Chattanooga churches open new locations, break new ground during COVID-19 pandemic

·5 min read

Oct. 20—In the past year, as bad news of COVID-19 dominated headlines, some religious communities were charting new territory through the expansion or establishment of their houses of worship.

Brainerd Baptist Church opened its downtown campus this past spring, taking over the space that was previously the coffee shop and worship space for The Camp House before that organization moved to Onion Bottom.

Will Campbell, campus pastor at Brainerd Baptist, said the downtown location is focusing on building a Christian community for students at the nearby University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Doing so required the Baptist church, which has three other locations in the region, to engage several families committed to joining the new church and helping minister to young people.

"Part of the goal was to have not just a college church, because college churches die really quickly, one because college students are transient," Campbell said. "But also if the wisdom in the room taps out with millennials and Gen Z-ers, it's just not a good thing."

The launch of the downtown church was first pushed back because of financial concerns. Spaces downtown were too expensive to rent, including the former Camp House location on M.L. King Boulevard that Campbell and Reid Work, multisite worship director at Brainerd Baptist, toured and loved.

The launch was again pushed back because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The congregation began meeting for worship at Brainerd Baptist's main campus and was holding three services a weekend while looking for its own location, Campbell said.

"Nobody is launching new churches in the middle of a pandemic where people are scared to go to church," Campbell said. "There's no playbook for this for local churches, just like there's no playbook for this for anyone. So we just fully anticipated this dying by the end of the summer. Maybe we would make it to fall."

The congregation kept growing but still lacked its own space. In early 2021, Campbell and Work began looking again. Campbell said he would pray in front of the congregation before services, asking God for guidance.

"I would just pray very honestly, 'God, if you're not going to give us the space just show us that so we can dissolve the church and stop wasting our time,'" he said. "And some of our people kind of got frustrated with me because they're saying that's not very helpful, but I'm just a realist."

In the spring, the two leaders realized the space on M.L. King was still available. They worked out a year lease, with the possibility of restructuring the deal later. Because the space had previously been used for worship services, there was little that needed to be done to prepare it for a Sunday beyond some painting and cleaning.

Brainerd Baptist's downtown campus hosts three services each Sunday, bringing in around 500 people a weekend. Campbell teaches the Bible verse by verse, meaning the congregation cannot avoid having tough conversations about hard lessons in the text.

However, the pastor said this kind of approach is appealing to young people.

"Millennials and Gen Z are so hungry for something that is unapologetically true," Campbell said. "Even if they disagree with it. Even if they don't buy in totally. They crave something that's not shifting every moment or shifting every year."

Success in church planting or church growth is difficult to quantify in ways that provide meaningful results. Different churches, and church leaders, will define "success" in different ways — packed-out attendance each week may mean financial stability but does not necessarily correlate to spiritual depth, for example.

Most research relies on church planting organizations, denominations or individual churches to answer surveys or provide anecdotes, which offer mixed results for being able to identify specific metrics that correlate with successful church planting. For example, training for church plant leaders and financial support from outside organizations appear to be keys for success, but to what level and for what period of time varies.

Some research indicates having a charismatic leader or a large launch team is key to helping a new church grow. LifeWay Christian Resources, a branch of the Southern Baptist Convention, offers an online assessment to measure a potential church planter against 22 characteristics that have been "statistically validated" with success. At the same time, some denominations emphasize structure in launching a new church as opposed to marketing the new congregation through a charismatic leader.

South Bay Seventh-day Adventist Church was meeting for more than half a decade before breaking ground on its location. The congregation met at three other churches, including Methodist and Presbyterian congregations, but outgrew each space, said Chris Anderson, pastor at South Bay.

In June 2019, the congregation purchased property on Redland Drive in Lake Hills near Highway 153. During the pandemic, the congregation hosted its weekly services online before purchasing a large tent to hold outdoor services at the site.

The building is under construction, Anderson said, with an expected completion around May 2022.

For years, the congregation has run health programs for the community, including a physician-taught depression and anxiety program and a lecture series with local doctors.

"One of the ways that we live in the glory of God is to live in our lives the way He created us to be full of health. And we see that Jesus spent a lot of time ministering to people's health and needs," Anderson said. "As a church, we really feel called to minister to the health of our community in a way that is tangible."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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