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Fire that gutted Texas church’s youth building has done nothing but ignite a movement of God

The youth from Southside Baptist Church attend Falls Creek Conference Center each summer. Photo from Facebook

PARIS, Texas (BP) – They can laugh now, three years after the fire that destroyed their youth building, about things like the name of the ministry: Ignite.

“We’ve since rebranded,” said Phil Spann, the longtime student minister at Southside Baptist Church in Paris.

Depsite a fire that destroyed the meeting place of the youth of Southside Baptist Church in 2022, the youth group has grown and thrived.

They can wonder at the odd things, like the fact Billy Norris, Southside’s senior pastor, discovered Spann’s Bible a day later amid the building’s charred remains. It was sitting on the podium where he’d left it, undamaged by either fire or water. Or that the sheet music they’d used in the most recent youth service – “Another in the Fire” – was lying on the stage in similarly pristine condition.

“Amazing,” Spann said. “It’s just neat to see how God does some things to show us that He’s in control.”

Mostly, though, they marvel at how God has worked despite – or maybe because of – adversity.

“It’s a very unique story,” Spann said, “one that only God could have written.”

On the afternoon of April 20, 2021, as contractors were installing a vent-a-hood for a new commercial kitchen, sparks from a grinder ignited attic insulation. Although firefighters arrived within minutes, the building was soon engulfed in flames.

Spann, who has served at Southside for almost 17 years, remembers praying: “What do we do now?”

“God was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this. You just follow me,’” Spann said. “That’s pretty much what we’ve done. We’ve just trusted Him, and He’s shown us over and above anything we could ever imagine.”

As Southside’s student ministry prepares, finally, to move into a newly built youth building sometime in the next few weeks, it’s clear the ministry hasn’t so much survived as thrived.

“Even since the fire, we’ve grown,” said Norris, the senior pastor. “It hasn’t hindered the ministry at all.”

Adjustments were necessary, not only by the student ministry, but throughout the church – especially when plans to replace the youth building were postponed for months by insurance issues. But Norris said Southside’s members “just responded in a way that’s been a blessing for everybody. It’s been good for the church but also glorifying to God.”

Each Wednesday evening for the last three years, Southside’s youth have met in the church’s fellowship hall, which seats around 50. After dinner, they head into the sanctuary for a time of praise and worship. When Awana takes over the sanctuary, the students return to the fellowship hall.

An intentionally no-frills student ministry became even more stripped down because of the space limitations. But that didn’t seem to matter. Somehow, they haven’t lost any momentum.

Instead, they’ve gained students.

“Kids started inviting their friends,” Spann said. “Next thing we know, here we are today, and we’ll average around 75 students. And if they all came at one time, it would be over 100.”

They bring in extra chairs from classrooms. Kids sit on the floor. They haven’t had to tear open the roof yet to get one more person in, but it can feel that way.

Again, the format is simple: Supper, then praise and worship, and then Spann opens that Bible and simply preaches. It has long been his philosophy, and it’s partially why the rebranded ministry is “412 Student Ministry” – a reference to 1 Timothy 4:12 (“Don’t let anyone despise your youth, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity”).

“I believe if these kids can take the classes they handle in school, they can understand the Gospel,” Spann said. “I take very seriously what Paul told Timothy, to preach the Word. He didn’t say, ‘Teach ’em how to play games.’ He didn’t say, ‘Entertain.’ He said, ‘Preach the Word’ – so that’s what I do.”

For several years, the youth group has attended camp at Falls Creek Conference Center in Oklahoma. Southside shared a 100-bed cabin with a youth group from another church. But when registration opened this spring, Southside filled all 100 slots within two weeks. More students are on a waiting list. And the other church has had to find another housing option.

“We’re thinking two cabins next year,” Norris said.

The results are more than just increased participation. God’s Word hasn’t returned empty. Instead, Southside has seen a harvest. The recent fruit of the student ministry includes salvations and baptisms. During the last two years, the church has celebrated more than 60 baptisms. Norris said they’ve been predominantly children and youth. He rejoices in the 34 decisions for Christ made at camp two years ago, and a similar number last summer.

“It’s been a significant [number],” Spann said. “Again, I’m just overwhelmed by what God has done.”

What happened?

“The thing I’ve seen more than anything else,” Norris said, “and it just reaffirms what we knew to be true, is God is faithful. It’s all Him. If anything comes out of this, it’s that His name is glorified.

“He knows our name. He knows our address. He knows what we’re going through. He’s faithful. He’s a faithful God.”

Spann knows the Southside youth ministry has lived through an example of his favorite Scripture passage, Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; in all your ways know Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

“That’s all I can say,” Spann said. “We’ve just learned to trust Him. It’s not about how we understand. It’s what He has for us. In the end, He’s gonna make it straight.”