ELIZABETHTOWN, N.Y. (BP) – The Adirondack Mountains are one of the more beautiful places in the country for camping, hiking and overall enjoying God’s creation. They are also located in one of the more difficult places to plant and lead a church.
Josh Bennett knows this.
The pastor has seen the buildings around town that were formerly a church but are now art galleries or homes. When he sought interest in another church selling its building to Life Church, which he leads, that congregation gave a flat rejection upon learning they were evangelical. The city council voted down Bennett’s predecessor, Jeremiah Brinkman, when Life Church’s then-pastor approached them about offering a free soccer clinic.
There are two “walls” to clear when it comes to having a Gospel conversation, Bennett said. The second one is presenting the Gospel; the first is getting your foot in the door
“Southern hospitality is a real thing,” he said. “So, it’s pretty easy to get over that first wall. Here, that wall is pretty high. It’s not easy building relationships.”
But if you’re willing to put in the time, it’s worth it.
“I’ve met some of the most wonderful people up here,” said Bennett, a Georgia native who will mark six years at the church in October alongside his wife, Donna, and their daughters, 11 and 13. “But, you have to have patience. You have to be willing to wade through those tough times.”
Many of the small towns and hamlets of upstate New York are populated by those who have lived there for generations and are leery of outsiders. Skin in the game must precede a conversation about the Gospel. To be about the Living Water, get involved in peoples’ lives.
Life Church does that, starting with its location in a small storefront about a block from the main highway.
During weekday mornings, Bennett manages the church’s café that provides coffee and pastries off donations. The same space also serves as the church’s worship area.
Residences are located upstairs, which has led to his preaching behind a mop bucket when a leak caused part of the ceiling to fall in. Residents’ pets have made fleas an issue. Odors sometimes make it evident that neighbors take advantage of New York’s drug laws.
And yet, those thin walls and floors have also been an advantage.
“One day a guy from upstairs came to church,” Bennett said. “I’d never met him, but he said he had been listening to my sermons. He could hear me perfectly clear coming through the floor.”
The church has grown to 20-25 regular attendees with others who connect through various outreach efforts. Two weeks ago, Bennett baptized a man in a swimming pool.
Mission teams have been invaluable to helping with the space, as well as extending Life Church’s impact to others.
When Harmony Grove Baptist Church in Blairsville, Ga., painted the church building, that led to the owners of the building across the street deciding it also needed a new coat of paint. Ebenezer Baptist, also in Blairsville, is a small church that has sent teams to help Life Church during E’town Day, an annual celebration that started in 1998 with the town’s 200th birthday and is the social event of the year.
“Here, you have to be involved in serving your community,” said Bennett, who was student minster for seven years at Macedonia Baptist in Hiawassee, Ga., near Blairsville, before moving to become a pastor in south Georgia and then on to New York.
Most recently, Center Hill Church in Loganville, Ga., partnered with Life Church to provide 90 backpacks filled with school supplies for children.
“They’ve never had teacher appreciation day, and so yesterday (Aug. 30) we were inside the school handing those out,” Bennett said.
National partnerships are important, but so are regional ones.
The area of the country including upstate New York is one of the least Christian in the country. Burlington, Vt., which regularly polls as one of the least religious cities in America, is only 20 miles away. Earlier this year a Vermont police chaplain was removed not due to any indiscretions, but because the Southern Baptist church he pastored was conservative.
“I’ve really connected with a lot of pastors over in Vermont because of the proximity,” Bennett said.
Brinkman, who planted Life Church through the North American Mission Board in 2012, went on to serve as a NAMB Send missionary in New York City. He is now in Buffalo as the church planting leader for New York.
“We learned that we’d have to earn our stripes,” he said of the early years at Life Church. “That meant meeting needs in the community.”
After Life Church was blocked from hosting the free soccer camp early in its existence, Brinkman decided to approach things from a different direction.
“We needed to figure out how to meet needs and develop deep relationships in that community really quickly,” he said. “We took note of some gaps and set up the café as a non-profit. We used Kingdom Growers coffee from the IMB and made it very missional. People would come in and we’d give away a lot of muffins if they couldn’t donate.”
They also established Adirondack Outreach, working with the local youth commission, conducting food drives with local pantries and handing out water bottles on the E’town Day road race. In time, they also held that free soccer clinic.
“Josh and Donna have been incredible in carrying that torch,” he said. “God is doing great things in New York, but there is still much to do.”
Bennett, personally, has taken his love for the outdoors to earn social credibility. He routinely takes part in group mountain bike rides and has completed the Adirondack 46er hiking challenge in reaching the summit of all the high peaks nearby.
“It’s incarnational ministry; you have to dig in with the people,” he said. “You have to be involved and serving in your community.”