When Ken Atkins was starving, Neal Eller helped him find bread.
Atkins is pastor of North Catawba Baptist Church in Lenoir and he was
starving for more of God. “We are hungry!” he wrote Eller, leader of
the church health team at the Baptist State Convention of North
“Hungry for renewal, true spiritual awakening, and God’s moving hand in our lives.”
Atkins has more than 750 Pez dispensers, a collection that started when
he was a youth minister. He also collects Mickey Mouse memorabilia. See
It would no longer be enough to manage church processes and
plan activities to draw a crowd. Atkins was done with that. “God help
me,” he told Eller. “I need a touch that is so real that it scares my
people to death and brings me to the point of wondering, ‘How did I get
Eller took some of his team to meet with Atkins and five church leaders
at Hollifield Leadership Center for what Eller called “a divine
appointment with God.”
“In our four hours together, we worshipped, studied God’s word together, prayed, shared and prayed some more,” Eller said.
A year earlier Atkins had participated in a conference at Hollifield,
in which Eller was trying to get pastors to share about their visions
for what church would look like if they could make it happen and about
processes to move in that direction.
Atkins saw the men “wanting to be open but couldn’t…wanting to share
what was on their heart but being afraid. That was eye opening to me.”
And he would do all he could to move past that at his church.
Today Atkins, who has been leading North Catawba three years, is
cutting through the fluff and peeling back the layers to expose a deep
seated yearning in his people for more of God, just as he felt it. It
is taking time but every week more people climb on board.
About 125 people came to hear Atkins preach in view of a call three years ago.
Only later he learned that the real core attendance was about 50. Today
the core is closer to 300 and 400 attended a visioning service in which
people worked and prayed together to discern God’s plan for their
“We are beginning to see our people truly become intentional in their
lives,” he wrote Eller. “No negativity, leave a nugget of Christ behind
in every conversation, look intentionally for ways to grow in your walk
with God, and pray intentionally for service opportunity. It is
changing the way we see things and that is creating a transformation of
Atkins wants to build, and be a part of a people who yearn for “God to
be God. If it means I have to die to me, and I have to let these people
know we’re going to die to us, we’re going to do that.”
It wasn’t always that way. Atkins built a youth ministry over 12 years
at nearby Mountain Grove from 17 to 350 using all the tools and
activities, programs and parties in every youth minister’s playbook.
Then one day he heard the Lord tell him to stop the hoopla.
He changed direction to a more serious study of scripture and
purposeful prayer and attendance dropped to 35, just one tenth of what
it was. But over time it rebuilt to 250 youth who were serious about
their faith, who were “warriors for Christ.”
Atkins yearns to be a part of a great revival. During a conference at
Ridgecrest he was reminded of the great Welsh revival of 1904 when an
estimated 150,000 came to Christ in six months. He felt God asking him
how many he wanted to see saved.
“That instigated the fire in me again and I thought I don’t want the
neighborhood, I don’t want the state, I don’t want 8 million. I want
the planet!” he said.
He felt very convicted that he did not yet have “the humility and holiness” required to be a factor in such a revival.
“God said, ‘Ken if you want revival get your own house ready.’ All of a
sudden it made sense. I took that to mean God wanted to use us for
So he has been preparing North Catawba Church’s house, focusing people
on “intentional parts of Christianity,” not just the systems and
activities born in previous generations.
He encourages the congregation to read the Bible as if they’ve never
read it before, as if they are not even Christians, and let God speak
to them in a fresh way.
“They’ve heard me say 100 times you’re no good, but God is good and He
can use you,” Atkins said. “I’m keeping them in a reality check. It’s
not about us, it’s about God. That’s why we’re here. Our people are
beginning to sense it and see it.”
The church is walking through Thom Rainer’s “Simple Church,” figuring
out “what we should get rid of if we want to focus on Jesus in our
They are learning not to ask God to bless their plans as much as they are asking God, “What is the plan?” he said.
During the meeting with Eller’s team Atkins realized so much of the conversation of his church leaders had been negative.
“We walked away from that meeting knowing we need to intentionally look
for the good. We need to spend time and energy creating good and
getting out of the dark side,” he said.
Now when an office visitor starts complaining he stops them and says,
“Tell me about what God is doing. We’ve all got a dark side. Tell me
about the light. What is God doing in your life?”
Consequently he said the light is quieting the dark. “I’m very excited
about seeing the people change and their attitudes change in that
direction. I’m enjoying it.”
This intentional focus on the positive and on the person of God changes
expectations of church life and forces people to look for the actions
of God in their lives so they can be ready to share their revelations
After three years, Atkins said his congregation trusts that he is “not carrying them over the cliff.”
He is frank in telling them, “I love you but I’m not listening to you
anymore. I love you but I’m not here to serve you, I’m here to give you
the kind of stuff you need and you’re not going to like it. I’m not
here to serve you, but to lead you to serve.”
He said people hug his neck and thank him for that kind of leadership.
Atkins, 50, has been married to Carolyn for 26 years and they have
three children. Jimmy is the worship leader at North Catawba and
Michael plays drums in the praise band. Daniel is 11 and they all have
A Navy veteran, Atkins did not grow up in church. He graduated from
Campbell in 1990 with a religion degree and earned a master of divinity
degree at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1995.
He still loves the freedom to experiment that he enjoyed in youth work
because it is “so phenomenal to watch God do something that you didn’t
know would work.”
He knows churches must be willing to try things, fail or not, because,
he says, “If we don’t do something, by the year 2010 the church won’t
exist the way it is today.”
Special series — Body parts
Did you know you have a large church staff? Your gifts through the
Cooperative Program support a staff resource at the Baptist State
Convention of North Carolina that exists to serve your church.
With this issue, the Biblical Recorder begins a series — Body Parts —
featuring one of your Convention staff members, and a church which has
grown through that staff member’s ministry. Body Parts is inspired by 1
Cor. 12:12 — “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts;
and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with
Christ” (NIV). The parts of the Baptist State Convention exist to serve
This week: Neal Eller of the church health team in the Congregational Services group and North Catawba Baptist Church in Lenoir.
Coming up: Johnny Ross, consultant with GuideStone Financial Resources.
Visit Body Parts, a Biblical Recorder special series.