By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
CHATTANOOGA — God has worked through what most people would call a failure, says Dwight Millsaps, former pastor of a small church, God’s Gathering Place, in Chattanooga.
Though the church disbanded several months ago, recently God’s Gathering Place gave its facilities worth about $1 million to Brainerd Baptist Church, Chattanooga, to meet a need of that church.
Brainerd Baptist needed more space for its Hispanic Congregation. Other positive factors are that the neighborhood has many Hispanic residents and the two churches are located only about a mile apart, though on different sides of Interstate 24.
The gift also meets a desire of Millsaps and the former members of God’s Gathering Place because the facilities will be used to reach people with the gospel and remain Southern Baptist. Several years ago Millsaps was advised by a Baptist leader to sell the facility and restart the congregation out of a storefront building. But he just couldn’t bring himself to do it.
It all makes sense now and is in God’s plan, explained Millsaps. The many Hispanic residents in the community of God’s Gathering Place weren’t going to come to the church, which was made up of older Anglos, he added.
“I’m just thrilled to death to see this,” said Millsaps. “I never thought I’d be so happy at handing over a church … Now it’s really going to grow.”
Micah Fries (pronounced Freeze), pastor, Brainerd Baptist, said the gift is a blessing. Actually the church is outgrowing its facilities especially parking, is landlocked within a neighborhood, and had discussed trying to develop campuses to expand. Leaders had not imagined accepting a former church facility, though it has worked out well, reported Fries. Brainerd Baptist draws about 1,700 people to five services including the Hispanic Congregation which draws about 65 people. The church also operates a school and gym/conference center.
At their first meeting, he and Millsaps quickly discovered they “shared a common desire to see the Lord do gospel work in that location,” said Fries.
Because of the need and opportunities, Brainerd Baptist has already begun remodeling what is now called Brainerd Baptist Church East Ridge Campus and Community Center, investing initially a few hundred thousand dollars, said Fries. The facilities include a 300-seat sanctuary and two other buildings which are about 60 years old on five acres.
At times, God’s Gathering Place had grown to about 30 people, recalled Millsaps who served the church for 12 years.
Formerly Hughes Avenue Baptist Church, the congregation baptized people, gave to missions, held Bible schools, and offered a feeding ministry, said Millsaps. God’s Gathering Place also assisted two beginning congregations, including one for Koreans, by sharing their facility with them. Members of God’s Gathering Place even taught the children of the Korean congregation in Sunday School. But both congregations eventually left to secure larger meeting spaces.
Then Dennis Culbreth, director of missions, Hamilton County Baptist Association, based in Chattanooga, who had been working with Millsaps since he began the job about a year ago, thought of Brainerd Baptist, who had a new pastor, Fries. He initiated the discussions between the two ministers.
Plans are for the Hispanic Congregation of Brainerd to occupy its facility in just a few months, said Fries. Brainerd foresees the community center being directed by a Christian social ministries director and serving as another way to spread the gospel in East Ridge and maximize those facilities.
“Chattanooga, like so many cities in the Bible Belt, is by percentage heavily churched and yet at the same time is so gospel poor. … Such a large portion of our community is unchurched and unfamiliar with the gospel. We don’t think that we have to build church buildings to get the gospel to people, but we recognize that they can be a tool,” said Fries.
One unusual aspect of the renovation of the new campus is that Brainerd Baptist sent the pews to several churches in the Bahamas who wanted them. A Brainerd member formerly served as a missionary there.
Millsaps has been blessed in other ways, he said. He just returned from a missions trip to South Africa and is serving as supply pastor for Blythe Avenue Baptist Church, Cleveland.
“I really feel like that if God’s doing something we need to follow Him or we’re going to stop what He’s doing. And if we follow Him He’s still going to give us something He’s already intended,” said Millsaps.
“I think in many ways the hero of this story is that church,” said Fries. “I’m just the baton carrier in this,” Millsaps observed.