wife's diagnosis, Walker said, “I became the worst pastor you could imagine. I was getting people’s names wrong and everything.”
But God had bigger plans for the church than the pastor could ask or imagine. Their attendance continued to grow to 70, then 75 and by December, they had 90 coming regularly without any growth programs, he said.
“Everybody was trying to deal with me being sad, and we kept climbing,” he said.
His wife's health took a turn for the worse in February, and she died on March 5.
“The week she passed was the first time we broke 100,” he said.
Walker took only two Sundays off because he said, “The message has not gone away because I’m in the middle of a tragedy.”
Walker was working a full-time family business job along with pastoring, although he said, “There’s no such thing as a part-time pastor. I was full-time at my business and I’m a pastor. It’s like being a mom, you don’t get to turn it off.”
The church administration minister met with him the week after his wife died and asked him to become the full-time pastor. They talked to the family about how much he was making at their fabric store. They gave him a salary that could take care of his family with children ages 9, 11, 13, 14 and 17. And, he also homeschools them.
The church has cared for Walker and his family. They have flooded them with love, food and anything else they’ve needed since the death of his wife.
“Our church has rallied around us,” he said. “They were bringing over so much food my mom heard something on my doorstep and said, ‘If that’s more food, you’re going to need another refrigerator.’’’
Meanwhile, the church’s growth spurt has continued with 175 on Easter morning, and they have averaged between 140 and 150 since then. They are busting at the seams in their new building so much that they decided to take half of their general fund and put it into a building fund. Both are growing as the church grows.
“With 140 or 150, we’re packed to the gills,” Walker said.
The crowds are so big that they will start having two services on June 20 at 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. with Sunday School and small groups between them.
“If you’d put a pin on a timeline where the church would grow, I would not have put the pin 10 years later and when my wife has passed,” he said. “Yet I do think there’s something to it. I feel like Gideon to a point when he kept having to shrink his army. God said to do that because only He could get the glory. There’s no denying, it’s not me. We don’t even know how to do this. I don’t know how to pastor this many people, and we keep growing and growing. I told the church we’re not going to put the brakes on. The Lord has blessed us so much.”
The 36-year-old pastor said God is preparing them for something bigger and better.
“The church is not the show,” he said. “The Lord is setting the stage. I don’t know what the show is. I just know He’s prepping us. The gates of hell cannot prevail against us. He has a plan for us or He wouldn’t have called all of us together.”