Church's vision drawing believers


When the Rev. Mark Massey founded Friendship Baptist Church 16 years ago, it consisted of five members, one pastor and no permanent location.

Since then, the Howard County church has blossomed into a 350-member congregation near Sykesville that will soon have three pastors and a 26,000-square-foot building. Today, the church will open a newly constructed second wing of its building that sits on the Carroll-Howard County line.

Although the congregation began by meeting in school classrooms, at Springfield Hospital Center in Carroll County and even in an old hardware store, the church now has a prime location - along Route 32, about one mile north of Interstate 70 - and continues to grow.

Friendship Church has been operating out of a 10,000-square-foot building that volunteers constructed in 1990, but the new wing has almost double that space.

The second wing has 16 classrooms, a fellowship hall and worship center, a sanctuary, office space, a library and an audio-visual system.

Ruth Brunner, a member since 1986, started attending the church when it was meeting at the hospital. Even then, Brunner said, she could see the church was going to expand and flourish.

"Our pastor has a vision, and you need that to know where you're going as a church," she said.

The church commissioned its first building with the intention of expanding. Plans for the second wing have been in development since 1996, and the group broke ground for it in April last year.

Built by 133 volunteers from 38 churches in three states, the addition took less than 14 months to complete. Using volunteers instead of paid labor saved the church $600,000, Massey estimated.

The savings will go toward church programs and its annual trip to Saddleback Valley Community Church in Mission Viejo, Calif. Each year, Massey and five or six church members attend a conference there to "share the vision."

Massey said he has patterned Friendship Church after Saddleback, a Southern Baptist church that has about 15,000 adult members.

Within five years, Massey said, he hopes Friendship Church will have a 2,000-member congregation and hold five or six services on the weekend.

Just a few years ago, one Sunday service at 11 a.m. was more than enough to meet the needs of the congregation, said John Hevey, associate pastor. The congregation grew to need two services each Sunday in the 170-person sanctuary. Now, Hevey said, the church will have Sunday services in a sanctuary that holds 350 people. More than half of its congregation is made up of Carroll County residents.

Hevey attributed the church's tremendous growth primarily to word of mouth.

"We're a very welcoming church," he said. "People bring their friends to services, and their friends fall in love with us, too."

But Hevey said the church's location doesn't hurt, either.

"We've had a huge number of people join us just because they saw us while driving by and thought they'd give us a try," he said.

The growth of the church matches a changing focus for the congregation. It has gone from being traditional Baptist to one that is more responsive to the community, Hevey said.

"People don't go to church anymore thinking, 'Gee, I'd like to hear organ music,'" he said. "We've tried to update by playing more contemporary music and have sermons relevant to people's lives."

Friendship Church is trying to capture some of the 92,000 residents within an eight-mile radius of the church that Massey said are "completely unchurched."

"These people were turned off to the traditional, boring church about 20 years ago," he said. "We preach practical messages and try to use technology."

Massey said it is not uncommon for a sermon to begin with a three-minute video clip. He recently used a scene from the Sylvester Stallone action movie "Cliffhanger" to introduce a sermon about care, concern and love that go beyond limits.

Hymns have been replaced with easy-listening Christian music, and each service is accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation.

"Our motto is that our message never changes, but our methods must constantly change," Massey said. "We wholeheartedly believe that technology in church is a good thing."

Continuing the focus on fitting the church into people's lives, Robert Swartz will join Friendship next month as the worship pastor. He will be in charge of the church's music, drama and creative arts programs. Hiring a third staff member, Hevey said, would not have been possible without a larger facility.

But the church isn't promoting unchecked growth, he said. The pastors are trying to encourage the church to "grow larger and smaller at the same time."

"When you grow really large, people wonder if you're as friendly as you used to be," Hevey said.

To avoid that, Friendship Church will encourage small-group activities in addition to the large-group services.

The new wing should help, Hevey said, because it provides so much classroom space.

In celebration of its new wing, the church will hold festivities this weekend. Scheduled events include contemporary Christian music in the new sanctuary from 7:30 to 9 tonight.

An open house will be held from noon to 9:30 p.m. tomorrow. Events at the open house will include a puppet show, a health fair, an ice cream social and gospel music.

A dedication service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday.

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