Fast-growing church moves temporarily to tent
ADDIS — The Rev. Tom Shepard, while carefully stepping around children seated on the floor as he preached, realized his congregation needed a larger sanctuary.
The need couldn’t wait for a new building.
First Baptist Church of Addis, a church that has grown rapidly recently using the latest technologies, had to turn to old technology to address immediate space needs.
“We were hitting 205,” Shepard said. “People were sitting on the floor. I didn’t want to go to three services, so we put up the tent.”
While waiting for a spacious, new building to be finished in the next few months, the congregation is meeting in a rented circus tent in the church’s parking lot along the east side of La. 1 in Addis — a challenge that would have been hard to envision before Shepard became pastor.
Built in 1957, when Southern Baptist churches were multiplying from the post-World War II baby boom, the classic brick sanctuary comfortably seated about 80 members. But the children grew up and moved away, the parents grew old and the congregation gradually declined.
By the time Shepard, 49, took over two years ago, two pews could seat everyone.
“There wasn’t but about 15 regulars,” said Inez Stockwell, 87, a member since 1975. “When Brother Tom took over, the young people, they came in by leaps and bounds.”
Shepard, a bivocational pastor who owns and operates three businesses, brought a fresh enthusiasm, several young families from other churches and applied modern technology to the ministry.
Within a few months, the congregation began growing and hasn’t stopped.
“A lot of the people in the community come over and see what’s going on and when they got in here they realized ‘Wow! They’re not traditional,” Shepard said. “I’m very conservative preaching the Word, but we’re doing what Paul said: to do what we can to reach anybody we can.”
Shepard uses the Internet to broadcast the news of the church and to narrow cast individual discipleship plans via email and cellphone conversations. He attributes a third of the congregation’s membership to Facebook participation.
“I have 57 people currently going through different discipleship studies where they just shoot me a note at the end of the week telling me the No. 1 thing that they learned,” he said. “If they have any questions, they call me on their cellphones.”
His discipleship plan is based on two simple questions to the members:
- “What are your top three stressors in life?”
- “What are the top three things you ever wanted to know about the Bible and/or religion?”
The answers to those questions provide direction for his sermons for the entire year and shape individualized discipleship plans.
“When Jesus looked at the crowd with compassion, he fed them first, then he ministered to them,” Shepard said. “That’s how we’re able to grow the church the way we’re growing, because we are specifically preaching to their spiritual and physical needs.”
The congregation decided in August 2012 to build a 10,000- square-foot, multipurpose building at the back of the church’s 3.5-acre lot. The slab was poured in November and the $400,000 steel building, planned to seat more than 500, is supposed to be finished in February.
Until then, the 75-foot diameter tent, provided by the Louisiana Baptist Convention, will have to suffice despite highway traffic noise and blaring train horns that disrupted a recent Sunday morning invitation.
The church’s plans include renovating the old sanctuary into classrooms and renovating a 1970s-era fellowship hall into a youth building.
“We’re already a regional church,” Shepard said. “The bulk of the people are from the Addis and Brusly and Plaquemine and Port Allen area, but we have people coming from Walker, Watson, Denham Springs, Erwinville, Bayou Sorrel, Donaldsonville.”
Shepard said First Baptist baptized about 50 converts in 2012.
Finding Jesus in Alaska
First Baptist of Addis is Shepard’s first pastorate. He grew up a Catholic, became an atheist in college and found Jesus in 1986.
“I was in the Air Force, stationed at Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, Alaska, when my master sergeant invited me to a little Pentecostal church,” Shepard said. “He gave me directions, so I went there and sat in the back. Brother Ben Kimbrough from east Texas was preaching, and I was convicted, went forward and accepted Christ as my savior.
“When I went in to work Monday he said, ‘Hey, I didn’t see you at church,’ ” Shepard said. “I told him, ‘I went to the 11 o’clock service and I’m getting baptized next week.’ He said, ‘Baptized? What church did you go to?’ I told him, Moose Creek Baptist Church in North Pole.”
Shepard is graduate of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and has worked for many years with LifeWay, the Southern Baptist publications and ministry service. He and wife Daneyel have four children: Makenna, 9; Michah, 8; Mercy, 2; and Anthony, 8, recently adopted.
Reaching youth, couples
Ben Harris, First Baptist’s youth and worship leader, is attending New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The youth group, he said, has grown from a small handful to several dozen.
“I noticed the kids were just riding their bikes up and down the street on Saturday nights looking for something to do, so we started our youth program (called Adventure Life) on Saturday night (5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.),” Harris said. “The cool thing is that the (unchurched) kids that don’t know much — you’re not unlearning this old, bad theology out of them; you’re just telling them straight. When they get it, their life changes.”
Tyler Lee, 16, grew up in the church and now commutes to Addis from Gonzales every Sunday. He describes the youth group as “awesome.”
Josh and Nikki Garris, a young couple with four children, drive from Denham Springs to attend.
“We felt the Lord was calling us over here just because of the love that people showed us here,” Nikki Garris said.
“Anybody who is looking for truth and who God is and how the family of God works together, this is the place to be,” Josh Garris said.
Tom Smith, a Plaquemine resident, joined the church about a year and a half ago after tiring of driving across the river to Baton Rouge to attend another Baptist church.
“This congregation is about Jesus Christ, not laws, not religion,” Smith said. “It’s about faith and hope.”
Theresa Fraser, moved to Brusly about a year ago from Baton Rouge, started looking for a church and was invited by a friend.
“They know everybody on a personal basis and they are so giving and loving you just can’t help but fall in love with them,” Fraser said.
John Hebert, director of Missions and Ministry for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, provided the tent and is working with Shepard to multiply his discipleship plan across the state.
“Tom is an innovative church leader,” Hebert said. “His methods of discipleship are biblical and effective in reaching people where they are.”
The Rev. Tommy Middleton, director of missions for the Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge, said he preached at First of Addis one Sunday last year and the old sanctuary was so crowded it reminded him of mission trips to India.
“Tom is very media savvy, and he’s worked out a great plan to use Facebook as a medium to communicate biblical truth and to hold his people accountable, no matter where they are in their walk with Christ,” Middleton said. “He has a personal touch with people. No pun intended, but there needs to be a return to an understanding of shepherding a flock, and knowing them by name and having a more personal relationship with them.”