EDITOR’S NOTE: The following two stories are 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.
ROXANA, Del. (BP)–Church planters Andy and Tanya Ehlers started High Tide Baptist Church by walking their dog in a park.
Though few may regard walking a dog as an evangelistic activity, the Ehlers struck up relationships and invited other canine enthusiasts to a Bible study in their home. The initial meeting in August 2002 drew a dozen people.
Now, more than 350 attend two weekend services at the fire department building where the church meets in Roxana, Del. — and 30 percent of them are children age 12 and under.
“At Southeastern [Baptist Theological Seminary], I heard the need for church planting and was called to do it,” Andy said. “I just couldn’t consider going to an established church unless I planted one first.
“Tanya and I both believe that God called us to minister outside of the Bible Belt and go where there weren’t a lot of churches,” said Andy, who noted that Delaware has but one Southern Baptist church for every 33,000 people.
While Andy is quick to credit the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware’s church planting training and support system, he said, “We chose the parachute method. We dropped into a community … and said to ourselves, ‘Go get ’em.'”
“Our first converts came from that park,” Andy said of the location where he and Tanya walked their dog. “We got to know a couple, invited them to dinner and shared the Gospel with them.”
One such couple accepted Christ. “They began inviting others, and it just snowballed from there. In fact, word of mouth was our best advertising despite mailers, flyers and giveaways.”
Concluding its fifth year, High Tide continues to grow, with Andy crediting the church leadership team’s flexibility in trying new methods when others fail -– as well as an intentional focus on children’s ministry.
Too often in their lives, the Ehlers had heard others tell of hating how, as children, their parents had dragged them to church. When Tanya asked Andy why it had to be that way, she fell under conviction that she should spearhead children’s ministries for High Tide.
“I thought the negative comments we heard from people from all denominations represented a failure of the church,” Tanya said, “and we didn’t want to do that.”
“We had no plans for a kids’ program right away,” Andy said. “But parents we met talked about the importance of spiritual influence in their kid’s lives.”
The Ehlers later attended a Creative Church conference at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, where Tanya was “floored by their children’s program and curriculum. They were so different. … God definitely used that conference to work on my heart.”
Tanya brought the curriculum — then called “G-Force”; now, “Elevate” — back to their fledgling church plant and customized it for their use.
High Tide uses its children’s ministry in conjunction with evangelistic initiatives such as Parents’ Night Out. “We used volunteer mission teams from Georgia, North Carolina and Mississippi to staff this ministry during one summer,” Andy recounted. “That’s when the growth started to take off.”
Far more than a babysitting service, High Tide’s Parents’ Night Out ministered to children while their parents went Christmas shopping, on a date on Valentine’s Day or just spent time together. The first outreach drew 17 children; the next, 63.
Andy said the parents were astounded when their kids asked to go back to church: “Not a Sunday goes by that a mom or dad doesn’t say thank you for what we’re doing for their kids. In fact, some parents tell us their kids wake them up on Sundays so they won’t be late for church.”
The curriculum “isn’t just entertainment,” Tanya said, “but real biblical training for children, who learn the main points of the lesson and a Bible verse.
“The kids just love it too,” Tanya said. “That was my heart’s desire.”
High Tide held a weeklong ministry similar to Vacation Bible School, but which met in the evening “to see if we could reach unchurched parents, too,” Tanya said. “That drew lots of people we hadn’t met before. They asked, ‘You do this for the kids on Sundays, too?’ God did bring some 30 new families back on Sunday, and many of them continue to attend.”
With the success of the children’s ministry behind her, Tanya has moved on to the church’s youth ministry, which she began a year ago with six teens. Now, 30 to 55 attend.
High Tide has made other evangelistic efforts as well, including what has become an annual hay maze at Halloween in a public setting that includes free hot dogs, popcorn and candy. The initial maze was so successful that officials from a neighboring town invited the church to sponsor an additional one there. At each site, High Tide uses a portion of the children’s curriculum, again resulting in new church attendees.
High Tide also sponsors a gingerbread house building contest around Christmastime. The church provides the wherewithal, and young contestants are given a couple of hours to complete their houses, with the best one winning a prize. And, again, a segment of the children’s curriculum is part of the outreach.
In another initiative, Andy led the young church to capitalize on its relocation from a rented school to the fire hall where it meets now.
“We decided to have a ‘Firefighters Appreciation Sunday’ where we honored all the staff of the local volunteer fire department and served them lunch,” Andy said. About 55 of the volunteers showed up, and 15 to 20 of them continue to attend the church, including the president of the volunteers as well as the fire chief.
“It’s a whole new segment of our community that we weren’t able to reach while meeting in a school,” Andy noted.
The Ehlers and High Tide members look forward to leaving borrowed facilities for the prospects of constructing a church building, and one of their own has donated 20 acres for the site.
Andy told Baptist Press he wants to publicly thank High Tide’s sponsoring churches, which includes Ocean City (Maryland) Baptist Church — a church that Tanya’s parents helped start years ago. The other sponsoring churches are Wildwood Baptist Church in Acworth, Ga.; Center Grove Baptist Church in Ahoskie, N.C.; and First Baptist Church in Sevierville, Tenn.
“We knew God would do something,” Andy said. “But we’ve been blown away at what He’s done. And we never would know that unless we stepped out in faith.”
“So many around here don’t go to church, and don’t want to, and have such a sad outlook on life,” Tanya added. “And we just pray, ‘O, Jesus, how can we reach them?'”
Norm Miller is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va.