Athens church rebounded, now revitalizing with renewed vision

ATHENS The first time Pastor James Cox realized Virginia Hill Baptist Church was showing signs of revitalization was during a monthly game night when he witnessed cross-generational participation. 

A simple board game infused with friendly competition sparked laughter throughout the fellowship hall. They were listening, they understood, and they were living life together as disciples, the pastor recalled.

“When we first arrived, the younger population of members weren’t really involved,” Cox told the TEXAN. “The church was really kind of segregated by generation. There wasn’t any cross-pollination between the age groups. At each event it seemed as if the younger members were cautious and timorous around the more experienced members. 

“I believe the turning point [toward revitalization] was understanding that discipleship meant more than teaching God’s Word; it meant living life together, encouraging one another and enjoying the blessings that each person brings to the body of Christ. That is what created the opportunity to laugh together over a game.”

The church was in a transitional state, Cox said. The former pastor had served faithfully for 18 years, but the church had withered to about 20 in attendance for Sunday morning worship. They realized change was necessary, but they weren’t sure where to start. They needed someone to lead that change.

Virginia Hill Baptist members knew they needed a spark when in late 2016, after a few months without a pastor, they called on Cox. He came to the church in November 2016 as a supply preacher. That month the congregation asked him to be interim and the next month, pastor. He started as the official pastor on Jan. 1, 2017 and within three months had connected with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention for help.

To get started, he held a meeting with the church members. 

“I asked them what they were looking for in a pastor, their expectations of him and their dream of what would happen at the church,” Cox said. “After listening to them and hearing that they wanted the church to grow and thrive in the community the way that it once did, I told them the only way these things would happen would be if they would be willing to go into revitalization. I explained how the revitalization process works and how hard it can be to wipe off the old and put on the new. It was up to them to decide the fate of the church, I told them. Praise God they were ready.”

This included adopting a statement of faith (the Baptist Faith and Message 2000), writing bylaws and affiliating with the SBTC.

Cox connected with Mike Landry, an SBTC revitalization consultant. Landry talked with the pastor, visited the church two months later, preached and that evening talked with the members. Landry explained the revitalization process in detail to the congregation.

Events moved smoothly from that point, though not without an occasional monetary hiccup. 

“The church recognized the need,” Landry said. “They had a desire to do the work necessary and the willingness to change. These are the things we always look for in revitalization.

“With the work that is involved and the changes that may be necessary, it is important for the pastor and the church to be committed to the revitalization process. Many times, we have a ‘town hall’ meeting with the church to ensure the congregation understands the process and is committed to revitalization.”

Revitalization basically is a three-legged stool, Landry explained. The process includes preaching for heart change, a focus on evangelism and a commitment to discipleship.

“To sum it up,” Landry said, “a church needs to be impacted by the Word of God and become refocused on the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19-20.”

Virginia Hill Baptist also began giving more than 8 percent to missions through the Cooperative Program. 

“We want to be a part of what SBTC is doing,” Cox said. “Going from a lethargic state to becoming an enthusiastic part of a convention you’re very active in was the difference between night and day.

“We started just rolling through,” the pastor continued. “Maybe I’m naïve enough to think that if we did the process that the SBTC created, things were going to work for us. I used every resource they offered, taking advantage of the wisdom of others instead of trying to recreate the wheel for Virginia Hill.” 

That was in 2017. The first year involved a 13-week message series both preached and taught in Sunday School to unite the church in working toward revitalization. The monthly game night that was in place helped to build fellowship and bridge the generational gap.

“After the first series I went into Acts,” Cox said. “I felt that what our church really needed was the full force that the book of Acts can bring. Acts reveals to us everything going on with the church as it is established, and that is essentially what revitalization is, re-creation of the church the way God planned for it to be.” 

In the second year came VBS for the first time in five years, a first-ever weekend women’s conference, led by the pastor’s wife, and a Fall Festival that drew some 90 people. These three events are planned again for 2019. 

“The church has moved out of its comfort zone,” Landry said. “We see evangelism becoming the culture of the church, and with the renewed vision and excitement, people are being saved and baptized.”

Even before Cox was called as pastor, the church had determined the building needed a facelift. By the time he was on site, a crew had come in and torn out old paneling, repainted walls, lowered the ceiling and purchased new pews.

“With all of the work they had done and the new pews coming, that gave us the opportunity to have a church cleaning day,” Cox said. “We purged all of the old stuff that hadn’t been used in forever, or that had run its course and wasn’t necessary or able to be used. Also, with the church being built in 1945, we even had the opportunity to return some of the items to the families that were original members of the church and that meant a lot to them. They were able to hold onto a piece of their history.”

Now, the worship center will seat 89 people. 

“When we get to the point where we overflow our capacity for two or three services, maybe then we’ll consider building,” Cox said.

In this, its third year of revitalizing, Virginia Hill Baptist continues its focus on becoming a healthy church that exhibits God’s love in its community, the pastor said. 

The multicultural congregation (he’s Native American; the congregation and visitors are typically black, Hispanic and white) is looking for volunteers to help with the youth and music ministries.

“I’m incredibly humbled and grateful for the help we’ve received from Kenneth Priest, Mike Landry and the team at SBTC, along with the resources and the help through the Cooperative Program,” the pastor said. “Without their help this would be an incredibly difficult journey that might not have been fruitful. 

“We are so appreciative and give all the glory to God,” Cox said. “He has more than doubled our average in attendance, created a children’s ministry, the ladies took an additional four women to their conference, and just this weekend we welcomed two new families to join us that will include three being baptized. God is so good.”  

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