Sunday, September 09, 2001

Preacher keeps to small towns

But rural areas produce crowds

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        PIKEVILLE, Ky. — Evangelist Rick Gage fills stadiums just as full as Billy Graham does.

        It's just that the stadiums he preaches in are much smaller.

        The Texas native takes his crusades to the small towns that other preachers might see only from the air as they fly over en route to big cities.

        He is the small town's Billy Graham.

        “God has just burdened my heart to take the Gospel message to the small towns of America,” he said. “I'm preaching the same message in those towns that Billy Graham has been preaching in large cities.”

        Like the Rev. Mr. Graham, the Rev. Mr. Gage is a Southern Baptist. He preaches the same Gospel, offers the same invitation to would-be believers, and sees lines of people walk toward his pulpit to accept. The difference is in scale. In the towns where the Rev. Mr. Gage preaches, the largest gathering place often is the bleachers around the high school football field.

        The location during the last week of August was Pikeville, a town of 6,500 in the Appalachian Mountains, where local pastors say the Rev. Mr. Gage sparked a religious revival in four nights of preaching. The football stadium, which holds about 2,500, was packed. Some 1,000 people, most of them teens, responded to his invitation to accept the savior or to rededicate their lives to him.

        Perhaps never before has Pikeville had so many people reached with the Gospel in such a short time, said First Baptist Church Pastor Paul Badgett. The Rev. Mr. Gage, a youthful-looking 43 has done more than 500 small-town crusades and seen about 250,000 people decide to serve Jesus.

        Rick Stanley, an evangelist and stepbrother of Elvis Presley who has spoken at four Graham crusades, assisted the Rev. Mr. Gage in the Pikeville meetings.

        “Rick Gage has a heart for the towns that most people overlook,” Mr. Stanley said.

        “We really don't get very many evangelists, especially well-known evangelists, in Pikeville,” said Dawn Rowe, a member of First Baptist Church, who was converted under the Rev. Mr. Gage's ministry. “We're just as needy as the big cities. Everybody needs Jesus whether you live in a small town or a big city.”

        The Rev. Mr. Gage, now a resident of Atlanta, is the son of a Baptist evangelist. He never expected to follow his father's footsteps, instead opting for a career as a football coach. After he graduated from Cameron University in Lawton, Okla., he held assistant coaching positions at West Texas State University, Texas Tech and Liberty University before going into full-time evangelism.

        “I was climbing that coaching ladder, but my life was empty,” the Rev. Mr. Gage said.

        That all changed when he attended a crusade where evangelist James Robison of Fort Worth, Texas, was preaching.

        “As a 25-year-old football coach, I knelt down and asked God to save me and change me,” he said. “I was like a thief being caught robbing a bank. I gave up. I surrendered my life to Christ totally and completely. For the first time in my life, the Bible became real to me. I couldn't put that book down.”

        The Rev. Mr. Gage later made his first efforts on the streets of Dallas, talking with people individually about Jesus.

        That commitment remains strong, said Mark Walz, chaplain at Pikeville Methodist Hospital.

        “He's a super dynamic, on fire man for God,” the Rev. Mr. Walz said. “He is so convicted to win people for Jesus.”

        In the months before the Rev. Mr. Gage arrived in Pikeville, local churches began promoting the crusade, and the fervor began to build. Billboards went up around town. Radio ads began to air. Pastors of every denomination were promoting the meetings from their pulpits. Prayer groups met every day for months. Talk in grocery stores, doctor's office waiting rooms, in the high school hallways turned to the event.

        When the stream of new believers began flowing out of the bleachers after the first service, the Rev. Mr. Walz said everyone knew the evangelist hadn't been overplayed. People would make their way across the football field, tears streaming down their faces, to pray for forgiveness.


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