By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
Thriving now, Rolling Hills Community Church started as small church plant
FRANKLIN — Jeff Simmons wasn’t so sure he wanted to start a church. He wasn’t convinced that people would come, and he wasn’t certain the church would ever get off the ground.
Then God brought something to his heart that completely changed his perspective.
“God reminded me that he hasn’t called us to be successful,” said Simmons. “He has called us to be faithful.”
Clinging to that mantra, Simmons started a church plant in the fall of 2002 with about a dozen people gathering on Thursday nights at the Alara Farms apartment clubhouse.
With the support of its sending church, First Baptist Nashville, and the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, the fledgling church swiftly began to take root — and God took over from there.
In the 15 years that have transpired since then, it’s been one miracle after the next for Rolling Hills Community Church, which has blossomed into one of the most dynamic and vibrant churches in Greater Nashville.
Now holding three services each Sunday at “The WareHouse” — which sits amid a sprawling piece of property in Franklin — Rolling Hills averaged 1,250 in worship in 2016 and baptized 70 new believers during the year. (Last year’s numbers have not been finalized).
“Rolling Hills is an example of a healthy church plant that started with strong sending-church support, and that enabled the church to grow to be a reproducing church,” said TBMB church planting specialist Lewis McMullen. “Starting strong healthy church plants has come naturally for Rolling Hills. It’s part of the DNA at the church. They are carrying on the example set by their sending church.”
And it all started with Simmons’ desire — his calling — to be faithful.
“I didn’t know what God was going to do,” said Simmons. “I mean, I really couldn’t have dreamed this. A lot of people are like, gosh, is this what you expected? And, it’s like, well, I didn’t know what to expect.”
Simmons breaks into a gentle laugh when he thinks about the doubts he had at the beginning of this journey. He admits that it took some very clear signal-calling from the Lord — and some extra nudging and encouraging from his wife — for him to be willing to accept the challenge.
“God finally convinced me by saying, ‘Hey, I’m not telling you it’s going to work; I’m just telling you that this is what I’m calling you to do,’ ” said Simmons.
Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the TBMB, said he is excited and encouraged to see that Rolling Hills is not only growing, but is multiplying with additional church starts.
“The Tennessee Baptist Convention has a vision to see 1,000 new churches planted or strategically engaged by 2024 — and Rolling Hills Community Church is certainly representative of a thriving church plant,” said Davis. “For 15 years, Rolling Hills has reflected the Great Commission values of the TBC to preach and share the gospel while serving its community in practical ways. It’s a joy to see a church having the kind of impact this one is having. Rolling Hills is a testimony to what Tennessee Baptists can do when we work cooperatively together.”
The Journey Begins
Rolling Hills has been a growing church essentially from Day 1.
After just three months of meeting at the apartment clubhouse, the church moved to the Marriott Hotel in Cool Springs, and began meeting on Sundays in early 2003.
While there, the church found creative ways to conduct business. Baptisms were held in the indoor pool — occasionally while some of the hotel’s guests continued swimming in the deep end. The location of worship gatherings was very fluid, too, during that time.
“One week, they’d come to us and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got an Amway convention next week, so you guys will have to go somewhere else,’ ” Simmons recalled with a laugh. “So, we’d meet in a barn or we’d meet in a bridal shop. The joke was, ‘if you can find us, you can worship with us.’ We just never knew where we were going to be, week to week.”
The odyssey continued for the next year, and in the spring of 2004, Rolling Hills was on the move again, relocating to Carmike Theater in Cool Springs. The church had no official contract with Carmike, but God was in the details, and the church continued to grow.
During its five-year run in the theater, the church experienced — appropriately enough — some comedy, some drama and certainly some adventures.
“We did baptisms in the horse trough out in the lobby,” said Simmons, “and they’d be popping popcorn behind us. It was fun.”
Each Sunday, the Rolling Hills staff and volunteers would meet at Carmike at 6:30 a.m. to begin setting up for worship. The church would make use of 10 different theaters (one for the nursery, one for a coffee bar, etc.) throughout the morning.
During its tenure at the theater, the church started two other ministries — a 3-on-3 basketball tournament in the parking lot, and a present-wrapping station at Cool Springs Mall during the Christmas season — as means of outreach. Both ministries are still going strong today.
The church continued to grow and flourish in the theater, and, by the fall of 2007, it had outgrown the facility.
So, when Simmons learned that there was a building for sale in a prime location in the area, he began praying about a possible move.
