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Despite arson, church has new vision for reaching community

BRIERFIELD, Ala. (BP)–A clearing in the woods has replaced Ashby Baptist Church’s 87-year-old white frame structure in rural Alabama.

With the ashes and debris from its sanctuary and educational space cleared off the site, Ashby Baptist’s long-range plans also have been cleared for a new beginning after it was among nine Alabama churches hit in the spate of arsons in early February.

But, pastor Jim Parker said, a blank slate is not necessarily a bad thing for the church site a quarter mile off Highway 139 at Brierfield. In fact, it’s a challenge church members are getting more excited about all the time.

“For a lot of the folks here, losing their church building is like losing an old friend or friend of the family. You process it like you do death,” Parker said. “But as the healing process has gone on, the people are getting ready to move forward. And there are so many options on where to go from here.”

A wide spectrum of vision casting already has begun in Brierfield, a small community nestled in the top easternmost corner of Bibb County. The area has been catching some of neighboring Shelby County’s population shift, so the church’s new direction includes adjusting to reach more of those people, said Gary Swafford, director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions’ office of associational missions and church planting.

“In building their new church, they are talking about re-dreaming their dream and adopting a new vision to go with the new building, which is a good idea,” Swafford said.

When representatives from the State Board of Missions visited the first five damaged churches just after the fires to offer monetary and prayer support, Swafford was in the background, offering demographic studies and church-building guidance for whenever the churches felt they were ready to start rebuilding.

Ashby Baptist quickly took him up on his offer.

“We got the demographic study done,” Parker said, “and we used the projections to go ahead and extrapolate a number we believe we will have in each age group.”

Currently, nearly all 150 church members will attend worship at some point during the month, averaging out at about 90 in attendance for each Sunday’s morning service.

The new building is being planned for 300, and the congregation is considering moving from its current site in the woods to a more visible lot on the highway, Parker said.

“We figure that based on the demographic projections, in the next three to five years, we’ll double,” he said. “We trust the Lord on that. We have seen a lot of growth even in just the last six months, and we believe He wants us to grow.”

Before the fire, the congregation already had been weighing the decision of whether to relocate or add on to their current facilities.

“The Lord answered that question for us,” church member Debbie Crocker said with a laugh. “There have been trials but we are making the best of it, and it is turning out to be a good thing.”

Swafford said church members seem thrilled about being able to plan their new facilities specifically toward reaching the new people moving into the area.

“This established church is wanting to take a different, inclusive, intentional stance to incorporate new people into their congregation,” Swafford said. “And yes, now is definitely the perfect time to do it.”

The next step may be canvassing the neighborhoods for more studies or working on the drawings for the new facilities, Parker said.

The church has had offers of free architect services, part of an outpouring of help and donations from people all across the state and nation that Parker said he never would have expected.

“I never would have imagined it would be this way. So many people have poured out so much,” the pastor said.

And the mobile chapels the church is using on loan from the Alabama missions board have been an incredible icing on the cake of instance after instance of help the church has received, Parker added.

“We are so grateful to our Baptist brothers and sisters — they have taken such good care of us.”

The church had its first service back on its site in the chapels March 12. It was so well attended by both members and media that they barely squeezed everyone in, Parker said. “Everyone was just so excited to be back -— the spirit was great.”
Grace Thornton is assistant editor of The Alabama Baptist, online at www.thealabamabaptist.org.