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New church start becomes spiritual oasis in desert


HENDERSON, Nev. (BP)–In an area where the desert has been transformed into a dense maze of homes, stores and offices in the past three years, it only made sense that a new church would be started with the same sort of fast-track entrepreneurial zeal.

And Hope Baptist Church, in the newest southern suburbs of Las Vegas, has not failed to deliver.

The congregation began in January with a staff of three and their families, along with several other families who moved from sponsoring churches in Georgia and Tennessee. While plans called for delaying public worship until September, the “core group” had risen to about 135 by late summer — including a total of eight families who have now relocated just to be a part of the new church.

And even before the leadership team actually moved to the city, the plan was to be a “reproducing” congregation — starting a new church within two to three years and a total of 10 churches in the first 10 years.

“We believe strongly that the Great Commission is best fulfilled through planting of churches, and we are living in a city of 1.4 million people that is largely unchurched,” said pastor Vance Pitman. While Southern Baptists are the largest evangelical group in the area by far, he said, only about 8-10 of the 74 churches in the entire Southern Nevada Baptist Association have more than 250 people.

“It flows out of our philosophy of Great Commission Christianity,” Pitman said. “We wanted to be involved in Kingdom expansion. What we always tell people is it’s not about growing our church, it’s about expanding God’s Kingdom.”

It is that philosophy that is at the core of the North American Mission Board’s “anchor church” strategy — a part of its Strategic Focus Cities initiative in which the agency partners with large Southern Baptist churches to sponsor churches like Hope that start other churches in the nation’s largest cities.

First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., was the official sponsoring congregation, providing matching funds with NAMB for startup costs and support. But Hope has also enlisted at least 10 other sponsoring churches — including significant support from Kirby Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., and Midway-Macedonia Baptist Church in Villa Rica, Ga. And with all of the partnerships, the assistance comes in the form of prayer and volunteer support as well as funding.

“It’s much bigger than First Baptist of Woodstock, even though they are definitely the driving force,” said Pitman, who along with the staff member Jeff Riley and Mike Laughrun is an appointed NAMB missionary. “It was their initial vision and ownership — in partnership with the North American Mission Board — that brought this about, but they welcomed the opportunity for other churches to be involved.”

Chip Riggs, minister of missions at Woodstock, said their plan was to create multi-partnered churches to ensure the best chances of long-term success

“We want to carry the relationships and partnerships with other churches to the point that there will be partner churches in place with a vision to take leadership roles when we start that next church,” he said.

Hope is the largest of 12 churches started thus far, toward a goal of 22, as part of the Loving Las Vegas Strategic Focus Cities effort.

The preparation for reaching the area began last year, when the ministry team spent about six months serving on the staff of Woodstock First Baptist.

“Part of Woodstock’s strategy was for their people to know us,” Pitman said. “And the partnership was built on relationships, so they wanted to build a relationship between their people and us. Woodstock hopes members would get to know us, so the church would have a strong core group that would really know this ministry.”

When the ministry team arrived in Las Vegas, there were more than 200 people committed to the project — either through prayer, short-term mission trips, or through a care ministry. Several families actually moved to Las Vegas with them, sensing God’s call on their own lives to be actively involved in the church on a day-to -day basis.

After much prayer and preparation in Georgia, the team moved to the field and began to implement their plan.

Pitman said the first phase involved “cultivating the field” by praying for each of the 35-40,000 households in the five-mile radius they sought to reach through prayer-walks. For months, no other efforts to enlist members were attempted. Nonetheless, through individual contacts, word-of-mouth, and through their local sponsor, Highland Hills Baptist Church, Hope’s core group had grown to 65 by the spring — requiring a move from Pitman’s home to a local recording studio for their Sunday-evening meetings.

During the summer the church entered a “sowing” phase that involved touching every home with the gospel in some way. That has come through a combination of backyard Bible clubs, distribution of about 20,000 gift bags that included a copy of the gospel of John, and a large neighborhood “Party in the Park” planned for Sept. 1.

Finally, Hope Baptist Church looks toward the “harvest”. Through a multimedia campaign will announce the official Sept. 30 launch of the congregation, which began holding its weekly meetings in a new conference center facility in July.

“The blessing is that our goal was to be averaging 75 by the time we did our grand opening, and we’re already averaging 120 to 125,” Pitman said. “We’re well beyond where we thought we’d be, and we’ve had eight to 10 people profess faith in Christ over the past five weeks.”

Several of those resulted from one contact in which a lady called the church’s number after reading a copy of the Gospel of John in one of the gift bags. “She was curious, I invited her to the service, and she came and accepted Christ,” Pitman said. “Then the next Sunday she brought her boyfriend with her, and he accepted Christ. She brought her daughter this week, and after a visit from our youth pastor, she accepted Christ.”

It is the changed lives, after all, that are the church’s reason for existing. And in a town where people generally might feel condemned by Christians for their casino-based employment, Pitman said “we can’t let what is not their problem become our problem in reaching them with the Gospel.”

“The solution is to take them where they are, reach them for Jesus Christ, and he’ll change their ‘want-to’s,” he said. ” … We want to see people’s lives change, not just join a church or make a decision.”
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(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: LEADING WORSHIP, A NEW FRONTIER and PRAYERWALKING NEVADA.

    About the Author

  • James Dotson