Congregations look to New Year

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

As the new year begins, a number of Northeast Mississippi congregations are set to do exciting things, proving once again that hope springs eternal in the Christian universe.
Northstar Church in Saltillo will begin its fifth year by moving into new digs.
Starting this month, the Southern Baptist congregation will start its transition to a new 40,000 square- foot facility on Bahaus Drive. The building will be twice the size of Northstar’s current home, and, according to the Rev. Terry Ledbetter, Northstar’s founding pastor, it should provide ample space to grow the church’s “missional” approach to ministry.
“We strive for creative, authentic worship, and our goal is to reach the ‘unchurched’ of the area,” he said.
Northstar is now drawing 600 to its two Sunday services. That’s quite a growth spurt from the first group of 18 faithful who started meeting at the Lee County Baptist Association building in 2005.
Today, people come to Northstar’s 19,000-square-foot church on Old Hwy 45 to experience contemporary worship, a casual atmosphere and an approach to ministry that is outside the proverbial box of Southern Baptist piety.
The church has been successful in its mission. Ledbetter estimates that at least 75 percent of the new people coming into the fellowship have either never been to church or have long since fallen away from regular attendance at church.
“We’re very excited about this and we see this as phase two of a larger plan,” said Ledbetter, explaining that Northstar eventually wants to build a larger, permanent facility in the Saltillo area.
The Church of Christ doesn’t have a great reputation for ecumenism and social outreach, but the Rev. Phillip MacLean has a mind to change all that this year, at least for his congregation at Lee Acres Church of Christ in Tupelo.
MacLean is limiting his preaching to twice per month in order to help jump start the “Getting Plugged In” program. It will require all 150 members of Lee Acres to participate in some form of outreach ministry.
Members will be dividing up into “sub-flocks” to work on 17 different projects, such as youth ministry, helping the poor and making connections with other churches.
As it has for years, Lee Acres will still send missionaries to Honduras in 2010, but it’s also seeking to establish relationships closer to home. MacLean sees this as a paradigm shift in his church’s approach to community building.
“In the Church of Christ we’ve typically prided ourselves on knowledge,” he said. “But here, in the new year, we’re concentrating on making intimate connections with others.”
Social outreach will also be a high priority in 2010 at Cedar Grove United Pentecostal Church in Tupelo. That includes shoring up the church’s efforts to free those who suffer from addiction.
For nine years the Rev. Danny Robbins has been leading the Life in Focus Program, a faith-based program that helps recovering addicts achieve the all-important balance that’s been missing in their lives.
Tuesday night, recovering alcoholic Terry Lee stood before a packed house and asked, “How many of you are ready for real change in your life in this new year?”
Lee used the Molly Hatchet song “Flirtin’ with Disaster” as a metaphor for talking about the risks involved with being addicted.
About 80 men and women attend each week. They come with their spouses and families, their support systems, not to receive counseling but to get advice and to share their struggles with other people of faith.
Many of the attendees are court-ordered, like 30-year-old Jimmy Walker of Tupelo. The father of four just served 11⁄2 years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman for selling drugs.
“I just want to leave it alone,” said a tired but determined looking Walker. He talked about how hard it can be for ex-cons to resist falling back into old patterns.
“I’m just very blessed to be surrounded by people who understand, who care,” he said.
David Payne, 53, recently got pinched for using methanphetamines and found himself in dire straits. He’s also struggled to help his adult son cope with alcoholism.
For Payne, the classes at Cedar Grove are a Godsend, and he raised his hand eagerly when Lee asked who was ready for a change this year.
“I don’t have the education to say a lot about it, but I know that this program helps me a lot, and they’re good people here,” said the grandfather of seven.
In the new year, Robbins, Lee and company plan to follow up more with attendees after they complete the 24 weeks of classes, a strategy they’ve found can yield great benefits.
“We want to make phone calls, send cards, just some ways to stay connected,” said Robbins. “The more we stay in touch the more people feel connected and realize there’s a group here that cares.”
2010 will see a couple of Mississippi natives take the reins of leadership at two of Tupelo’s larger congregations.
For the Rev. Bill Bradford, 42, arriving next week at Lawndale Presbyterian Church will be a kind of homecoming. His wife, Allen, grew up in Corinth.
Lawndale (PCA) has been without a senior pastor since the Rev. Mark Kuiper left this summer in order to serve as pastor of Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Mo.
Along with his wife and four children, Bradford, a Jackson native and Ole Miss graduate, has spent the last 10 years as a missionary in Peru.
Bradford planted churches and ministered to the poor, experiences that, along with the time he spent working in inner-city Jackson, he believes will serve him well in this, his first senior pastorate.
“Sacrificial service is very near to my heart, and I very much want Lawndale to think through how she is equipped to meet needs around the church, as well as around the city and the region,” he said.
Sunday, First Baptist Church Tupelo will welcome a Magee native as its new senior pastor.
The Rev. Chad Grayson, 33, comes to Tupelo after serving the past five years at Airline Baptist Church in Bossier City, La., a church that, with 2,200 members, is just a little larger than First Baptist.
The Tupelo church has been looking for a pastor since the departure in March of the Rev. Randy Von Kanel, who served for more than five years.
For Grayson, the father of two, this will be his fourth senior pastorate, and he’s very excited.
“Tupelo is one of the most ‘churched’ cities in the South, and I’d love for it to be viewed as one of the most saved cities in the South,” said Grayson.
“I have great trust in the word of God. I like to think that every time we open it, somebody’s going to be saved, and somebody’s life is going to change.”

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.