By Carson Gerber
Tribune staff writer
— Oakford Baptist Church was a small, white-washed country sanctuary when a 20-year-old Jeff Harlow first started preaching there in 1975. The worship consisted of hymn books, an organ and piano. About 50 people attended on Sunday, and around 15 kids participated in the church’s youth program.
Fast forward 37 years, and you’ll still find Harlow preaching from the pulpit. But the church — well, that looks a little different.
For starters, it changed it name to Crossroads Community Church in 2000. It’s changed locations, denominations, added a professional-sounding praise-and-worship band and expanded into a new 56,000 square foot worship center a decade ago.
Over all the time, it’s grown by more than 2,000 attendees to become the largest church in Kokomo.
“We have more kids in the bathroom now at any one given time than we used to have in the entire Sunday school,” Harlow said with a laugh.
The church has underwent a lot of transformations over the years, but one thing’s remained consistent: Jeff Harlow at the helm as senior pastor.
But even that’s changing soon.
After preaching thousands of sermons nearly every Sunday for the last 37 years, 58-year-old Harlow is stepping down and delivering his last message in March.
“Leading a church for nearly four decades is pretty much unheard of,” said Kevin Smith, administrative pastor at Crossroads Community Church and a life-long friend. “It’s huge in terms of not just pastoring the same church, but pastoring a church through such massive changes over the years. And Jeff’s been able to grow right along with it. It’s an incredible accomplishment.”
The church’s first big transformation came in 1977, just two years after Harlow agreed to start preaching at Oakford Baptist Church twice a week for $40. Because of structural problems, the congregation decided to build a 150-seat sanctuary just across the road on Ind. 26.
“I figured that that building would be big enough until Jesus came,” Harlow said. “It held around 200 people, and I was so proud of it.”
But that wasn’t the case. After seven years, the church was completely packed every Sunday.
“I told people that it was crazy, but the shoe was determining the size of the foot,” he said. “If God needed more room to work, then we needed to give it to him.”
So in 1984, the church added on a 500-seat auditorium and started hiring associate pastors.
“I thought this has to be big enough,” Harlow said. “I’d never been a part of a church that size, so I never dreamed it would get bigger than that.”
But it did get bigger. As attendance kept climbing, they added a second worship service on Sunday morning, and another Saturday night. By 1999, around 900 people were crowding into the auditorium every weekend.
Even before then, however, Harlow said he knew the church would need to expand again. He said he knew God wanted the church to build a new worship center on a piece of prime farm ground at the corner of Ind. 26 and U.S. 31.
For four years, Harlow said he drove past the property everyday and prayed over the land. He changed his daily driving routes to make sure he’d pass it.
“I tried to always hit the light at the corner when it was red so I’d have a little more praying time,” he said.
Sure enough, in 2000, the church purchased 115 acres just where Harlow said he knew God wanted the new sanctuary.
In 2003, Harlow preached his first sermon from the new facility, which the congregation decided to rename Crossroads Community Church and drop its Baptist affiliation.
That first year, attendance skyrocketed to 1,700, and the congregation has grown ever since to over 2,000 every weekend.
Although Harlow was at the helm during the church’s massive expansions, he said it’s been members’ heart for outreach that’s really spurred the growth at Crossroads.
“You have to have people who see beyond themselves — who buy into the idea that their real calling is to the community,” he said. “People were willing without fail to say if we can be more effective by changing our name, moving to a new location and worshiping in a style that isn’t our favorite in order to make this a place where kids and the unchurched want to be, then what they need is more important than what we want.”
That may be true, but Administrative Pastor Smith said Harlow’s leadership was paramount in moving the church forward.
“He’s always cared more about the church than his own personal career or legacy, and he’s exhibited an extreme sense of vision,” he said. “Jeff has made us all feel that we were raised up so we could reach out to the community.”
Dave and Angie Spell, who have attended Crossroads since 1993, said it’s Harlow’s down-to-earth, sincere personality that’s made the church feel like home to them.
“You can tell that Jeff cares,” Angie said. “He’s always interested in what’s going on in your life. When he says ‘How’s it going,’ you know he really wants to know.”
Dave said although the location and worship style has changed since he started coming, Harlow never tampered with the central mission of the church.
“He’s always been faithful to the Bible, and he’s never wavered from that,” he said.
Harlow said at his core he’s still a small-church pastor. He said throughout his entire stint as a preacher, he’s worked on his family farm in Tipton County driving a combine or helping manage finances. That’s where he first developed his managing skills, he said.
But Harlow said the amenities of a large church better facilitate the mission of reaching out to the hurting and down-and-out.
“Jeff can preach to 1,000 people, or just talk one-on-one with someone in his office and make them feel special,” Smith said.
So what does Harlow have planned after stepping down from the pulpit and delivering his final sermon on March 17?
“I don’t have a clue,” he said. “I’m going to farm, I know I’m going to do that. I’m just going to devote myself to my family and the farm, and see what comes up. I’m assuming there’s something else, but I don’t know what that something is yet.”
One thing he definitely wants to do, however, is write a book on how to properly transition churches and organizations through big changes.
And when the new pastor takes over, Smith said the congregation will all have the same message for Harlow.
“I think what anyone here at the church would say to Jeff is a single word: Thanks,” he said. “Thanks for your service and dedication for so many years.”
Carson Gerber is a Kokomo Tribune reporter. He may be reached at 765-854-6739, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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