Tennessee church planters, volunteers shine light in Denver
By Lonnie Wilkey & Chris Turner
Baptist and Reflector
People are flocking to Denver and its surrounding communities. In 2018, it was recognized as the fifth fastest growing large city (more than 300,000 residents) and 34th overall in the country by WalletHub, a financial services website, according to thedenverchannel.com.
Since 2007, Denver has become “Mecca” for Millennials (those born between 1981 to 1996), observed Dave Howeth, Send City Missionary for Denver with the North American Mission Board.
“Denver has been a great place for migration of people from around the country and from foreign countries,” he said. Howeth added that 70 percent of the population are “domestic immigrants” from the remaining 49 states in the U.S. while 18 percent are foreign born. “Only 12 percent are from Colorado.”
The city attracts a lot of entrepreneurs. “Much of this growth and expansion has increased the secularity of our society and structures in Colorado that has led to a more progressive way of life with values that have been absent of anything Christian,” Howeth said.
The NAMB missionary noted that while residents of Denver consider themselves “spiritual,” they “are not bent toward Christianity” but instead toward “a way of life that is very secular.
“Secularism is a society that seeks to build a kingdom without God,” he observed. “So, introducing the gospel into people’s lives has been the priority of the reason to plant new churches in a place with few gospel-centered churches.”
Denver is one of 33 major areas targeted by the North American Mission Board for its high population density and diversity.
According to NAMB, Denver has 4.8 million people in the metro area and it is estimated that barely over 50 percent of the population identify with religion of any kind and that only 7 percent identify with Christianity.
“There is one Southern Baptist church for every 20,135 persons living in the metro Denver area,” Howeth said.
That’s one reason Denver has been a focus of the North American Mission Board for church planting.
In 2015, Tennessee Baptists entered into a partnership with Send Denver and since then, a number of Tennessee Baptists have gone to the Mile High City to help start churches and to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the 93 percent of the estimated population who have no relationship with Him.
There are currently four church planters with strong Tennessee ties in the metro Denver area. They are: Bruce and Lisa Hendrich, Grandview Church, Mead; Parker and Jess Manual, Pinewood Church, Boulder; Chris and Libby Phillips, Journey Point Church, Stapleton; and Derick and Cayla Sherfey, The Oaks Church, Denver. A fifth Tennessee church planter, Ben Mandrell, lead pastor of Storyline Fellowship in Arvada, resigned earlier this year, to become the president of LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville. In addition to the church planters and their families, a number of Tennessee Baptists have moved to the region to assist in the church planting efforts. See profiles on each family here.
“The impact of the planters who have become pastors has been significant,” Howeth said. He observed that the church planters and “the countless churches that partnered with them to come out and either have relocated or come on short-term mission projects has helped to change the climate of ministry in Colorado.”
Adapting to a new culture
The church planters who transitioned to Denver acknowledged that it took a while to adjust to the cultural differences between Tennessee and Colorado.
“The culture is dramatically different here,” said Derick Sherfey, who moved with his family from Johnson City where he served on the staff of Tri-Cities Baptist Church. “It’s different than anything we’ve ever been around,” he admitted, noting that in East Tennessee they were around family and had a community support structure.
“We stepped into a context where none of that existed for our church.”
Parker Manual, a former staff member at Long Hollow Baptist Church, Hendersonville, said “transitioning into the culture here for us has been easier than we imagined,” but he acknowledged they were not prepared for the spiritual warfare they have faced.
The Manuals have four children between the ages of seven months and 8. He shared that within just a few weeks of moving to Boulder, his family encountered several transgender kids. “My son was coming home asking questions like ‘I met this boy who says he’s a girl at the playground today. What does that mean?’
“I remember thinking, Wow, I didn’t think we’d be having this conversation this early on,” he said.
“Spiritually wise, the culture here is really dark and we experience that at a very deep level,” Manual added.
Chris Phillips and his family came to Denver from Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova and served for a year with Ben Mandrell at Storyline Fellowship in Arvada to learn the culture and more about church planting before launching his congregation in Stapleton earlier this year.
Phillips put Denver into perspective for Tennessee Baptists. There are more breweries and marijuana dispensaries in Denver than there are churches, he noted.
“It’s obviously a very liberal community” evidenced by Colorado being the first state to legalize marijuana and one of the first states to accept same sex marriage. Those are just some additional reasons people are coming to Colorado. “They’re not moving here to go to a church,” he observed.
Spiritual versus Christianity
The church planters agreed that residents of Denver are much more likely to have spiritual conversations if it doesn’t involve Christianity.
“When we first moved here, it was three or four months before we met our first person who claimed to be a believer, and even then, there was no interest in church whatsoever,” Manual recalled.
He added that none of his neighbors or people in their sphere of influence had an interest in Christianity, although some were interested in “spiritual things.”
Bruce Hendrich agreed. Hendrich is different from the other church planters in that he was born in Colorado and left. He served as pastor of Oak Street Baptist Church in Elizabethton before returning to his native state.
He noted he was more likely to have a spiritual conversation in Denver than he did in Tennessee.
“It’s surprisingly easy to talk about Jesus though people are pretty much anti-Christian, but they are into spiritual conversations. So, if we can give them a different picture of what it means to be Christian, then we have a great opportunity to share the gospel.”
Hendrich said that he and his wife, Lisa, intentionally work to build relationships and they mow lawns, babysit for neighbors, dog sit and do “anything and everything just to show them that we believe that Jesus came to not be served, but to serve.” Hendrich said that their willingness to serve gets the attention of people who tend to be self-centered. “It builds a bridge for us to have a conversation.”
Phillips stressed that his ministry also is focused on relationship building and is community driven. “For us, being there and being for the community, and not just being a church in the community, is the biggest thing. Sometimes, that means we don’t even get to talk about being a church at all, but the fact that we are there, and the power of presence and involvement in their lives, has time and time again shown that’s what his community really needs.
“And, then those people ultimately come and walk through our doors.”
Help, prayers still needed
Howeth and the planters are grateful for the partnership with Tennessee Baptists.
“Keep doing what you have done by continuing to send prayer warriors to pray in communities, partnering with church planters, and coming to serve with and encourage church planters,” he encouraged.
“The great Volunteer State has sent some of the finest laborers we have ever seen to serve and give of their time and resources to advance the gospel,” Howeth observed. “And, not only that, the encouragement that these church teams provide to our church planters and their families is so huge,” he continued.
And, just as important, when the residents of the Denver region see people come to the area “to serve people they don’t know, it is a testimony to how great and glorious our God is to a world that is lost and confused,” Howeth said.
The church planters also expressed a desire for Tennessee Baptists to pray for their ministries and for God’s protection for their families as well as those millions of people in their city and communities who have no relationship with Jesus Christ.
“If they don’t hear the gospel and respond in repentance and faith, they’re going to spend eternity apart from Jesus. That’s overwhelming,” Sherfey said.