There was only one small obstacle: His church was about one million dollars short of the one million dollars it needed to bid on the building. “At the time, we had a couple of hundred people coming to our church, but we had zero in terms of savings,” said Simmons.
After much prayer, Simmons felt led to call the church to have a one-time offering. He remembered telling the members, “Hey, let’s pray. Let’s stretch. Dip into your savings, your retirement account. Let’s see what we can do.”
The congregation responded. And a miracle happened.
“Everybody came together,” Simmons said. “Kids were bringing their piggy banks in and everybody was in on this. I mean, it was powerful.”
Amazingly, the budding church, with an average age of 28 among its members, collected more than one million dollars.
“When our finance chair called and said, ‘Jeff, the church just gave a million dollars’ — I thought he was lying,” said Simmons. “I thought, ‘there’s no way he is serious.’ But he was. It was just totally the miracle of the fish and the loaves.”
“We were able to go back and talk with some banks and we ended up buying this giant building.”
And yes, there’s another amazing-God story behind that, too.
“The guy who (previously owned the building) was a believer, and we were able to meet with him,” Simmons said. “God ordained that. He put that together in His sovereignty.”
Simmons recalled what the previous owner told him: “He said to me, you know, when I bought this (building), I really felt like God had a bigger plan for it and a purpose for it.”
On Oct. 11, 2009, the church held its first worship service in its new church home: The WareHouse.
As it turned out, the 143,000-square foot building was actually bigger than the church needed. So, what happened next? Yes, another miracle.
“By God’s grace, He allowed us to go out and get three tenants,” said Simmons.
The three tenants are: the state of Tennessee, which leases 10,000 square feet; Comcast, which also leases 10,000 square feet; and Naxos (the nation’s largest distributor of classical music), which rents 40,000 square feet.
“The tenants pay rent back to the church, so that helps off-set our mortgage,” said Simmons. “It’s allowed us to put money, our tithes and our offerings into ministry and missions, which has been real exciting.
“God’s been so gracious to us,” he said.
Simmons believes the church has potential for more growth — and not because of anything he or the staff is doing, but because people are seeking joy; seeking Jesus.
“I think today, more than ever, people are hungry for truth,” said Simmons. “I think people are looking for answers. People’s lives are empty. We all have that God-shaped hole in us, right? Christ is the answer.
“When you just share the love of Christ and you pray and you reach out to people and you see lives being changed — it’s contagious,” he said.
So, where does the church go from here? Simmons said he leaves those decisions to the one who is really in charge.
“Every day I wake up and it’s like, ‘Okay, God, what are you going to do today?’ ” said Simmons. “You just don’t ever know. You can’t script these things.”
5 KEYS TO SUCCESSFUL CHURCH PLANTING
Jeff Simmons, the lead pastor at Rolling Hills Community Church, outlines what he believes are five pertinent factors in helping grow a successful church plant.
- Calling – It is so important to know God is calling you to plant a church or to be a part of a church-planting team. It is not easy work for the Kingdom, but knowing God is with you is what will sustain you. Jesus said, “Come follow Me.” Following Christ and growing His Church is the adventure of a lifetime! Hold on to God’s calling on your life.
- Core Team – You are not called to plant a church alone. Even Jesus had 12 men around Him and the apostle Paul had Timothy, Silas, Barnabas and others. Praying for God to bring the right people around you is essential. It takes a team of people, all united in the call of Christ, to plant a growing, vibrant church. Jesus said, “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another,” (John 13:35). Love is contagious. Surround yourself with people who love God, love others and love His church.
- God’s Word – Teach the Bible. People are hungry for truth. In Acts 2, it says of the Early Church, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to the fellowship, the breaking of bread and to prayer,” (Acts 2:42). Don’t water down the Word. We live in a culture where people are searching for truth. Jesus is the answer. Be bold and teach God’s Word with persistence and passion. People will respond.
- Reach Out – The Church is not a “holy huddle.” The Church should constantly be looking for ways to reach out to others. Jesus gave us the Great Commission, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations …” (Matthew 28:19). Church plants are awesome for reaching a community for Christ, but we must always be careful that we don’t turn inward. Be creative in reaching out and God will draw people to Himself. Acts 2 also says of the Early Church, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The Church reached out and the Lord brought the growth.
- Prayer – It is only God who can change a heart and it is only God who can grow a church. James 5:16b says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” Enlist a prayer team within the church as well as outside the church. Make prayer a priority. The Early Church devoted themselves to prayer (Acts 2:42), and so should we. God wants His church to grow. When you pray is when you see God do miracles. And this is when God receives the glory.