Two-year-old church plant baptizes 45 people during pandemic
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
BRISTOL — Pastor Joel Kirk has a simple formula for planting a church: “It’s impossible to please God without faith.”
So far, that formula has produced miracle after miracle for Realife Church in Bristol, a congregation that will not be three years old until the Sunday after Easter this year.
Kirk recalled that on Palm Sunday in 2018 he and his wife, Angela, met with about 20 people at a coffee shop in Bristol and he laid out a vision for a church that didn’t even have a name yet.
Soon, it became apparent to everyone that the name of the church should be Realife. “I was sharing a vision of a church that would be real with each other, transparent and try to build a community that would operate as described in James 5,” he said.
Two weeks later, the church met in a local movie theatre with 48 people and basically no resources. “On that first day, we had no backing, no planting church and no money,” Kirk recalled, adding that he and his wife paid for rent of the movie theatre that first week, basically using all the money they had left after paying their bills and buying groceries for two weeks.
Kirk said he stood before the church that first Sunday and said, “I don’t know where we’re going to meet next week because Realife Church has no money at this time.
“But we started this on faith and we will receive an offering here today. And whatever God provides, He provides.” Enough money was given to enable the church to rent the theatre for another eight weeks.
Because the church had to set up for the service each week and be through by noon, there was not much time to meet new people and build community, Kirk recalled.
A church member informed Kirk that she had found a church building in the city that was going to be auctioned off and a sign said, “Any reasonable offer will be accepted,” he said. Kirk’s reply? “We don’t have enough money to make a reasonable offer on anything.”
Still, a church leader went to the auction but no one purchased the property. He approached the owner of the property about renting. He said he wanted to sell but after being unable to do so, he rented them the property which occupied an entire city block. It had been a church and a Christian school and even had a gymnasium and office building in addition to a sanctuary.
So, less than three months after organizing as a congregation, Realife moved into a sanctuary that would seat about 375 with between 50 to 60 people. “We couldn’t even fill up one section of the main sanctuary,” he said.
“We just believed God was going to do something special.”
Though they had access to all the property, some of the buildings were not usable because the facilities had fallen into disrepair because it had been unoccupied for so long, the pastor said.
Still, the church continued to grow. After a year, the landlord began pushing for the church to buy the property. “We didn’t even have $5,000 in the bank. We were paying rent and utilities and just trying to do as much ministry as we could on what little resources we had,” Kirk said.
Firmly believing that the bank would never lend them the money, church leaders went to a local bank knowing they would be denied a loan. Their hope, however, was that they could go back to the landlord and tell him that he needed to allow them to continue as renters until they could raise more money.
God had other plans.
After getting information on the church’s finances, bank officials told the church that if they could raise $50,000 in 90 days, the bank would give them the loan. “So, we stood up the next Sunday and told the church, ‘God is calling us. We believe that God is giving us an opportunity to buy this property and to revive this city block to once again be a life-giving well in this community.”
The church ended up raising $43,000 in 70 days, the pastor said. Again, God was in the process. Closing costs were not as much as anticipated and a lawyer donated her fee, so all they needed to raise was the $43,000. The church ended up buying the property which occupies a city block for $200,000, Kirk said.
The pastor noted that since its inception, Realife Church “has continually put God in a position where He either provides for us, or we go under.”
He laughed that the church has definitely pushed the boundaries, as evidenced by buying a facility that occupied a city block with only 67 people in attendance at the time.
God has honored their faithfulness, Kirk affirmed. By the end of 2019, church attendance had reached nearly 180 weekly and exceeded 200 a few times. The church had baptized about 20 new believers each of the first two years.
“We were really excited about 2020,” Kirk recalled. The church began the new year with 40 days of prayer, seeking God’s vision for the church. The year even began with about 15 baptisms in the first few months. Then came COVID-19.
Kirk admitted that when COVID-19 hit, he told his wife, “Well, this is going to probably kill us.”
After recovering from the shock and impact of the pandemic, Kirk went back to the only strategy he knew: praying in faith. He noted he began praying for 100 baptisms and growth in attendance. “I’m pretty practical in my thinking. I could have been scared to death that the pandemic would shut us down because church plants don’t survive anyway, or I could pray in faith that God’s going to grow us.”
Kirk chose the latter.
He prayed for 100 baptisms for the year and the church ended up with 45 during a pandemic year. “I always say, ‘If you shoot for the moon and only get a star, you at least got a star.’ ”
Lewis McMullen, church planting specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, observed that Realife Bristol “is one of those God stories.
“The church started in a theater in Bristol. God opened the door for them to get their current facility and the congregation was able to raise enough money for a down payment to buy the facility and they are currently making updates as possible to the facilities to better reach their community.
“Everything that could possibly hold back a church plant has happened, but God has overcome each barrier. Even when they restarted after a COVID-19 shutdown their attendance increased instead of decreased.”
McMullen added that the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board has been supporting Realife Bristol with ministry and outreach funding through the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions.