Church takes right approach in community

Published 10:39 pm Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sometimes churches overlook the fact that saving souls goes hand in hand with just changing lives and being a positive influence in the community.

But the leadership — and ultimately the whole congregation — at First Baptist Church in Ironton seems to really get this point.

The church located on Fifth Street is in the middle of a $1.2 million building project that will lead to a new faith and fitness center that will add much to the community, even for those who aren’t part of the roughly 200-person congregation.

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The mission statement for the project may sum it up best: “To provide a Christ-centered environment with educational, social and recreational outreach programs with the purpose of encouraging spiritual, mental and physical growth for all ages.”

In efforts of full disclosure, let me be clear that I don’t attend this church. I’m not even Baptist. While many of Lawrence County’s churches are doing great things, I am especially impressed with what First Baptist is doing.

“I think the main thing we want the community to know is that we are here to try and make Ironton a better place,” said Pastor Dennis Strawn, who has been with the church for 18 years. “We felt that the vision for this building was a community building. It is not for us, it is for all of us that live here.”

The center will provide better facilities for many of the positive things the church is already doing and also open the door to more community activities.

It will be a separate building and will facilitate a lot of activities and provide opportunities for youth, many of which youth pastor Eric Barnes is already doing but is limited by a lack of space.

The church already welcomes several hundred kids each week for its after-school programs, youth church services and other activities.

Let’s face it, positive choices for youth in this region are few and far between and this is a tremendous benefit.

But this project isn’t just about kids. Strawn envisions the building as a place for seniors, for community celebrations like birthdays or weddings, for recreational events and even for emergency shelters in times of natural disaster or need.

The building, set to be completed in March 2009, includes showers, a stage, classroom facilities, a gym, a track, a kitchen and more.

With more than $700,000 raised by donations and fundraisers through the congregation, this project shows what a group of people with a similar vision can accomplish.

“It is tremendous. The support has made it really clear that this is what God wants us to do and we are working together on it,” Strawn said.

As further proof that this church is looking to be a good community partner, it is currently home to the Ironton City Schools’ sixth grade classes during the district’s construction project of its own.

“They approached us. It was the right thing to do and we could accommodate their needs,” Strawn said. “Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. If there is a need and you have the ability to meet that need, you should do so. And that is kind of where we are coming from with this building.”

Before any of you conspiracy theorists start thinking that the city schools are paying for part of this new building, let me dispel that rumor. It just doesn’t add up financially and isn’t true. The school system is basically just paying the utilities used while there and maintenance incurred by having a bunch of sixth graders in the building five days a week.

The faith and fitness project was started long before the schools made a decision how to divide the youth and where to house them. The third floor looks like a school and there isn’t any co-mingling of education and religion. The church is simply providing building space to the schools.

To me, the level of partnership and community impact that this church is showing is tremendous. But that doesn’t mean the church isn’t still focused on that goal of saving souls.

“We have a mission. We think people know that. We’re a church and we are here to point people to God,” he said. “We are not going to hide that or change that.”

So First Baptist can work toward getting everyone to Heaven while still acknowledging that sometimes a gentle nudge in the right direction can be all it takes.