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Once dying church re-launches after closing, begins new focus

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (BP) — When Jim Jackson became the pastor of Faith Fellowship Church in Johnson City, Tenn., in January 2013, his first move wasn’t what most people might expect. He closed the church.

The church had been near its end for several decades as the community around it changed and the church didn’t adjust to better reach its neighbors. Faith Fellowship seemed destined to become one of the 1,000 churches Southern Baptists close annually.

But God didn’t appear to be finished with the church quite yet.

Just 18 months since Jackson closed the church, Faith Fellowship has found life. Today, where a dying Tennessee church once stood, more than 160 people regularly worship together. Jackson is among a growing trend of Southern Baptist church planters who are replanting dying churches.

Yet Faith Fellowship’s story of rebirth almost never happened. Jackson had been busy revitalizing a Kentucky Baptist church.

“It was one of the best ministry experiences of my life,” Jackson said. His wife Tina had a well-paying job as a nurse practitioner. And he wasn’t looking for a new assignment.

That’s when the couple sensed God drawing them to medical school for Tina. This would allow her to have more opportunities to share the Gospel while practicing medicine. It also meant a move to Tennessee. Before long Jackson saw the need for a church plant in their new home community of Johnson City.

After the move, Jackson started doing what he had done before when planting churches elsewhere. Along with reaching out to nearby business, law-enforcement and educational leaders, he also connected with local church leaders. Pastors and the director of missions helped him learn about local needs and opportunities.

When one potential opportunity came up in three separate conversations, Jackson took notice. Ben Proffitt, the director of missions for the Holston Baptist Association, and two local pastors both recommended Jackson consider re-planting Faith Fellowship.

After three months of prayer by both Jackson and the 10 remaining people at Faith Fellowship, the church asked him to become their new pastor. After closing the church, Jackson and his team spent the next eight months developing partnerships and reaching out to the community with the love of Christ. Jackson put eight North American Mission Board (NAMB) church planting interns to work in the community. Those interns, he said, started each day with an hour of discipleship before digging into their daily ministry assignments. The Tennessee Baptist Convention also provided Faith Fellowship with volunteers who prayer walked and helped serve the community.

The new Faith Fellowship team knocked on 10,000 doors, made 30,000 phone calls, mailed out 40,000 postcards and did a few dozen backyard Bible clubs.

“We launched [in August 2013] with right at 280-300 people at our grand opening,” Jackson said. “God has been really good. About 50 percent of the people we have are people who had become disconnected from the church; they had just fallen away from the church. The other 50 percent are people who were totally unchurched.”

Today, Jackson now spends most of his time developing and discipling leaders — elders, deacons and teachers. In doing so Jackson makes sure the church is grounded in the Gospel, he says.

As the church has focused more on discipleship, the congregation has transformed both spiritually and demographically, he said.

“I went to the church [recently],” Proffitt said. “There were older people with white hair still, but I’ve never seen so many pregnant women. There were so many people who were young there.”

Friends invited Matt Tefteller to Faith Fellowship this year. Jackson recently baptized him and his daughter on the same day. Tefteller said God has made him a much better father and husband since he joined the church.

“I had been attending different churches for years, but I guess I just never ‘got it’ until I started going [to Faith Fellowship],” Tefteller said. “I just finally saw it. We’re a close-knit family. We look out for each other.”

As Jackson focused on the church’s Gospel grounding, Faith Fellowship has become heavily involved in church planting efforts in North America and around the world. Jackson has intentionally built church planting –locally, nationally and globally — into the core of the church.

Along with committed giving to the Cooperative Program, Faith Fellowship helped plant churches in Kenya and Guatemala with the help of the International Mission Board. The church has also worked with NAMB to partner with a church plant in New Orleans. Every fifth Sunday Jackson challenges the church to give sacrificially to a fund for church plants.

“It challenges our people to see our God is big,” Jackson said. “He wants to stretch our faith. He wants us to sacrifice things we like so we can spread the Gospel. That’s our number one value — sacrifice.'”

For more information about how you can be involved in helping a plateaued, declining or dying church, visit namb.net/revitalization.
Tobin Perry ([email protected]) writes for the North American Mission Board. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Tobin Perry