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Deaf church is a hub for ministry, missions

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. (BP)–Few, if any, congregations have faced this challenge: designing a worship center specifically for the deaf culture.

“When we started building, we had no other model in the world to look at,” said Brian Sims, pastor of Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church (BBDC) in Brentwood, Tenn. “[W]e had some unique engineering challenges to overcome.”

For example, transducers were used for the floating floor and the seats to allow deaf worshippers to feel the vibration of the drum machine, the church’s primary instrument of praise. But no one knew how to estimate how much weight a floor atop 3,800 rubber tips can withstand.

“It hasn’t fallen through, yet,” Sims quipped.

The building has no outside lighting, and every seat has a direct sight line to the stage, along with a lapboard. Seating space and space between rows also has been increased. Since deaf worshippers sign the words to praise and worship songs, this extra space allows for ample room for movement in worship.

“Everybody can sing,” Sims affirmed.

BBDC, which has been featured as “America’s Church of the Week” on the “700 Club,” averages 150 at its on-site worship service each week, with 26 satellite locations throughout the United States. Some of the satellite groups meet in homes, while others meet in churches and other locations. One satellite group in Athens, Ga., which began with four people meeting in a neurologist’s office, now meets on Sunday afternoons at Prince Avenue Baptist Church and averages 80 people in attendance.

“Our satellite services run a week behind,” Sims said. “We record the Sunday service on DVD and mail them to our satellite locations on Monday. The cost of the ministry is $5 per week per satellite location to cover the cost of duplicating and mailing the DVD.”

BBDC itself grew out of the deaf interpretative ministry of Brentwood Baptist Church, just south of Nashville.

In 1984, Brentwood began its interpretative ministry to the deaf and, in 1991, sponsored a “Here’s Hope” revival for the deaf, bringing in a deaf pastor for the outreach, which drew about 50 people.

In 1992 and 1993, the church again sponsored Here’s Hope revivals, and the number of deaf participants continued to grow. Attendance at Brentwood’s interpretative services, however, was flat to declining.

In 1994, church leaders recognized that they needed either to build a deaf church or discontinue the interpretative ministry, Sims recounted.

The hearing church voted to call a pastor of the deaf and to build the one-of-a-kind building for the deaf congregation.

“The church recognized that when they sponsored events specifically targeting the deaf, the deaf came. But when they only offered interpretative services of hearing events, the deaf stayed home,” Sims said. “Building the deaf church building was a mission vision of the hearing church.”

The church called Sims as the first pastor of the deaf in 1995. Although Sims is hearing, he grew up in the deaf culture and understands their unique worldview.

“I became a Christian when I was 7 years old. Neither of my parents were Christians, and I walked 11 blocks to church by myself,” Sims said. “A deaf couple at the church took me under their wing. The church also had an interpretive ministry and I became involved in that. Through that ministry and my relationship with my deaf friends, I not only learned sign language, but I began to understand and appreciate deaf culture.”

Sims began his ministry at the Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church with seven members, and while the church fully supported the construction of the deaf building, God provided the funds in a most unusual way.

“A man named Gordon Inman, who was not a member of our church, attended a hearing service at Brentwood one Sunday,” Sims recalled. “He heard about the building program and specifically about the building designed for the deaf congregation. When he got in his car after the service that morning, he turned to his wife and said, ‘I think God wants me to build this deaf building.'”

Inman gave $2.5 million toward the undertaking, and the BBDC held its first service on Dec. 7, 2003. Sims estimates that the total attendance of the on-site service and its satellite locations currently averages about 1,300 per week.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Over the past few years, Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church has taken the lead in reaching out to the deaf around the world. The church has planted a deaf church in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; it has ongoing work planting deaf churches in Portugal; and it has plans to begin a new work in Argentina this fall.

Most recently, BBDC partnered with the Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf (SBCD) to send a group of volunteers from deaf churches across the United States to Taipei, Taiwan, for the 21st Deaflympics. Sims has begun working with SBCD evangelist Kevin Clark to coordinate a trip to the 2013 Deaflympics in Athens, Greece.

Also, Sims is working closely with Doc and Virginia Stuart, global deaf strategists for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

“The IMB has recognized the deaf as a people group, and with the selection of this couple as the global deaf strategists, we now have a central location for information on volunteer opportunities to work with deaf worldwide,” Sims said. “Churches can find needs specific to the deaf flowing directly from the mission field.

“Our church is located within sight of the interstate,” Sims noted. “Many deaf churches have the mentality, ‘You come to us,’ but our commandment is to ‘Go.’ The proximity of the interstate is a reminder to us that we need to go. For us, it’s not about how many we bring in but how many we send out.”
Tess Rivers is a writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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  • Tess Rivers