By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
CLARKSVILLE — Sometimes it is what happens before a new pastor arrives on the field that determines if a church can be revitalized.
Living Hope Baptist Church in Clarksville is proof positive of that, affirmed pastor Derek Smith.
When Smith became pastor of Living Hope in December of 2009, a major step in revitalization had already occurred in August. Led by transitional interim pastor Jim Harvey and a group of deacons who knew it needed to be done, they convinced the church members to change its name from Little Hope Baptist Church to Living Hope.
The old name had been seen as a hindrance to attracting future growth, even though it is located on Little Hope Road. According to the church’s history, it was called Little Hope because some said “there was little hope of ever having a church here.”
The move to change the name was contentious, Smith admitted, noting the church was established in 1869. Approximately 50 percent of the 120 who were there prior to his arrival ended up leaving. “If it had not been for those deacons who stood up, it (the name change) would not have happened,” he noted.
As it turned out, the church reached 100 new members within the first 12-15 months after the name was changed to Living Hope.
In addition, once Smith arrived on the scene, those deacons continued to support him “through some hard, uncomfortable changes,” Smith recalled. “The deacons who were here at the time all said they wanted to see the church grow and see people saved.”
Not long after Smith became pastor, they had a youth band one night and the music was loud. Smith noted that one of the deacon patriarchs said, “This is not my kind of music, but if it’s going to reach young people in our community, I’m for it.”
Looking back, he laughed, “I probably would have been run out of most churches within the first two years.” He noted he was only 29 years old and Living Hope was his first church out of seminary.
Smith did not initiate wholesale changes at first. They changed worship leaders but continued to sing traditional hymns while introducing contemporary music through the church choir. The church accepted the new songs because the choir was singing them, he noted.
The church began practicing a servant evangelism program by reaching families with children and got involved more and more in the life of the community. “We became valuable to our community,” Smith recalled. The community saw that the church loved them and it made a difference, he affirmed. “That started our growth.”
During the past 11 years attendance has grown from the 120 who were there when he arrived to about 900 pre-pandemic. What’s more, the church has baptized more than 500 people in the past 11 years. “To God be the glory,” Smith said.
The church has continued to adapt over the years and has moved to a more contemporary worship style, Smith said, but stressed that the preaching has not changed.
Other changes over the past decade include a new church facility which more than doubled its original space and additional ministerial staff members who are leading the church to continue to reach its area in the Sango community, located just minutes off Exit 11 in Clarksville.
Living Hope also has established a new campus in the Tylertown community of Clarksville, which is the third most diverse city in Tennessee, Smith said.
Tylertown Church — campus of Living Hope launched in a local hotel off Exit 4 and began to grow. The Tylertown area is comprised primarily of young couples age 29 years old or younger with two children. “Clarksville is growing and the majority of the growth comes from young couples,” Smith said.
The church recently built and opened a Child Care Learning Center in Tylertown to meet the needs of that community. The church will meet in the facility on Sunday mornings.
Smith noted that the community around the new campus is racially diverse so the church chose an African-American pastor, Irvin Wasswa, to lead the campus church. He actually joined the staff of Living Hope in 2018, about a year before starting the new congregation.
“If we don’t look like our community, we will be irrelevant to our community,” Smith observed.
Wasswa began recruiting “seed families” to go with him in what Smith jokingly called a “glorified coup.” He noted that not only did it provide families and leaders for the new campus, it created room for additional growth at Living Hope.
The Tylertown campus is growing. “We are seeing God honor intentional diversity,” Smith affirmed.
Smith believes the Tylertown campus will become the model for future campuses. “We love the idea of five churches of 500 people instead of one church of 2,500 people,” he said.
Smith said his goal is to see three more campuses in the next 10 years. “That’s in God’s hands. We will do them one at a time and help each one open up and become healthy and growing. Then we will move to the next one,” Smith said.
“We want each church to be strong and sustainable.”
Smith said that when he first considered coming to Living Hope 11 years ago, he sensed God was at work and the church was ready to see revitalization and growth. And, with God’s provision and leadership, Living Hope has seen both.
Smith gives all the credit to God. “You have to release control to the Holy Spirit,” he said.
Rick Stevens, director of missions for Cumberland Baptist Association, observed that Smith “has transitioned Living Hope over time.
“He has earned credibility during his tenure and that has helped him lead one of the most mission-minded congregations in our association.”
Stevens also observed Smith “is passionately committed to the authority of Scripture and gospel” and that he has “a gift for casting vision and seeing what the church can be as it grows and develops.”
He added that the Living Hope pastor not only “has a heart for his church, he also is a great bridge builder with other churches and other community leaders in Clarksville.”