When Ronnie McBrayer wrote his first column, “Keeping the Faith,” for the Walton Sun in the summer of 2006, little did he know his words would be read by millions in the years to come.

“Finding a welcome audience here led to finding my voice throughout North America,” McBrayer told The Log. “I am so grateful for that. Wow, has that little column gotten some legs!”

His column now appears in more than 100 outlets, newspapers and online, across the country with a circulation of more than six million readers; he has written multiple books and is a sought-after speaker. About two years ago, McBrayer left Walton County to tend to family matters in Georgia, but now is returning topastor A Simple Faith church in Santa Rosa Beach.

“I’m returning to actively lead ASF once again,” he said. “I’m back as pastor but my role has never been a traditional one, no more than ASF is a traditional congregation. I’ll be away from ASF on a regular basis because of my increased writing and speaking demands, but ASF is home for me and my family.”

A Simple Plan

A Simple Faith church began around a kitchen table in the summer of 2007 in the home of Michael and Cheryl Belk.

“Most of us had been together at the Seaside Chapel, and we all shared a similar ambition: Simplicity,” said McBrayer. “Following Christ together — ‘doing church’ — ought to be a little less complicated.”

The founders wanted the church to be easily accessed by those who have never really given faith a try, and those who swore they would never go to church again. From those guidelines, A Simple Faith emerged.

“Though none of us knew where it was going. I even warned the people in the room, ‘If we do this, it won’t become what you think it will become — so much so, that half of you won’t be here three years from now,’ ” McBrayer said. “And that statistic proved true. When something begins freshly and organically it goes and grows in directions that those who first planted the seeds, never imagined.”

Looking back over his notes from that first meeting, McBrayer found that six years ago he said, “The last thing South Walton needs is another church, but it needs a place of simplicity and substance where people can learn what it means to follow Christ, worship God, love their neighbor, and serve the world. That’s the kind of place I want to be a part of — it’s the kind of ministry I hope we can put together.”

A simple three-fold statement became the beliefs of A Simple Faith — a group of people who worship God, follow Christ, and serve the world.

“It’s that simple,” McBrayer said. “We hope you will journey with us.”

‘I don’t think my heart ever left’

McBrayer announced in late 2012 that he would return to A Simple Faith and the area in the new year.

“I had a bit of an epiphany that led to this decision,” he said. “It would take way too much copy space to explain it, but I felt like I should return. It was as if God and universe left me no other option, and I say that with a chuckle.”

About two years ago, the family moved back to Georgia because of growing family needs.

“Our parents have not improved, but they have stabilized,” McBrayer said. “Other family transitions have made it possible to return. I don’t think my heart ever left.”

McBrayer says that juggling demands on time between writing, speaking, preaching and family has taught him that if you don’t make time, there will never be enough for those who need it. But how does he make time with his family?

“Like porcupines making love — very carefully,” he said. “This is one thing I am much more deliberate about than ever. I carve out intentional time for my family and they are my highest priority. I also wave off most other invitations to do other things — chamber of commerce, sitting on boards, etc. I have only so much of me, and I want to be where I am most effective. My family, speaking, and writing take precedence.”

Holding the door open

McBrayer, who lived his first 34 years in Georgia and moved to the Panhandle in the winter of 2004-2005, has been an ordained minister for more than 20 years.

Meeting the expectations of others is the hardest part of being a pastor for McBrayer.

“What they want you to be; what they think you should look like and sound like; what they think you should believe and how perfect you should be,” he said. “I tell folks not to call me ‘Reverend,’ because in five minutes I can show you how irreverent I can be. Over time, a pastor makes peace with these expectations or he becomes an emotional slave to the whims of people.”

The best part of pastoring is easy for McBrayer.

“It is the privilege of being a trusted part of people's lives. Weddings, baptisms, births, death, sickness, tragedy and joy. A pastor shares all of these. Who else gets that chance? It is genuinely a holy thing to be a part of.”

With the exception of two contracted newspapers, McBrayer offers the column free of charge because hebelieves good writing and great ideas should not be treated as a commodity.

“My words resonate with those who are looking to hold to faith or return to faith after difficult experiences,” McBrayer said. “The phrases ‘Keeping the Faith’ and ‘Simple Faith’ reflect this. My role is to hold the door open for those who thought they couldn’t get in.”

McBrayer’s wife of almost 12 years, Cindy, says he has only one sermon: “God loves you no matter who you are, now go follow Jesus.”

“She says I say this same thing over and over,” McBrayer said. “Just in different ways.”

A book in the making

To McBrayer, books are like his children. No favorites or loving one more than the other — but loving them differently. The ideas for his newest book, to be released in the fall of 2013, have been growing in McBrayer’s head for some time as he traveled around the United States speaking in different venues for the last two years.

“I love this new book in a special way,” he said. “‘How Far is Heaven? Rediscovering the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now’ is my effort to communicate that the way of Jesus is not an escape pod from planet earth. It is a calling to live out the goodness of God here, where we live now.”

 “There is a real escapism in much of today’s Christianity — Christians put so much energy into getting prepared to leave,” he added. “What if we put that kind of energy into changing our world?”