published Saturday, March 9th, 2013

Faith Focus: Church's looks are deceiving

The word "Closed," emblazoned on the plywood planks over the sign at Westview Baptist Church, has alarmed some people in East Brainerd.

"What's going on there?"

"Why did the church close?"

"Wonder what's going to go in there?"

Well, says former Westview pastor Sterling Jetton, the church, in fact, is dead. It has lived its usefulness as a cookie-cutter Southern Baptist congregation that began more than 30 years ago in a split from Morris Hill Baptist Church.

"God met with us and revealed his desire to us -- that it was time to close the church," he says. "The elders presented [the plan] to the body, and the elders and the body moved to close the church."

On Sunday, two weeks after it closed, the building and the body will open as Shelter Church.

The same people who were members of Westview will be members of the new congregation. It will exist under the same Southern Baptist denomination, but that brand won't be emphasized.

"There's a significant difference in what's happening, a difference in the body of believers, in their enthusiasm for the Gospel," says Jetton. "There's a revival that's taking place. God is breathing new life into the body of believers."

When he came to Westview 12 years ago, the church was drawing only 18 people in Sunday worship. When Shelter opens tomorrow, it will begin with a solid block of 75 people.

The idea, he says, is that the old has passed away. All the bad blood from the years of the split is gone. A new creation -- an enthusiastic, young, thriving church -- has taken its place.

Jetton says the new church can't do anything about its physical presence. Indeed, he gets it that, when young people looking for a home congregation see a traditional brick-and-mortar "shotgun church," they believe it has only older people.

Nothing wrong with older people, to be sure, he says. But he wants to emphasize that appearances can be deceiving. The average age of members at the emergent Shelter Church is 35. There are 12 children under the age of 2; the associate pastor is 29, the worship leader is 22.

Inside, the sanctuary has been repainted, the children's area has been redecorated in more "kid friendly" colors and the youth room has been redone.

"We're more of a modern building inside," Jetton says. "We can't do anything about [the] perception of the outside. ... What we can [change is the thought] in the community."

The name of the church, according to Jetton, refers to the congregation's ability to shelter people -- not from the world but in the sense of "herding [them] so they can find healing for eternity."

Hurting people can come inside the church, he says, and once inside "healing comes in the understanding of who we are in Christ, in the hope we have in Christ Jesus."

Jetton says he and the congregation are ready to start anew.

"God [is] doing a work on us -- in a sense, giving us a rebirth," he says. "There is enthusiasm going on -- fresh, new enthusiasm. As a pastor, it's exciting for me, too."

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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