RENO, Nev. (BP)–A Southern Baptist church plant in Reno, Nev., has come up with a plan to counter the hateful messages touted by frequent protestor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church group: Rent space on a billboard to proclaim God’s love for the people of Reno.
“Out here, a lot of people are just kind of ignorant to the Gospel,” Mike Stewart, pastor of Discovery Fellowship, said, referring to a cultural lack of knowledge regarding true Christianity. “If they know anything about God, it’s either He’s indifferent or He’s angry or He hates women.”
Stewart told Baptist Press that belief was reinforced when Phelps and his crew were in Reno earlier this year to protest at a soldier’s funeral. They found themselves the target of an anti-protest by a group of motorcyclists who rallied to show support for the soldier’s family, and the Westboro group from Kansas was angered.
“They decided that they were going to make Reno a focus city,” Stewart said. “They said they were going to be here more often than not.”
Around the same time, Reno was shaken by news that a local college student, 19-year-old Brianna Denison, had been kidnapped, raped and murdered. Her body was found in a field less than a mile from the Discovery Fellowship campus.
“As a matter of fact, before we had our church building I had my office in a counseling center and my office looked at that field,” Stewart said. “It was just kind of eerie to think it’s that close to home. It was unsettling.”
The Westboro group said the murder occurred because “God hates Reno,” as their infamous signs proclaimed. Local media outlets interviewed several religious leaders in Reno to ask what residents should make of the Westboro messages.
“All the pastors and the religious leaders said was, ‘These people are idiots. These people are nuts,'” Stewart said.
“That’s really a poor message for people who are unchurched,” Stewart said, adding that Reno is in one of the most unchurched counties in the nation. “I thought we needed to get back on point. We needed to get back on message and say, ‘Here’s the truth. God loves you. God doesn’t hate you.'”
So in a staff meeting at the church, the idea of renting billboard space was conceived. The church learned they could rent space for $7,000 for 16 weeks, and they quickly raised the funds.
“I’ve heard people say that money follows vision, especially compelling vision, and within two weeks we paid cash,” Stewart said. “It came from people within our church, people who know of our church but live across the country, and then the Nevada Baptist Convention helped out too.”
Now the proclamation “God loves you, Reno,” along with the Discovery Fellowship Web address, is one of eight messages that rotate on a digital billboard on a well-traveled thoroughfare in Reno.
The church altered their website, dfchurch.org, to explain the message on the billboard, and Stewart said the statistics have increased from about 15 hits a day before the billboard to well over 200 a day. On the first day the billboard was up, more than 900 hits were recorded, and on the third day the number exceeded 1,500.
At least one family has attended the church’s services after seeing the billboard but, moreover, Steward said, “I think what it does is when people who go to our church talk about our church, there’s some credibility there from people who have seen the billboard.
“I think people are more willing to come to our church because they know it’s not going to be an angry place. It’s a safe place but it’s also a place that’s very straightforward about biblical values, about following the Bible and believing it to be true and really trying to live by that,” the pastor said.
The church, which averages 200 in weekly attendance, also has had record attendance in recent weeks, with their all-time high on Easter Sunday. Stewart preached a six-week sermon series beginning on Easter, titled “Simply Irresistible,” about God’s love.
At the end of the sermon series, six people responded to Christ for the first time, Stewart said, and on April 1 they baptized five adults. Since then another six to 10 expressed a desire to follow in believer’s baptism.
Last year was a low year for the church in terms of baptism numbers, which included four adults and some children, Stewart said. The church, which began in January 2004, usually baptizes more than 20 each year.
Stewart said the church would love to keep the billboard message up past June, when the initial contract is set to expire. “But we’re a church plant” raising funds for a building, he said. “It would cost us $7,000 for every three months.”
But if the funding materializes, Stewart said, church leaders have pondered using the billboard to promote special sermon series and church events, such as how they changed the letters on the sign from yellow to pink the week before Mother’s Day, hoping to catch the eyes of drivers looking for a church to attend that day.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.