By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
KNOXVILLE — Phil Young hoped the meeting would go well. He was going to meet with Gayland Heights Baptist Church members to discuss options. The congregation had declined to a very small group of older members.
Young, director of missions, Knox County Association of Baptists, proposed several revitalization ideas, including sharing their facility with a church plant or beginning church. Of course, the church could close and give its property to the association.
Thankfully, the meeting went very well, he recalled. The small group was very open minded, said Young.
Soon they had contacted him to say they would like to share their facility with a church plant. Unfortunately, Young didn’t know of a church plant to recommend at that time.
Then a week or so later, he was visited by Jim Florea, a church planter who had been called by God to Knoxville and was preparing to plant a church in North Knoxville. Young asked Florea to consider South Knoxville and the neighborhood of Gayland Heights Baptist because another church planter was targeting North Knoxville and because of the recent contact by Gayland Heights.
Though initially put off by the request, Florea replied smiling, “Well, my vision is written in pencil so God can do what He wants.”
Soon Florea and some of his leadership team attended a Gayland Heights service and met the members. The church planting team began attending regularly as they continued praying about planting the church God was leading them to plant.
Two months later, in November, Gayland Baptist members decided to merge with the fledgling church, to be called Forward Church.
“It’s absolutely amazing. It’s kind of unheard of in my opinion,” said Florea, citing the wisdom, charity, and foresight of the members.
Then the leadership team of about 10 people of Forward Church got to work, which has been frutiful, reported Florea, Young, and Steve Tiebout (tah-boo), pastor, The River Community Church, Cookeville, which is sponsoring Forward Church.
Forward Church drew about 60 people to its first preview service on Feb. 12, “which was really exciting to us,” reported Florea. The launch service will be held on Palm Sunday.
Work to plant a church
“I almost feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Florea of the gift by Gayland Heights Baptist which was started about 100 years ago. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Florea, who planted a church in Nashville, knows of the hard work required. This one, though, is so much easier than the other church which met in a popular downtown music venue. Forward Church, Knoxville, has a facility, thanks to Gayland Heights Baptist.
The church facility of Gayland Heights Baptist is debt-free and includes a 150-seat sanctuary, fellowship hall, and classrooms.
One of the first outreach projects of Forward Church was to help families associated with Montgomery Village Baptist Center of Knox County Association of Baptists by distributing food baskets for Thanksgiving. Young said he was so glad for ministry by Forward in that “unreached” neighborhood, which includes government-subsidized apartments.
Also soon after the merger, Forward Church began renovating the facilities with funds from The River Community.
Young arranged for help in these efforts from City Reach Knoxville, a missions effort of the TBMB. Recently about 40 Baptist pastors who were gathered to investigate City Reach Knoxville met at the church to learn more about missions projects there.
Young, Florea, and Tiebout agreed that the neighborhood, which includes “the poorest of the poor in Knoxville,” noted Florea, needs Forward Church. The church’s community includes lower and middle class residents. Additionally, located less than half a mile away, are new apartments filled with about 10,000 young adults, many of them students of the University of Tennessee – Knoxville. Another plus is the church’s closeness to downtown, noted Florea.
Church revitalization through sharing, then merger
Young said usually a declining church takes longer to make the decision made by Gayland Heights. “There was no question that God was working in the hearts of the people of Gayland Heights … .”
The members were “able to put their personal preferences aside” and invite someone in who would use “a very different approach,” he added.
Their action “enables us to be the best stewards of the existing resources within the association because we had a church that more than likely would have closed within a very short period of time,” he added.
Lewis McMullen of the TBMB staff agreed. He served in a supporting role in the process. “This is one of the ways in which a congregation can leave a legacy to the Great Commission: passing on resources and facilities to make an impact for the gospel in a community. This is also a great benefit since one of the biggest challenges for church plants is finding facilities to minister out of and challenges for existing churches is no longer being able to maintain their facilities or ministry,” he responded in writing.
“The beautiful thing in all of this is a church, a church plant, the mother church, the association, and the TBMB partnering together to impact lostness.”
Very thankful church planter
Since its beginning, when Forward Church was just in its infancy, it has financially supported Southern Baptists, Tennessee Baptists, and Knox Association of Baptists, said Florea. But he never imagined the returns would be so great.
The gift of the Gayland Heights Baptist facility has helped Forward Church financially, culturally because of the legitimacy a facility gives a congregation, and jump started the planting effort, said Florea. Usually a planter will live in a city for about 12-16 months before being able to hold a preview service. Then the new church will spend thousands of dollars a month to rent meeting space.
He is also thankful for other supporters. Besides The River Community, the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board and several other churches and individuals support Florea and Forward Church. He also wants to thank Valley Grove Baptist Church, Knoxville, for allowing his family to live in its missionary house.
This approach of church planting or revitalization “frees up … resources for the kingdom of God. … We’re going to just pick up where this last generation left off and reach this community.”