Published December 4, 2008
FAYETTEVILLE — Rolling Hills Baptist Church is up for sale. The people, who constitute the real church, are not up for sale, but the property of the church is in the hands of a real estate agent and on the market.
“How did this come about?” you ask.
Rolling Hills pastor Frank Mercer, along with church members Andy Ellis and Dave Lebby, took a trip to New York to explore the possibility of a partnership with New Hope Community Church. While in New York, Mercer was impressed with the extraordinarily effective ministry of this relatively small church.
Words that resonate
The Rolling Hills pastor commented, “New Hope is involved in ministering to the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the lost, and ‘the least of these.’ They are making a huge impact in their community.”
One day during the New York visit Mercer was in a conversation with New Hope pastor Tom Richter and asked him about the challenges of renting space as opposed to owning space.
Richter replied, “We have wrestled with the question of whether or not to purchase property. When we considered the cost of a mortgage, utilities, insurance, etc., we came to realize that owning our own building would negatively impact how we do ministry and missions. “If we become a church of brick and mortar, we may cease to be a church of flesh and blood.”
Mercer admitted, “As he described this defining moment in his fellowship, God was speaking clearly to me about our situation at Rolling Hills. His words about flesh and blood trumping brick and mortar really resonated with me.”
The following Wednesday evening Mercer shared his observations about the trip, but didn’t say too much about being “a church without walls.” However, he did begin to talk about the concept with his administrative team and deacon chairman. He asked his church leaders to begin to pray about the future direction of the church and asked them to read “The Outflow” by Steve Sjogren, “Church without Walls” by Thom Goslin, and “The Present Future” by Reggie McNeal.
The pastor began to research the feasibility of making a radical shift in their approach to ministry. Mercer stated, “We had long been considering how to best maximize ministry and missions resources by reducing operating costs. But the idea of leveraging the value of our buildings and property so that we could begin to invest more deeply in people rather than property still seemed far-fetched.”
As Mercer began to read and research he discovered that there were churches in Australia, South Korea, South Africa, Canada, Spain, and a network of churches within the Church of Scotland called “churches without walls.” He found out that some of these churches made a decision early on in their church life to invest their money in ministry, missions, and benevolence rather than property while others liquidated their property in an effort to transfer that resource to a cash resource that could fund mission work.
Brave new ministry
Mercer reported, “I also discovered churches in the United States that had done the same thing. In my circle of ministry friends this seemed to be a very unorthodox and unpopular idea. I drew a lot of blank stares and warnings from my peers and began to feel that if we ventured into the brave new ministry world we would be all alone.
“That is when I saw the news about Newnan Church of Christ in the Newnan Times-Herald. The NCC on Highway 34 had decided to sell their property, because they had grown tired of ‘investing in property’ and desperately wanted to ‘invest in people.’
“Their plan is to sell their property, move to a smaller, more functional ‘meeting house,’ closer to downtown Newnan, and put the remainder of their proceeds into a foundation or trust where it can grow and provide resources for missions opportunities ‘until Jesus comes.’ Their goal is to spend over 50 percent of their budget on ‘outreach, missions, and benevolence.’”
Mercer began to share the vision with the deacons, the remaining core leadership, and eventually the church. The Fayetteville pastor acknowledged, “We knew that once ‘the genie was out of the bottle’ news would travel fast, so we wanted to be very proactive in sharing. Those meetings were refreshing, conversational, synergistic, and prayerful.”
The people were not asked to vote, but to pray with an open mind to seek God’s will. The pastor wanted to help the church to understand that what was being proposed was not just a fad or the latest trend and attempted to set a theological context for the vision God had given him. He began a series of sermons based on the theme “Something Old/Something New” from Acts 1-11.
The series culminated on Oct. 5, the day the church took the vote, with a message called “Sticks and Stones.” Mercer explained, “That message was about how God always wants us to surrender whatever we are holding in our hands – Moses and his rod, the lad and his lunch, a widow’s mite – and trust Him to make more of it.
“We urged our people to lay down their sticks (popsicle sticks were provided) of security on the altar and take up a stone (we had placed stones on the altar) of identity. All of this was to demonstrate a defining moment of surrendering a church of brick and mortar in order to become ‘living stones’ – a church of flesh and blood.”
At the end of that service the church voted by secret ballot and more than 90 percent of the members present affirmed the proposal that read: “In an effort to follow God’s heart and join Him in His redemptive work, we propose that RHBC place her buildings and property on the market for immediate sale, with proceeds designated toward ministry and mission in our community and beyond.”
The physical facilities of Rolling Hills Baptist Church are located on approximately 20 acres of prime property just outside of Fayetteville. The church building was completed in 1993 and the mortgage is less than $150,000, but it is all up for sale.
When asked how the money from the sale of the building would be used Mercer answered, “We have discussed constructing a simpler steel and concrete ‘warehouse-style’ building on a smaller tract of land.
This would not be built principally as a place for worship, but as a place where we do ministry – a hub for ministry where we also happen to worship. It doesn’t make sense to have a building that sits vacant 90 percent of the time that devours 50 percent of our income.
“At our church we’ve tried to ‘keep up with the Joneses for too long. Churches buy property and build buildings to expand the club and improve the clubhouse. We suffer from steeple envy. We work to attract guests. And the church that has the most people, who give the mot money, wins.
“We’re tried of playing that game. We no longer want to be like everybody else. And that is not to say that everybody should be like us either. This model is not for everybody.
“Hopefully, the money we receive from the sale of our property will be used to feed more, clothe more, house more, do more in serving the lost and the least.”
Mercer and his wife, Pam, are from Fayetteville. Frank grew up in New Hope Baptist Church under the ministry of Ike Reighard, whom he still regards as his mentor.
Pam is a product of Fayetteville’s First Baptist Church. The Mercers have four children: Pete, 16, Maddie, 14, Evan, 10, and Jake, 8. The Fayetteville couple never dreamed of coming back to their hometown to minister, but they returned in May 2004 after eleven years of service at Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C.
Mercer avows, “I have a particular heart for this city. I desperately want to see God at work here.”
Some who think Mercer’s vision is manifestly unorthodox have dared to look him in the eyes and ask, “Aren’t you taking the church a step backwards?”
Realizing that the New Testament church was made up of a group of counter-cultural revolutionaries, Mercer’s typical response is, “Yes, about 2,000 years backwards.”
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