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Church’s readiness for change fueled by passion for souls

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story is part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.

COLUMBUS, Ga. (BP)–Few Southern Baptist churches would remove tens of thousands of dollars worth of pews and platform furniture to install theater seats, a sound stage and a small stool and music stand for the pastor and his Bible.

Hardly any Southern Baptists could ever guess where this church is: Chicago? Los Angeles? Boston? Try Columbus, Ga. If that’s not the middle of the Bible Belt, you can sure see the buckle from there.

Twenty-two years ago, Bill Purvis became pastor of Cascade Hills Baptist Church. He once had been the church’s youth minister and in the intervening years the congregation had dwindled to 32 members. Today, Cascade Hills has more than 7,000 members.

Such transformation takes passion -– a passion that was kindled when God first transformed Purvis’ youthful passions.

Years ago, having followed a prostitute into a dark apartment, Purvis was repeatedly stabbed by a third person. With the multiple wounds, including a punctured lung and severed jugular, Purvis should have bled to death in about four minutes. Instead, he stumbled to the street where a waiting friend sped him to the hospital. That turned Purvis toward God.

Purvis jumped into the Lord’s work with both feet, and after a few years of his return to Cascade Hills, you couldn’t park anywhere near the burgeoning church. Four Sunday services required one crowd to walk out the back doors while the next came in the front. Relocation was the answer. Buying property nearby, Cascade Hills built a modern facility with a traditional auditorium.

Incremental growth continued, but Purvis had a heart for the next generation. Whereas the traditional Baptist format had sufficed for many years, Purvis saw the cultural shift and decided to do something about it.

The largest age group in Columbus was 19-35-year-olds, so Purvis led in a more contemporary approach to reaching the age bracket with intensity and purpose. “We were purpose-driven long before Rick Warren ever wrote his book,” Purvis said. “I read ‘The Purpose-Driven Church’ and said to myself, ‘So that’s what we’ve been doing.’”

Revamping the entire church program, Purvis eliminated everything that was not reaching lost people.

“Reaching an unchurched generation is still so heavy on my heart that I’m willing to do whatever it takes to build a church for tomorrow,” Purvis said. Cascade Hills could have continued the status quo, he said, “But we were drawing ‘church-hoppers’ who had religious baggage, and we were clearly missing the 19-35-year-olds.”

Cascade Hills’ entire program was transformed. The choir disbanded, the loft was dismantled, Purvis shed his buttoned-down pastor image for casual attire. Sunday School became Real Life Groups, which include discipleship classes, seminars on divorce recovery, marriage, sports and outdoor ministries, support groups for grieving people and for wives of soldiers deployed overseas from nearby Fort Benning. Increasingly the church offered its facilities for civic, non-church functions. And there was a name change: Cascade Hills Church, though the congregation remains baptistic in doctrine.

“There are few times when lost people turn to the church — usually for weddings and funerals,” Purvis said. “So, we’re turning the church to lost people and taking every opportunity to reach them. We’re not growing by swapping Baptists from one church to another. We’re doing what a New Testament church should do.”

For example, the various sports teams Cascade Hills sponsors have very few church members. Slots on team rosters are reserved specifically for unchurched people. That’s part of Purvis’ conviction to reach into the world for those who don’t know Christ. And it’s working.

Cascade Hills doesn’t let even one chance go by without offering an invitation to become a Christian. That practice made an eternal difference to one woman in particular several years ago. She attended a church-sponsored sports awards banquet with her son. And after a Gospel presentation she raised her hand, indicating she’d prayed to commit her life to Christ. Later that evening, she raised both her hands in defense, but that didn’t stop the knife-wielding attacker who killed her.

Being perceived as a visionary pastor of a cutting-edge church doesn’t drive Purvis, but lost souls do. Purvis says attendance and finances have continued to go up, despite the departure of 200 families who preferred the church’s former traditional style.

The absence of pastoral turfism is another anomaly for Purvis. In fact, he has led members to plant a self-sustaining, autonomous church little more than three blocks from Cascade Hills. A small group had found a cultural niche and fashioned a church format to reach those who like Southern Gospel music. The church now has about 400 members and, like Cascade Hills, is reaching lost people for Christ.

The passion for lost people that drives Purvis is contagious. Ask anyone you see at the church what is the church’s purpose, and they’ll tell you it’s to reach a lost world for Christ. It’s a message that pervades the church, from the pastor’s study to the nursery.

One member is a real estate and divorce attorney. He’s caught the evangelistic fire of Purvis to the extent that, when a couple contemplating divorce calls for an appointment, the lawyer won’t even talk to them until they complete a marriage class at the church. Many couples have found Christ and averted divorce.

But ask Purvis if he’s gifted in evangelism, and he’ll say no. “I make evangelistic visits every week because it’s a command for a believer and not because I’m gifted.”

Purvis recently started a television ministry that can be seen on local stations and national cable networks. The program garners about 20 calls per day from viewers who say they’re new believers.

“The church’s number one job is not to have a bunch of clubs and Bible studies or even to worship together,” he said in a recent sermon. Its prime mission must be “to keep people out of hell.”

It all starts with the pastor, Purvis said. “Not only should he provide leadership in the ministry of the local church, he is also responsible for seeing that the church is in alignment with the Great Commission. Our job is to invest our lives in the salvation of lost people.”

That mission is reflected in what Purvis says was a “most memorable service. A man raised in Judaism and a lady raised as a Hindu both were baptized on the same day, and at the close of the same service two Muslims received Jesus as Lord.”

In addition to miracles of transformed lives, others in the church have been healed from terminal diseases. Even sterile couples have become pregnant. Every Mother’s Day, Purvis calls childless couples to the front of the auditorium. Purvis prays God will send them children. “Every year, one of those couples gets pregnant,” he said. Purvis said one man came forward out of defiance, attempting to prove “all this God-stuff is bogus,” Purvis recalled. “He and his wife didn’t have one child — they had triplets.”

How does one explain all that? “When you go after the heart of God,” which, Purvis reiterated, is reaching lost people, “then God just adds all those other blessings.”

    About the Author

  • Norm Miller