Rhema Christian Center celebrates 40 years 

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

Forty years ago, Stewart, Sheila, and Travis Farley (their 2 ½ year old son), held the first worship service at Rhema Christian Center. They assumed the property from another church, and it included a school. But it did not include any chairs in the makeshift sanctuary. 

So for the first service, Stewart borrowed metal folding chairs from his friends at Wallace & Wallace Funeral Home. That Sunday, 142 people showed up. 

Rhema has grown steadily over those 40 years, becoming a community institution. Today, they host sports practices, recovery groups, a preschool, weekly worship services, and their Life Center even serves as the Greenbrier County Emergency Shelter. 

“Our heart is for serving the congregation, the community, and loving people,” says Sheila. “This has been our life.”

They preach love, and they practice it. As they say goodbye, they always add, “I love you,” in a matter-of-fact tone that properly conveys their sincerity. 

A growing church…& a growing family

Sheila & Stewart Farley with their children, Talea (left) and Travis (right), during the early days of their ministry at Rhema Christian Center. This weekend, Rhema celebrates their 40th anniversary.

Sheila was expecting their second child, a daughter, Talea, when Rhema opened. 

Now, forty years later, Talea, is expecting her second child, a daughter, as they celebrate four decades of ministry. (Talea also has one son, Ryker.) 

“It’s like another generation is coming along in this church,” says Stewart, beaming his signature smile as he thinks about his grandchild. 

“You’ve always thought of the younger generations,” Sheila says to Stewart as they reminisce. 

“So many churches grow old and don’t reach the next generation,” responds Stewart. “I’ve always wanted to reach the next generation. Having good children’s programs has always been a priority for us.” 

Rhema began because of a children’s program. The Farleys believed in the importance of a preschool on the church property and risked their futures to ensure it stayed open. 

“Mr. John Dawkins owned the property,” Stewart says. “Interest rates were 22% then. Mr Dawkins offered to finance the land to us at 15%. I couldn’t get any banker to talk to me. Not a one, until Phil McLaughlin. I went in and talked to him and shared our vision. He helped us get started.”

When you visit Rhema today, it’s a campus covering numerous acres. The journey across forty years has been full of twists and turns, but they agree it has always been moving in the same direction–forward. 

After beginning Rhema with only a preschool in 1984, they added the ROCK building in 1985. It was an Allis Chalmers machine shop in Bath County, Virginia. “A group of men and I marked every piece of that building in Virginia,” Stewart recalls. “We tore it down, transported it, and put it back up piece by piece.” 

“We didn’t have any money,” Stewart says with a chuckle. “So we’d turn on these tube heaters and pump the heat during praise and worship music, then turn the heaters off so I could preach. When I saw the ladies putting their coats on, I knew it was time to stop.” 

They hosted numerous ministries and two Sunday services in that building until 1996, when they moved into their current main building. 

“We went back to Phil (McLaughlin) and said we’re gonna need to borrow $1 million to build this building. He said, ‘Whatever you want, we’ll do.’”

In 2004, several affordable apartment complexes surrounding the church went up for sale. Rhema bought them specifically so they would remain affordable housing complexes. Then the following year in 2005, they finished construction on a Life Center, which included a full gym and additional classrooms. 

During derechos, fires, and floods, the Life Center became the community’s life support system. Following the June 2016 flood, Rhema housed more than 100 flood survivors for several weeks. They also became the central hub for distribution of flood relief supplies and hosted recovery organizations such as Mennonite Disaster Services and Samaritan’s Purse for two years. 

“That was a lot on us,” Sheila remembers. “But at the same time people from the congregation and community just came and helped serve those in need. We want the community to feel like this is theirs too.”

“Every time we’ve had the shelter open, people tell us what kind of an asset Rhema is to the community,” Stewart adds. “The grocery stores send food. Business people send us money to help meet people’s needs.”

Sheila remembers people driving hours to deliver a truckload of relief supplies following the 2016 flood. “They’d pull into the church and we’d all be crying! It just touched you so much, then they’d start crying too!”

Love, acceptance, & forgiveness

Photo by RealWV.

The logo for Rhema Christian Center was designed by Travis Farley, Stewart and Sheila’s son. It depicts heaven reaching down to earth, and that reflects their theology. 

“The older generation viewed me as kind of radical,” Stewart confides. “The focus of our teaching is not heaven or hell; it’s being more like Christ every day. How do we live in such a way that we can be more Christ-like in our daily walk?”

Everywhere you look in the church, you will see Rhema’s core principles, which Stewart aims to practice as well as preach. “We have built this church on three things–love, acceptance, and forgiveness. If you come to Rhema, we’re gonna love you no matter what, accept you no matter what, and there’s nothing you’ll ever do that we won’t forgive you for.” 

The Farleys describe Rhema as a charismatic church, using praise & worship music. But they’ve also worked to not be boxed into a particular tradition or framework. 

“When we started, the newspaper and phone book wanted to classify us as non-denominational,” Stewart remembers. “Well, I didn’t like that. ‘No’ means ‘against.’ We’re interdenominational.”

“In those early years, when people would say they went to Rhema, they’d say, ‘Oh, you go to that church?’ I wanted to put on the sign out front, ‘This is that church.’  Nobody meant it as criticism. I guess we were the first charismatic church in the area. We weren’t part of any movement.  We were just different.” 

And the difference began with the name, “Rhema.” It is a Greek word referring to the spoken word of God.  

“Logos is the written word of God,” Stewart explains. “Rhema is what you would call the quickened word of God. When you’re reading your Bible and you get an aha moment, all of the sudden it comes alive to you because it’s the living word of God. That’s when logos becomes rhema.”

The Farleys emphasize growing in faith, likening a walk of faith to the human growth and development process. “Our kids aren’t wrong when they make mistakes in the process of growing,” Stewart says, “they’re just growing. We are still learning and growing all the time.”

A team effort 

Photo by RealWV.

While the church celebrates 40 years, the Farleys will celebrate 48 years of marriage in December. 

“She’s the rock behind it all,” Stewart insists. “She’s stood behind me through thick and thin and served in so many ways. I just can’t say enough about her.” 

“This has been our life,” Sheila adds. “You have a heart for the ministry, Stew.” 

They agree that without the support of their congregation, though, it never would have worked. “Take Stephen Cooke,” Stewart begins. “He’s just amazing. Ruth Miller, Louis Moyer, Terri Bucklen, hundreds of people have made this happen.”

“You can’t say enough about faithful, involved people in your church,” adds Sheila. “They’ve been faithful in their tithing, attendance, and involvement. That’s what makes a church.” 

“It’s really about the people,” Stewart says. “You get involved in people’s lives. It all comes back to loving people, accepting people, and forgiving people.”

40th anniversary celebration

To celebrate Rhema’s 40 years of ministry, the community is invited to attend a 10am worship service followed by a lunch at the church. All of the buildings will be open for tours. Various ministers and guests who have served with and alongside Rhema over the years will give a brief celebration of topics. 

Special guests include Mayor Beverly White of the City of Lewisburg.  Stewart has served as the Chaplain for the Lewisburg City Police for many years.  Sheila has been a longtime volunteer for schools.  “It is of utmost importance to Stewart and I to support law enforcement, fire departments, and emergency medical services,” Sheila says.

Rhema Christian Center is located at 3584 Davis Stuart Rd, Lewisburg, WV 24901. For more information on Rhema Christian Center and their 40th anniversary celebration, visit their website. 

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