by Scott Barkley
WORCESTER, MS (BP) – At first glance, the merging of Burncoat Baptist Church and The Church on Seven Hills may have appeared to benefit one congregation more than the other. Burncoat’s membership and building were both showing their advancing years. The Church on Seven Hills was energetic, four years removed from its founding and full of college students.
But that merger, said Pastor Andy Haynes, has brought about a singular body of believers where life experiences mingle with discipleship every day. Haynes, who also serves as the state director for collegiate ministries for the Baptist Convention of New England, said the dynamic has led to deep growth among church members.
Members of The Church on Seven Hills take part in a food giveaway during Easter weekend last month. Photo courtesy of The Church on Seven Hills
“Being multi-generational has been a big part of it,” he said. “We have an active college ministry and are continuing to grow through connections with our neighborhood. But we’re pretty evenly represented among different age groups.”
The Church on Seven Hills began as a prayer group made up of several local college students – there are nine schools in the area – young professionals and families from their sending church, Hope Chapel in Sterling, Mass. Shane Colwell, Seven Hills’ pastor at the time, led the congregation to meet at rented spaces along the way, including an Episcopal church on Sunday evenings and later the hall of a Lutheran church on Sunday mornings.
About four years ago Burncoat Baptist Church and The Church on Seven Hills merged under Colwell’s leadership. At the start of 2020, Haynes became pastor. Already known in the area for his work among college students, he continued to prioritize intergenerational relationships.
Omar Cordova, a student at Worcester State University, shared the importance of those relationships prior to his recent baptism. The mathematics major who plans to become a teacher attended church until he was around 6 years old. From there, his sense of right and wrong largely depended on his friends’ opinions, and he described himself as very self-involved.
One day Kevin Cox, a member of Seven Hills and full-time campus minister with College Students New England of the BCNE, was walking the Worcester State campus when he passed Cordova and his friends playing pingpong. He introduced himself and invited Cordova to the church. Cordova ended up attending Fusion, a collegiate ministry conference hosted each fall by New England Baptists, and said that’s where he said Jesus “became real” to him.
That realization grew into something else after one of Haynes’ sermons. “Andy was talking about how if we don’t fully put our hearts into Jesus then we’re being sinful for rejecting Him,” Cordova said.
After the service an elderly member of the church approached him and asked what was stopping him from believing in Christ. Apparently nothing, because Cordova prayed for Jesus to be his Savior.
Cordova and others at the church take part in small groups, many of them representing various generations or those in different stages of life. Last year Seven Hills members left a major footprint in the community through ministries such as grocery distribution and providing school supplies. Recently, two high school students from the church qualified for the BCNE-sponsored missions opportunity Quest, which requires participants to have a mentoring relationship. One participant is being mentored by a retiree, the other by an older adult.
The church’s older members say the sight of 20-somethings leading the worship team or welcoming guests is encouraging. “They love the energy and passion,” Haynes said. Moreover, younger attendees and a loosening of pandemic-related restrictions means a return to the sounds of children in the sanctuary during the service. Far from a distraction, Haynes called it “a joy.”
The merger made The Church on Seven Hills older, and Haynes said that was a move in a healthy direction.
“Early on we were very young, but one of our prayers was to be multigenerational,” he said. “We wanted more of that wisdom that comes with life experience. God answered that prayer and brought in another generation to supply what we’d been lacking.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Barkley is national correspondent for Baptist Press.