By M.K. Luther -- email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- Tony Alan Bates considers himself blessed.
Blessed with an inherent musical ability, blessed with strong religious faith and blessed with a beautiful wife and son.
But of all of his blessings, what was perhaps the most distinctive one originally came in disguise.
Bates, 38, an accomplished singer, songwriter and pianist, was born with stubbed fingers, having one full index finger and thumb on his left hand.
Undeterred by what others might find to be a disability, Bates applied his deep-seated faith to his love of music and started playing the piano when he was 13.
"I prayed for the gift to play the piano one Sunday, and by the next Sunday, I was playing," Bates said. "All I know is I sit down and I make it work."
Bates, who plays solely by ear and never relies on sheet music, honed his music and songwriting skills to become a professional gospel musician, and enriched his spiritual faith to join the ministry.
Now, with his wife of more than eight years, Kara, Bates has embarked on another faith-based mission by founding My Church, an independent, nondenominational church located in Strasburg.
My Church can offer an alternative for those who are looking for something beyond the traditional, ritual-based worship services typically found in larger or denominational churches, Bates said.
"There are people who are hungering for a deeper walk, a deeper relationship with God," he said.
The church emphasizes the spiritual relationship with God beyond the confines of a Sunday church service. Bates and associate pastor Lynda Kurtz provide Christ-oriented yet casual and intimate services at My Church, infused with a blend of music and plain-language, reality-based sermons.
Music director Dave Kibbe and drummer Tom Hendrick accompany Bates for the services' musical performances, offering a mix of contemporary and traditional hymns.
"We try to meet in the middle to have something for everyone," said Mrs. Bates, who also doubles as sound technician and multimedia coordinator for the services.
"Music reaches people before words do," she said. "I think the music is integral."
The mission of the church is to extend welcoming arms to those who might have had bad experiences with other churches and encourage everyone to come to church and experience God, Bates said.
"It is a pretty amazing thing," said Bates' 13-year-old son, Brent. "I think it actually reaches people and they want to actually go to our church."
The atmosphere of the services is open and welcoming, Bates explained, and the sermons are tinged with his signature enthusiasm and humor.
"We laugh and we have a great time at church -- there are people who just linger after church," Bates said.
He fine-tunes the sermons to accent the practical essentials of the Scripture, boiling down the meaning so it is approachable and applicable to everyone in their everyday lives.
"What makes us different is the sermons," Bates said. "The sermons are so practical and easy to understand."
My Church, which held its first services last January, originally was located in the Strasburg Theater. As the congregation began to grow, Bates decided the church would need its own space and relocated to Stony Pointe Way.
The new site allowed the burgeoning congregation -- about 40 regularly attending members and as many as 100 total -- the freedom to expand services and activities, Mrs. Bates said.
My Church now has a children's church, Sunday school and Thursday evening Bible study group, as well as concerts. The ministry will also host a Jan. 9 performance with Michael English at Strasburg Theater just as it celebrates its one-year anniversary.
My Church continues to grow, Bates said, and is kicking off an expansion effort called "Outside the Walls" that joins the church with community and volunteer groups to extend the relationships with God outside of church.