FREDERICKSBURG -- Given the present economic conditions, most people know exactly how they would use a gift of one million dollars or even a multi-million dollar-valued piece of land.
Fairview Baptist Church in Fredericksburg and its pastor, Bob Sizemore, were no exceptions when in 2003 Tricord Companies donated four acres in the River Club area just south of Fredericksburg, and Lucy Hearn of Baltimore left half of her multi-million dollar estate to the small, but growing, downtown congregation. But the property and money were just the beginning of the surprises in store for the little church that could.
At the end of five years, Fairview Baptist would describe itself as a multi-site church with total attendance numbers reaching over 700, and as a congregation that encompasses both a traditional downtown service and a contemporary suburban service.
“Years ago, our attendance had gone up to the point where we couldn’t accommodate everyone easily,” said Sizemore, reflecting on the church’s initial vision. “In our downtown location there was no place to expand and not enough parking. So we decided to seek land for an activities building that would provide recreational activity for youth and children. There was a lot of gentle laughter, and we asked ourselves, ‘How could we possibly do that?’ But some of the leadership and I concluded, ‘Well, if God wants us to do that he will provide the land and funding.’ ”
Sizemore, however, said that the project shifted focus in accordance with Tricord’s stipulation that Sunday services be held on the donated site. He noted that Fairview’s current functioning blend of two distinctly different church cultures and the joint effort to achieve a common goal based on mutual commitment to unchanging truths are what give the church its unique flavor and position in the community.
“It was an evolution for them,” stated Dee Whitten, current pastor of the Fairview at River Club site. “Given the land with those parameters, and then the 1.3 million dollars, it was obvious that God was trying to tell them something.”
Long time member Myrtle Campbell remembered, “Everything just came together. We started out looking for a facility for us, but God had something bigger in mind. When Tricord offered property, it was with the understanding that there would be Sunday morning services on the site. And so it evolved into a second site of Fairview Baptist Church with all kinds of activities going on -- basketball, scouts and things that have opened the church to a new community. And of course, our whole purpose is to reach people for God.”
Sizemore said that God’s purposes became more evident as the congregation reviewed its recent growth, and some of its shifting cultural dynamics. He, in fact, suggested that while receiving the money and accepting the property were wonderful, it was the people coming to Fairview in the years prior to the project who made the difference.
One member involved in the development of Fairview’s second site, Steve Mudre, described the developing sense of mission. “We wanted to reach out. We were all part of what Charlotte Street [the downtown location] had been doing for years. It was a great place for people to plug in ... but it was probably a study of The Purpose Driven Church in a Sunday school class that began to shape our vision. After reading that book, a small group of people wanted to see if God was leading us to do something different. And while the project had been originally considered as a facility for our own membership, God started putting his stamp on it. It wasn’t going to be just for us, and we started looking at it, trying to discover what this was going to look like.
“God used the entire congregation to do that. Without the financial support and prayers of the whole congregation it would not have been possible ... that’s what is the most impressive thing to me.”
Sizemore saw the development of Fairview’s outreach in much the same way. He recalled, “Many young people came. And they began discussing contemporary worship. Our senior adults welcomed them -- we have the sweetest group of senior adults that you can find. And the young people came with an idea -- although not well-defined. Our members loved them, accepted them, and encouraged them to get into leadership.”
Church-wide discussion soon followed. The church explored a variety of possibilities with its members. Surveys and discussions played a role in discerning the desires of congregants. But the pastor credited prayer as the church’s principal, driving force in the decision process.
In this way, it was determined that most church members wished for the property and funds to be used for a mission church while the majority of the congregants would elect to stay downtown, “enjoying the kind of worship that has blessed them over the years,” as Sizemore said. The pastor told the congregation that when the new church site was built, he would remain at the downtown campus.
Sizemore said he knew that someone special would be needed to lead the new congregation if it were to succeed in implementing the vision that clearly appeared to have come from God. Enter Dee Whitten, a former pastor, who at the time was working for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board as the team leader for the empowering leaders team. Whitten had developed experience while transitioning Mount Ararat Baptist Church in northern Stafford County from a traditional to a more contemporary worship style and church model.
Sizemore related, “The last key was who would lead the church at the new site. It had to be someone who had the combined experience of leading a large church with contemporary worship and someone who would trust and work with me in the interim. I just felt that Dee was the perfect person for that. And so we worked to build something new: one church in two locations offering different styles of worship.
Mudre described the general mood of the congregation as upbeat throughout the process. “Everyone was convinced that we could do this, and work together as a team. We knew we were among the pioneers for this sort of thing, and that God could use our story to help other churches.”
Whitten applauded Sizemore, a retired teacher and administrator turned pastor, for having the foresight and humility to make the effort successful. He said that Sizemore’s leadership at the Charlotte Street campus produced the vision and the facility needed for the rapidly growing River Club congregation.
Thus, a small congregation with an average attendance of 230 continues to work with and support its larger offspring, a surging congregation of over 500. After one year, the combined Easter attendance for both sites was well over 1,000 people. And Fairview envisions a continuing close partnering of the two congregations for many years to come.
Whitten reflected, “It has taken a lot of vision on the part of Fairview folks -- sacrificing time, energy and resources on their part -- to reach their community for Christ. They sensed that God wanted them to do something big here. There are a lot of traditional churches that may not want to change their style, but this model could be replicated for those who have a vision to start a whole new site to reach a new generation for Christ.”
Churches or individuals interested in further information should contact Bob Sizemore at Fairview Baptist church, 900 Charlotte Street, Fredericksburg, VA (540-373-8377) or Dee Whitten at Fairview at River Club, 10835 Tidewater Trail, Fredericksburg, VA (540-841-0040).
Lynn Abbott is a freelance reporter for the Virginia Religious Herald.