LA VERGNE, Tenn. (BP) — Brady Cooper, senior pastor of New Vision Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., received advice from a mentor that came in handy as the church sought to help revitalize First Baptist Church of LaVergne, a church about 20 minutes north of New Vision.
“Before you go making big decisions, look around and see what God’s doing.”
In a model the megachurch had never before undertaken, it led First Baptist LaVergne, a struggling Anglo congregation, to merge with Las Americas, a vibrant Hispanic congregation renting worship space at First LaVergne. The merger remains a congregation autonomous from New Vision.
The move came as New Vision took note of God’s handiwork, New Vision Executive Pastor Greg Freeman told Baptist Press Nov. 8.
First LaVergne needed a pastor. The congregation of about 50 worshipers, all of them retired, was heavily in debt. Interim Pastor Todd Tanner, vice president and chief administrative officer of the Tennessee Baptist Foundation, wanted to retain his position with the foundation.
On Easter of 2022, Las Americas, a vibrant Hispanic church of about 100 members led by Nathan Velasquez, moved from Franklin to LaVergne and began renting worship space at First LaVergne. The church made the move, Velasquez said, to be closer to where most of its members lived.
“That was a really good decision because the doubled the amount of attendance in two months,” Velasquez said.
Three months later, with the approval of First LaVergne’s membership, New Vision sent a team of about 40 church members to attend, work and tithe at First LaVergne. The revitalization team could stay at First LaVergne as long as they wanted, even join, Freeman said.
With about 6,400 members, a Sunday worship attendance of 2,000 and yearly undesignated receipts of nearly $10 million, according to Southern Baptist Convention Annual Church Profile data, New Vision was in a position to help First Baptist LaVergne as the smaller church retained its autonomy.
“To send people out to be a part of an autonomous church in any kind of magnitude like this, this is new for us,” Freeman said. “I think it just goes back to the heart of our senior pastor. The Lord has blessed us. Definitely, He’s done a great work here. … It’s not what we’ve done; it’s what God’s done.”
Even before New Vision sent the revitalization team to First LaVergne, the larger church helped the LaVergne congregation develop its youth ministry before the COVID-19 pandemic. New Vision viewed First LaVergne as an important congregation in a community with a high level of lostness that needed to retain the Southern Baptist church, Freeman said.
As New Vision considered First LaVergne’s need for a fulltime pastor, Velasquez caught New Vision’s eye.
“We learned through observation and just through being engaged with him, what a good leader he is,” Freeman said of Velasquez. “Las Americas has grown and we see the fruit of that ministry growth. It kind of just began to dawn that First Baptist could undertake a search for a pastor, that would be fine. But there’s a pastor here.”
New Vision proposed a merger of the two smaller congregations with Velasquez as senior pastor. The merger officially launches in January, 2023 as Community Church of LaVergne.
“It’s a little piece of heaven,” Velasquez told Baptist Press, “because we have seen different ethnicities all together, worshiping God and working together. And the best part of it is proof that we can do everything even when we are different.
“For me, it has been a blessing from day one,” he said, “the way First Baptist Church of LaVergne has been open, and merciful and kind.”
Velasquez will continue two worship services, one in English and one in Spanish, but will lead the church in combined fellowship, missions and education. He is working with members to establish the leadership structure and had not decided who will lead the English worship when he spoke with Baptist Press. He plans to hold English worship at 9:30 a.m., he said, and the Hispanic worship at 11:30 a.m.
“Differences are not a reason to be apart. We can be one family respecting our differences,” he said. “And we can enjoy because we have more things in common than different. Language is not a barrier, because the best language is the love of God.”
Tanner, who had served as interim pastor of First LaVergne since November, 2021, appreciates the transition.
“When I was introduced to them,” he said, “there was approximately 40 people in attendance. And I would say all of those, except for one family — and husband and a wife and two little preschool daughters — were either on fixed income or empty nesters. There was not preschool children or youth ministries, and the church was over $1 million in the hole. And that simply is not sustainable.”
Velasquez and Tanner formed a friendship before the merger, Tanner said, describing Velasquez as “abundantly gracious.”
“What we’re hoping, with Pastor Nathan being the new senior pastor, he will be able to invest time that is needed to continue to strive to reach into the community,” Tanner said. “We had a fall festival last weekend (Oct. 30). That’s the first true ministry that’s been held at that church in a number of years.”
“So we’re prayerfully hoping that the Lord would take our efforts, bless them and began to use them to reach the community.”
New Vision will work to revitalize other churches in need, Freeman said, seeing the revitalization as healthy for New Vision as well as the churches it helps.
“For those 40 people sent – men women and children,” Freeman said of the team sent to First LaVergne, “this can be a milestone spiritual marker in their lives.
“The thought of inviting people to participate in something like this, and then helping them as they do, has an appeal for us,” Freeman said. “It’s not dissimilar from sending someone on a mission trip. Some of the people who went have stepped into real leadership positions over there.”
After the revitalization team left New Vision, slots opened at New Vision for other members to fill.
“It gave us a chance to say to our congregation, hey, we’re sending out these people which gives us slots here,” Freeman said. “So now is your opportunity to step in. And you’re serving the kingdom by serving us as we serve LaVergne.
“It really excites our church family.”