562 baptized in parking lot
ANDERSON, S.C. (BP)--The idea of tailgating before a baptism celebration might seem rather unusual to some, but at NewSpring Church, it's part of an effort to reach people with the creativity and relevance found in the Bible.
The fast-growing Southern Baptist congregation baptized 562 believers during a celebration staged in its parking lot with more fanfare and excitement than most churchgoers typically expect.
"We invited people to come tailgate before the baptisms like they would before a football game," said Tony Morgan, chief strategic officer at NewSpring in Anderson, S.C.
"People brought their RVs and set up tents. There were televisions going with people watching football games before the baptism service started," Morgan told Baptist Press. "People brought grills and they were making food for themselves and sharing with others. It was pretty fun."
The church, which is about 20 minutes from the Clemson University campus, set up three above-ground pools in the parking lot, and two pastors in each pool took about 90 minutes to baptize the 562 people, Morgan said.
Morgan believes it's entirely appropriate to party before a baptism because the ordinance is a celebration.
"It's acknowledging a commitment that someone has made with Christ, and it's something to be celebrated," he said. "Actually, I personally see our event to be more consistent with the purpose of baptism -- people making a public statement of a faith commitment that they've made."
The Sept. 8 baptism event was the culmination of a five-week series preached by NewSpring pastor Perry Noble titled "Illuminate" during August in which he compared a life without Christ to a life with Christ.
"Through that series we had around 800 people receive Christ," Morgan said. "So the final Sunday of the series Perry preached a message about baptism. In each of our four services, we baptized someone during the worship part of the service and then Perry taught about that."
NewSpring began as a Bible study for college students in Noble's home in 1998, and soon a core group of people cast a vision for the church plant.
"With a church on practically every corner, it hardly seemed like Anderson needed yet another church," NewSpring’s website says; "however, research showed that nearly forty-eight percent of the people in the county didn't attend church on a regular basis. So this core group had a vision: 'Why not create a church that would adhere to solid, Christian doctrine but would be entirely different from the other churches in the community?'"
The group chose to focus its ministry on three main areas: making the church the "most creative place of worship on the planet," doing everything with "110 percent effort, quality and effectiveness," and teaching people how God and the Bible are relevant to their lives today.
In January 2000, 115 people gathered for NewSpring's first Sunday morning service on the campus of Anderson College, the website says. Six years later, they finished construction of a 2,500-seat auditorium and saw more than 900 people accept Christ and nearly 800 follow in baptism last year alone.
"All I can say is that Perry has committed to making the name of Jesus famous," Morgan said in assessing the rapid growth. "That's the sole focus for his ministry and for the ministry of NewSpring Church, in that everything we do in our worship services, everything we do through our ministry programming, everything we try to communicate to our community reflects that focus. I think God is honoring that."
Granted, the sermon titles and some other things the church does can be a little edgy compared to most Southern Baptist churches. But the philosophy of the church's leaders is that creativity is necessary for accomplishing the Great Commission, as noted on the pastor's blog Sept. 12.
"The apostle Paul said in Scripture that Christ must be preached ... and NewSpring, you have my promise that HE will always be our focus!" Perry wrote. "BUT you also have my promise that church will never be boring -- we do not have a boring God -- His bride should not be boring either. The Bible is the most exciting book that has ever been written ... and we will present it in its totality, with passion, sincerity and creativity!!"
All age groups are catching on to the ministry style, Morgan said, including a woman who is 101 years old.
"The funny thing is we had tried to seat her in the back of the auditorium thinking she might not prefer the loud music, and she wants to be up front close to the action," he said.
With about 5,000 members but 8,000 in attendance on Sundays, Morgan noted that a lot of people who attend the church's services aren't members. Whether those people are searching or haven't finalized their commitments, he sees promise in the fact that they're gathering at all.
"I think it's a great thing when people in the church can come together and celebrate the transformation that Christ is making in people's lives," Morgan said.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.