BELLS — Chris Garner had everything mapped out in his mind: He was going to move to West Tennessee to plant a church that would be part of the BlueOval Initiative.
Turns out, he was only half right.
Yes, God opened the door for Garner and his family to move to West Tennessee, but church planting wasn’t part of the equation.
Instead, Garner was called as senior pastor at Holly Grove Baptist Church in Bells, where he now leads a congregation that is enthusiastic about making an impact at BlueOval City.
“I don’t think it’s being overly dramatic to say that this was a ‘Jonah moment’ in my ministry,” Garner said with a laugh. “I think that’s exactly what it was. I was like, ‘Nope, I’m not doing that. I’m not going to an established church.’ And the Lord said, ‘I think you are.’ ”
Through God’s provision and timing, Garner said he is getting just what he prayed for: A chance to make a difference in the lives of the people at BlueOval City, the massive Ford auto plant in Stanton that is expected to employ an estimated 10,000 people when it is fully operational.
Garner said he now sees how the Lord was at work in the details. “It’s clear that the Lord’s hand was all over this,” he said. “He was preparing this church for me and He was preparing me for this church.”
Garner said the members at Holly Grove are intentional — and energetic — about reaching BlueOval City, which is expected to bring a population increase of 90,000 to the area during the next 10 years. The BlueOval campus is located roughly 40 miles east of Memphis and will eventually cover approximately 4,000-plus acres.
“We’ve already been very active in terms of forming relationships,” said Garner. “We’ve done some of the block parties and we’ve gone down to the site to engage people. (In the coming months), we’re looking for more opportunities, especially with Easter coming, to keep building relationships.”
Danny Sinquefield, Harvest Field One Team Leader for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board and the coordinator of the BlueOval City Initiative, said he believes Holly Grove is positioned — both geographically, and more importantly, spiritually — for big things.
“When I preached for pastor Chris on the first Sunday of January, the energy in the room was powerful,” said Sinquefield. “The church had guests visiting and a new family joined. I especially loved when the announcement was made that the nursery was so full of babies that they had to divide the group into two rooms.”
Garner said he knows that reaching BlueOval City will not be an overnight project, but rather an ongoing process.
“We don’t have a ton of BlueOval employees at our church, but what we do have is a ton of people that are excited to get behind outreach and vision,” Garner said. “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Pray for the harvest.’ He said, ‘Pray for the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers.’ ”
Garner’s path to West Tennessee began when he first learned of BlueOval City at the 2022 Summit (the annual gathering of Tennessee Baptists) in Memphis.
“I was pastoring a church at the time, but I felt like the Lord was closing the door on that season of ministry,” Garner said. “We began praying about what was next for me and my family.”
At the time, Garner had a pastor friend, a mentor, who told Garner that he believed moving to West Tennessee would be a good thing. “I remember him telling me, ‘This is what you should do. I think you’d be good at this,’” Garner recalled.
Garner started praying about the opportunity in November of 2022. A few months later, he met Sinquefield for the first time when Sinquefield spoke at the Knox County Association of Baptists.
“It was at that meeting, really, when my family and I felt like, ‘Hey, we’re going to go all in on this opportunity and be a part of what’s happening at BlueOval.’ And, at that point, we really thought we were going to church plant.”
Sinquefield helped Garner get connected with Ben Cowell, pastor of Brownsville Baptist Church, and they began discussing the possibility of Garner doing a residency with Cowell. And this is where the story began to change directions.
“Cowell reached out to me one day and said, ‘well, I’ll tell you brother, we’ve got some churches — some established churches — that are without a pastor right now, and we need pastors with vision, with outreach emphasis that also want to engage BlueOval.”
Cowell told Garner that he would put him in touch with some of those churches. Garner’s response, privately, was essentially “thanks, but no thanks.”
“Honestly, I was not interested in that at all,” he said. “I had pastored an established church for seven years. I loved my church in Knoxville, but at that point, I was looking to start my own thing.”
Luckily for Garner, he didn’t have to spend three days in the belly of a whale before having a change of heart. All it took was a trip out of town and a couple of phone calls.
“My family and I went on vacation for Memorial Day (of 2023) and went to the beach,” said Garner. “I heard from one of the Holly Grove search team members who sent me a text and asked if I was still praying about other opportunities.”
Much to the surprise of his wife, Garner said he was indeed still praying about that. “My wife said, ‘Chris, what are you doing?’ ” he remembered with a laugh.
That same night, the worship pastor at Holly Grove called Garner. The two men talked for at least an hour, Garner said. “I got off that phone call and I told my wife, ‘I think I’m actually going to pastor an established church in Haywood County,’ ” he said. “And, well, here we are. That’s what we’re doing.”
Garner and his family are now fully embedded in West Tennessee, and Holly Grove is bustling with excitement — about BlueOval City and about the church’s future as a whole.
“The Lord has a wonderful way of getting the right people in the right place at the right time,” said Sinquefield. “I think this story is a beautiful reminder that we can trust the Lord in all things. I can’t wait to see how this story continues to unfold for God’s glory.” B&R