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Va. church plant recognized for balanced, purpose-driven approach

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Every time Jimmie Davidson drove through southwest Virginia, he would think, “Somebody needs to start a new kind of church in this area.” He didn’t know what that church would look like — he just knew it needed to be fresh and different. Finally, one day his wife Lori asked, “Why don’t we start it?”

Shaken by the very thought, Jimmie knew only one thing to do. He got face down on the floor and asked, “Lord, do you want us to do it?” And from that moment, God grew His answer in their hearts — strong and unswerving.

Soon after, someone mentioned to Davidson that he ought to check out Saddleback.

“What on earth is a ‘Saddleback’?” he asked.

Davidson did some checking, called the church with the funny name and requested the “Saddleback Story” tape. As he listened to that tape in 1994, he knew what the new kind of church was supposed to look like.

Saddleback Valley Community Church, in Lake Forest, Calif., is one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in the country. Founded by Rick Warren with a handful of people in his living room, the church now averages 15,000 during weekend services.

The Saddleback model challenges a church to be purpose driven, which emphasizes a balance between five New Testament purposes: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism.

As Davidson planted his church, he ordered all the church growth material from Rick Warren he could get, and studied it for six months. The answer God had started growing months before began taking on form and substance. He called Saddleback, and exclaimed to Rick’s secretary Harriet, “Tell Rick I’m ready to jump off this cliff!”

And that was the beginning of Highlands Fellowship — a new kind of Southern Baptist church in Abingdon, Va., and the recipient of a 2002 Church Health Awards from Purpose Driven ministries.

Saddleback presents five Church Health Awards each year to churches who effectively contexualized and implemented the Purpose Driven Church principles. Awards are given to churches regardless of size, denomination or cultural context, and include a cash grant and an all-expense paid trip for two to the Purpose-Driven Church Conference. Eligible churches must also be members of the Purpose Driven Community.

During this year’s recent Easter weekend, Highlands had 5,000 visitors, even though Abingdon only has a population of 7,000.

From the very beginning, Davidson modeled the new church plant after Saddleback Church, being fully convinced that the Purpose Driven Church was God’s vision for the church in this generation.

Highlands Fellowship implemented Saddleback’s 101 class, designed to help new church members grow in their faith. All of the Purpose Driven classes (101-401) are meant to measure the progress of church members as they pursue Christian maturity.

Davidson and his staff constantly keep the vision of the church’s five purposes before the people, emphasizing that these classes are only the beginning point — the front door to growth in their lives and in the church.

Highland Fellowship emphasizes and encourages these three things:

1. Weekend Celebration Service — Their celebration service is patterned after Saddleback’s with plenty of worship and a practical, Biblical message.

2. Small Groups — Small groups were started immediately when the church was first planted. Beginning with two groups, one older and one younger, they had 30 to 40 people within a few weeks. Now, there are around 50 small groups, with a flow of some starting while others are ending.

Their first two groups began with studying “Experiencing God,” laying some sturdy foundations. Since then, they’ve conducted several “Connections” to build momentum for small group participation. The new leaders and apprentices identified during the relationship process of the Connection are then trained and prepared to lead small groups.

The church is very flexible in their small group structure. Whether the group is long term or short, whether they study a book of the Bible or missions — the point is to keep each group purpose-driven.

3. Ministry By Every Member of the Body — The story of a mountain man from Bozeman, Mont. best illustrates the church’s third emphasis. This big, burly man came to Highland Fellowship, where he received salvation and a sense of mission even bigger than he was. He went on a mission trip and got so turned on to missions; he then led a mission trip. He hadn’t finished high school, so first he had to get his G.E.D. Then he went on to earn his Associate’s Degree at Clear Creek Bible College. He will soon be returning to Highland Fellowship to lead mission teams to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ around the globe.

Davidson believes that when God told him to plant a church in Abingdon, He also made it clear that he was to follow the vision He had already given to Rick Warren.

Davidson said he is convinced that the Purpose Driven Church is God’s vision for the Church in this generation, and he has followed that vision with tenacity.

For more information on Purpose Driven concepts, visit the website www.purposedriven.com.
Bette Gillogly is a senior writer for Pastors.com.

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  • Bette Gillogly