By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
HENDERSONVILLE — When Mike Pennington, director of missions, Bledsoe Baptist Association, began helping Cragfont Baptist Church, Castalian Springs, it was in trouble. He tried to assist the congregation for several years but it was still declining in attendance and could not meet its financial obligations.
Then he approached First Baptist Church, Hendersonville, whose senior pastor, Bruce Chesser, agreed to try to lead his church to help Cragfont.
Now, just four years later, the new Creekside Fellowship, which meets in the former Cragfont facility, is drawing about 130 people to Sunday morning worship and is a healthy church, agreed Pennington and Bruce Raley, executive pastor, First Baptist, who led in the process.
The process of planting Creekside began about three years ago. First Baptist agreed to help Cragfont Baptist if it would disband for six months and restart with oversight by First. The about 20 remaining members agreed as did Pastor Jim Langston.
To help Langston, First Baptist employed him for a year, agreeing that he would assist Pennington with association ministry and prepare for his transition. First Baptist also accepted ownership of the property of Cragfont including its debt.
“First Baptist was really, really generous in that way,” said Pennington. Today Langston is pastor of a church in Alabama.
Then the process of planting a new church began in earnest as Raley and members of First Baptist developed friends and witnessed in the community. Raley, who was then working at LifeWay Christian Resources, Nashville, but was a former church staff member, said about 250 people attended the launch Sunday of Creekside.
Raley, who became the first pastor of Creekside Baptist and served for about 18 months, said he is thrilled with the outcome of the effort. He described the relationship between the two churches as being a mother church involved in a church plant. Of course, it was complicated somewhat by the history and debt, but not much, he added.
“When someone far from God comes into the church, when people are making professions of faith and being baptized, and when members are moving into roles of leadership, that’s what it’s all about,” said Raley.
“What this really resulted in was the birth of a new church,” said Pennington. Not only that, but “the church is a really solid church. … Today we have a church thriving in the Castalian Springs area through the churches working together in this area.”
Pennington noted that nearly all of the larger churches in Bledsoe Association “have a genuine desire to be of help to the smaller churches. They’re not looking out just for themselves. … They don’t look down their noses at them.”
The success of such a partnership is dependent on two things, said Pennington. “It works best when the stronger church is given control of the new direction and exerts strong leadership,” and the church which needs help contacts the larger church early because of the long-range planning of large churches.
Raley said the projected timeline of the relationship between the two churches is about five years, when First will transfer the property to Creekside Fellowship and it will become a self-sustaining church.
At this point, he sees Creekside as in the “teenage stage” in that the congregation is able to function but it still needs financial backing, guidance, and protection.
For instance, a mother church “provides protection so that if an outside influence comes in and tries to disrupt the church, we will address that. Satan wants to destroy it,” stated Raley.
The mother church also assumes the administrative role for a church plant, he noted. “We don’t want them to be burdened with all of that responsibility.
“We want them to be able to focus on reaching their community for Christ, making disciples, and developing leaders. …
“We envision that in several years Creekside Fellowship will be double in size and self-sustaining. … We’re moving along really well toward that,” said Raley.
Raley said the commitment of First, which draws about 3,000 people to Sunday morning services, in this restart or revitalization of a church, can be seen as similar to planting a new church though it may be more expensive and take longer.
“Pastor Chesser and I both have burdens for struggling churches. We believe there are many declining, even dying, churches that can be revived with strategic leadership and partnership,” explained Raley.
Lewis McMullen, church planting specialist, Tennessee Baptist Convention, said what First Baptist did in this situation is a hybrid of church planting and church revitalization that he has termed “replanting.” It is a very effective approach “to revitalizing a dying church,” he added.
Pennington said he has seen several models of larger churches helping struggling churches over his 20 years of ministry in Bledsoe Association. He has seen two churches merge two times, a larger church accept a struggling church and develop it into a satellite campus, and the replant by First, Hendersonville, of Cragfont Baptist.
They all have worked to help the kingdom, he noted.
“We’ve actually grown stronger as an association by growing smaller in total number of churches as two churches have combined,” said Pennington.