Highland Park Baptist Church, which spawned Tennessee Temple University and Temple Baptist Seminary and boasted as many as 57,000 members as recently as 30 years ago, will relocate in January to property it owns on a bluff overlooking Highway 58 and Harrison Bay.
The name of the relocated Southern Baptist congregation, encompassing its Highland Park roots and the new site on land it has owned since 1946, will be Church of the Highlands.
Its $3.7 million, 5,700-seat Bailey Avenue auditorium -- completed in 1981 -- and seven other buildings will be liquidated, according to pastor Dr. Jeremy Roberts, who told his congregation about the plans during a worship service Sunday morning.
"We'll go from playing defense," he said, "to playing offense."
The fact that the church's heyday as an independent Baptist church was 30 years ago under longtime pastor Dr. Lee Roberson "is a wake-up call for Highland Park Baptist Church to move on," he said.
Roberts said "there is serious interest" from "three strong churches" with ties to the community that want to buy the Bailey Avenue auditorium. He would not disclose the churches or the asking price.
The pastor said only nine families in the church still live in Highland Park and that a plurality of its members -- its weekly attendance is 370 -- live in the Harrison/Ooltewah area.
"The philosophy of going to church has changed," said Roberts, 28, who was born after Roberson retired and who became the pastor in April. When the church was at its strongest, "it was very normal to drive downtown" to attend. "In today's day and age, the church has to go to them."
Tennessee Temple University, which adjoins the church and over which he retains spiritual oversight, will remain in place.
"The only change ... is that we will no longer be on the same campus," Roberts said.
The property where the congregation will erect a multipurpose building, with a large glass window overlooking the bay, adjoins the church's Camp Joy. The summer camp serves hundreds of children and was named after Roberson's daughter, who died shortly after birth.
Dr. David Myers, director of mission for the Hamilton County Baptist Association, said Harrison Bay and Ooltewah are growth areas for the county and ripe for more churches.
"We've had folks inquire about churches and planting churches out that way," he said. "That is the way the city and the population seem to be moving. To have more out there is advantageous."
OPTIONS TO CONSIDER
Roberts said he presented the church's long-range planning committee with four options several months after his arrival.
The church, founded in 1890, could continue as it was going, and the congregation would remain plateaued or decline, he said. Or it could lay off the present staff, hire a multiethnic staff and try additional ways to reach its neighborhood, he said.
A third option, which was "seriously discussed," he said, was to merge with historically black Mount Canaan Baptist Church. That congregation is presently worshipping in Highland Park's Chauncey-Goode Auditorium, the church's primary worship space before the Bailey Avenue auditorium was built.
The fourth option was to move, but the location was not specified immediately.
However, when Roberts and his wife returned from a July trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., to pray about the church's future, they exited at Ooltewah, drove to the Highway 58 location and felt a sense of God's leading at the site.
In turn, the long-range planning committee, the deacons and a diverse group of members unanimously approved the relocation plan.
Wes Hughen, the church's chairman of deacons, said Highland Park has become a "drive-in church" and, despite trying many different things, has not been able to minister effectively in its neighborhood.
"It gives us a new opportunity to shift our ministry to where we think we could be more effective than we are downtown," he said.
Hughen, 61, an Ooltewah resident and a member of the church for 33 years, said the decision may not meet with overwhelming approval.
"I think our church has got so much history and sense of tradition that making this move away from [Highland Park] will be tough on some. But if they think about it, we can't live in the past. [With Camp Joy,] it gives us a chance to put all our ministry together."
Roberts said he did not anticipate serious opposition.
"Will there be some attrition? Sure," he said. "But sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward."
'FUNNEST CHURCH AROUND'
The Church of the Highlands will hold its first two services -- one traditional and one contemporary -- in the cafeteria of Camp Joy on Jan. 20. Christian education will be offered in the camp's gym. Transportation will be provided for Tennessee Temple University students.
Roberts said he could not pinpoint the groundbreaking or completion date of the multipurpose building because that will depend on the sale of Highland Park Baptist's properties.
In time, he said, the church may offer a zipline that runs from the main building to lower parking, a boat dock, ministries on the lake, horses as part of the children's ministry, a paintball course, a rock-climbing wall and access to the skate park at Camp Joy.
"It'll be the funnest church around," said Roberts. "We're targeting children and teens," but "we want it to be a place where the whole family can come and learn about Jesus."
As the church prepares for the move, it will launch a "We Love Chattanooga" initiative.
"Chattanooga is one of the coolest cities around," said Roberts, who with his wife, Charity, would come to the city frequently when he pastored a church in Lenoir City, Tenn. "Our church loves Chattanooga."
To fulfill its new motto -- "Reaching our community, America and the world for Jesus Christ" -- the congregation will canvass schools and communities to determine their needs.
An October event is planned at the new site, where the church will offer free oil changes and car washes to parents. A December night is set aside for free child care for parents who may want to shop or "spend quality time" together.
"We need to show the love of Christ before we share the love of Christ," Roberts said. "In order to fulfill our mission, our methods must change, but our God stays the same."
Eventually, he said, he wants the church to adopt a "key" American city and a "key" foreign country to partner with for missions.
Within three years, Roberts said, it is his hope that 50 percent of the congregation will participate in a mission trip to either the city or country.
"We want to be a spiritual oasis in a deserted world that needs the gospel," he said.
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