Photo courtesy of Davey Lyon

Church plant in Alabama’s poorest county experiences ‘little taste of heaven’

Davey Lyon says that for many people, Lowndes County is “just kind of forgotten.”

“It’s rural, it’s poor, it’s between Selma and Montgomery, and people just pass right through.”

But for Lyon, it’s Jerusalem. It’s the place where he was raised and where he’s raising his family. It’s the place where God called him into ministry, and it’s the place where he and God did business about some prejudices he grew up with.

And most of all, it’s the place where God is starting to write a new story, Lyon said.

“I’ve lived in Lowndes County my whole life. I was born and raised here, and I have seen from all angles the racial divide,” he noted. “We see in Lowndes County very little of what Revelation 7:9 tells us Heaven is like.”

In the past couple of years, as racial tensions escalated across the country, Lyon and his wife Amber began to feel God calling them to be active participants in sharing the gospel with people who look different.

“Our world is a broken world, and the only thing that is going to make any sense of it, the only thing that is going to bring hope of healing or any healing at all, is Jesus,” Lyon declared.

So he prayed and began to explore what God might be asking them to do. From 2017 until early 2020, he’d been pastor of a small church in the county seat of Hayneville and working for the Alabama Department of Transportation. He stepped away from the church to finish seminary, but God made it clear he was to stay in Lowndes County and take extension classes.

The fact that Lyon felt led to stay guided his prayers.

A church for all people

It wasn’t long before the focus of the new calling began to sharpen: to start a church for all people.

In July 2020 he and his family started going to the old Piggly Wiggly building in White Hall, a town of fewer than 1,000, and praying there. Lyon didn’t know where to begin, but he knew God would guide him.

Through a variety of connections, Lyon was put in touch with Neal Hughes, Montgomery Baptist Association director of missions. He met with Hughes, who began pulling together resources, including connecting him with the office of church planting at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.

Hughes also introduced Lyon to Dewayne Rembert, lead pastor of Flatline Church at Chisholm in Montgomery.

Learning the culture

The two became fast friends and began meeting once a week for Rembert to mentor Lyon.

“I’ve been working with him to teach him urban and rural culture from the African-American perspective,” Rembert said.

That cultural perspective is important for understanding, but most of all, Rembert told Lyon not to change who he is — just show people he loves them, that he’s genuine and that God loves them.

That’s exactly what Lyon wants to do. Early on he started building relationships with local leadership in White Hall. In November 2020, with the help of his home church, Benton Baptist in Benton, Alabama, and Montgomery Association, Lyon started organizing food distributions and praying with people in the old Piggly Wiggly parking lot. He’s also thrown a couple of block parties for local residents.

Lyon “has won the respect of that community already,” Rembert noted.

Rembert has experience with what it’s like to plant a church in an impoverished area. He also has a grasp on what Lyon’s home county is like.

“When I first came to Montgomery back in 1995, I was warned not to mess with girls from the 45 (‘four-five’),” Rembert said, noting the nickname came from the number for Lowndes County on area license plates. “Those guys in the 45, they would get you when it came to their girls. That’s a cultural thing in the African-American community — they’re very territorial.”

A message that needs sharing

And the residents of the county also struggle with an entrenched poverty and racial tension that’s been there for generations, Rembert noted.

None of it makes church planting easy.

But with the needs in mind, Lyon began praying about what the church should look like, and kept coming back to Genesis 1:26-27, which says God made man and woman in His image.

“The Lord began to tell us that people wouldn’t treat each other the way they do if they understood that everyone was made in His image,” Lyon said. “Because we are made in His image, we have value in and of being His creation. We felt like that was a message God wanted us to share.

“So our prayer would be that we would see a church in Lowndes County that would look like Heaven. We want to see people as God sees them, so that we can love them like God loves them.”

Lyon came up with the name Imago Dei Church at the 45 — imago dei, Latin for “the image of God,” and “the 45” to represent the local community.

Rembert said for Lyon to put the 45 in there “already shows them he is being intentional about understanding their culture.”

Looking for a home

In January Lyon felt like it was time to begin leading a Bible study but didn’t know where to do it. The Baptist State Board of Missions provided two trailers, and as Lyon and others prayed about where to put them, they felt led to pray specifically for the old Piggly Wiggly building.

Hughes felt the large building could be split up and also used for other ministries, like a food bank, job readiness training, financial literacy classes and counseling.

“Another part could be the church running a community ministry like food for senior adults at lunchtime, Celebrate Recovery (an addiction recovery program) at nighttime and maybe we could build a place where we could house people who could come and help more in the Black Belt [region of Alabama],” Hughes said.

They keep dreaming, and “God keeps showing up,” he added.

Lyon built a relationship with the owner of the Piggly Wiggly building, who offered to rent it to them at a “cost recovery” price.

“All of what is happening there is gospel-centered, all of it is meeting a physical need with the intent of sharing the gospel and planting physical seeds,” Lyon said.

As he’s distributed food and had conversations, very few have known the gospel message.

“I would say in the last six months, if I’ve talked to 100 people about the gospel, there’s been one person I felt like could clearly articulate the gospel in a way I felt confident he was saved and could share the gospel with someone else,” Lyon noted. “We’ve just seen this void of the gospel.”

Attendance at Imago Dei already is up to around 25 meeting for Bible study.

“It brings joy to our lives, and it brings a little taste of Heaven to our lives. And I want more of it,” Lyon said. “I don’t want to have to wait for Heaven to experience more of this.”

God’s provision

Since God began drawing his heart toward planting Imago Dei Church, Lyon has taken a leap of faith and quit his full-time job to focus more on the community and finish seminary.

“We believe God has called us to be missionaries to Lowndes County and He wants us to be fully devoted to that,” Lyon explained.

He also is praying for an African-American associate pastor to come alongside, and trusts God will bring that person as the church strives to be multicultural in focus, fellowship, partnership and leadership.

Lyon said he’s grateful for God’s provision every step of the way.

A big part of that provision is the way his sending church, Benton Baptist, has partnered in the work.

Lee Tate, Benton’s pastor, said for everyone at the church who’s been involved in praying, gathering resources or volunteering with Imago Dei Church at the 45, it has “been a life-altering, eternity-altering event.”

“It has changed the way they’ve seen the body of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the truth of the Word and how God is behind all of it,” Tate said.

The church wants to see the gospel go out, he added.

“It’s been a blessing. We’re happy. We love praying about it and talking about it.”

Lyon expressed his gratitude: “If you ask for the epitome of a sending church, it is Benton Baptist. If you ask for the epitome of a support network, it is the Montgomery Baptist Association. And if you ask for the epitome of a mentor, for me, it’s Dewayne.”

Hughes said he’s grateful for Lyon’s heart for his home county.

Lyon didn’t make the decision to quit his job and plant the church impulsively, Hughes said — his heart “was warmed by the Spirit and he has prayed over and cried over that community. In the end, he knew God said it, and that settled it.”

For more information, visit Imago Dei Church at the 45’s Facebook page.

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