TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (BP) – When Big Sandy Baptist Church deeded its facilities and property to Covenant Church in early March, it was not a somber moment. Rather, it was a time to celebrate partnership, friendship and a continuing legacy of the Gospel.
On Sunday, March 5, the two churches held a joint service to commemorate the occasion and cast a vision for the future of the new Covenant Church. Familiar faces reunited, the fellowship hall was bustling and there was hardly a parking spot to be found.
“I was just overwhelmed with thankfulness, with joy and I was so proud of the membership of Big Sandy who had really done something that is not common,” said Joshua Sellers, former pastor at Big Sandy Baptist.
“It was a celebration service of what God has done, what He was doing in all of this to set up Gospel ministry in that community … and it was a celebration of what God will do in the future. It was Gospel-centered and Christ-centered. It provided closure for many of us.”
Hank Atchinson, pastor of Covenant Church, said he had “never seen a more tangible expression of the Gospel in my experience as a pastor and a man.”
On the surface, the two congregations seemed like polar opposites.
Covenant Church, formally Safe Haven Church at Big Sandy, became its own autonomous church in 2017. Big Sandy Baptist Church had been a presence in Tuscaloosa for more than 160 years.
The congregation of Big Sandy was made up of mostly elderly members, while Covenant Church was composed of a lot of young families with children.
Yet, the churches soon came to realize they were exactly what the other needed.
The relationship started in 2018 when Sellers began serving as pulpit supply and then eventually interim pastor at Big Sandy. One of his first priorities upon taking the position was serving nearby Safe Haven (Covenant) Church.
“I was convinced that one of the things that we had the opportunity to do was to show the love of Christ to that church,” Sellers said.
Any potential absorption was not seriously on his mind at the time.
“Our motive was just to show the love of Christ to a church that needed a facility. Our goal was to love our neighbor and to love a fellow church.”
Covenant church was meeting at Big Sandy Elementary School and had grown to more than 250 people.
The timing was just right, as a couple months after Sellers reached out to Covenant about the offer to share building space, the elementary school informed Covenant’s leadership they would no longer be able to store any of their materials on-site.
The difficult logistics this would cause pushed Atchinson to consider Sellers’ offer.
The two churches began sharing Big Sandy’s facilities for several months through the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020.
The congregations would have separate Sunday services at different times, but would often have joint childcare or Sunday school classes. They would occasionally have joint outreach events or services.
“We were rubbing shoulders with them a lot,” Sellers said.
This momentum was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
With most of Big Sandy’s members falling within the high-risk category, the two church leadership teams made the difficult decision that Covenant would stop sharing the building.
Both sides were disappointed by the decision, but it seemed to be the best one to make at the time.
Atchinson said the churches simply “couldn’t figure out how to do it.”
Communication and relationship between the two churches would slow over the next couple years, as they faced very different challenges.
Big Sandy would continue to meet in its building, while Covenant would begin a long process of renting several different apartment units and doing many renovations. Multiple services were necessary, and logistics were not always easy.
According to Atchinson, the church reached a point where it had “maxed out as to what we could hold.”
Meanwhile, Big Sandy was feeling the effects of an older congregation, and members began to ask serious questions about their future ministry. The congregation was running about 75 attendees, with 95 percent being over the age of 60.
Upon hearing of Big Sandy’s struggles, Atchinson reached out to the church’s leadership to restart the conversation of what partnership would look like.
After a long time contemplating many options, Big Sandy came to the difficult yet fitting conclusion that giving Covenant the deed to its facilities was the correct decision.
“In 2022 when Covenant reached back out to us, we were ecstatic,” Sellers said.
“We did not want to follow the path that many other churches had followed of kind of ‘last person here, turn out the lights,’ and get to a point where you can’t afford to keep the church open.
“We also didn’t want to be in a position to where we just continued to be a church until we couldn’t be a church. Existence was not the purpose of our existence. That was not sufficient for us. We wanted to ‘pass the baton’ of resources and ministry to the next generation. We wanted the legacy of what God had done in that community through Big Sandy to live on.
“Our concern was not the continued existence of Big Sandy, but our concern was the continuation of the Gospel from that location to go forward.”
Sellers added that the difficulty of the COVID-19 season was unknowingly preparing the congregation for the hard decision ahead.
He would step away from Big Sandy in late 2022, after plans for the absorption were already in motion. The eventual vote from the congregation finalized the decision.
Atchinson said a majority of the members of Big Sandy continue to be involved with the ministry of the new Covenant Baptist Church.
Both pastors offered remarks at the joint celebration service in early March.
Sellers preached from Acts 4, saying the partnership of the congregations was a picture of the early church. Atchinson preached from Ephesians 4, exhorting and envisioning the great ministry to come.
The service was only a small example of the way the two churches cooperated to live out the Gospel.
“God has a lot of attributes, but I don’t think anybody could argue that the God of the Bible is an incredibly generous God who is willing and has given so much,” Atchinson said.
“I’ve never seen a more tangible expression of the Gospel … we all now have a tangible expression of Gospel generosity. Every time we walk into this building we know, we didn’t do anything to earn it. We didn’t work one day for it, it was given to us. That is the Gospel.”