By Philip Timothy, Managing Editor
BATON ROUGE – Listen to him speak and it quickly becomes apparent Brian Crain is driven, passionate about his work and on fire for the Lord. Listen just a little closer and you will hear a quiet confidence as well.
Impressive, considering that at only 28 years of age, Crain is the lead pastor of a new church plant in Baton Rouge, Progression Church, where he and his core team of six families (17 people) are seeking to reach the millennial generation.
“A year before my wife and I left to come here, I began praying about who God wanted us to reach,” Crain said. “I was reading a book, Millennials, by Thom Ranier (President and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources) on the unchurched. Ranier said the millennial generation – my generation – was the largest in U.S. history but the most unchurched. It broke my heart.”
But why Baton Rouge, which already has more than 700 churches?
“Why not,” Crain asked? “Baton Rouge is Louisiana’s capital and home to LSU and Southern University. Therefore it has a lot of young professionals, college students and young families. This is the age group that doesn’t feel church is relevant or important – the unchurched. Or perhaps they grew up in church but have left and never went back.
“These are the ones we want to reach,” Crain said. “We want to show them it is relevant and should be important in their lives.”
Progression Church is actually a plant of another church plant, 8-year-old His Church in Pineville. His Church presently has 640 members.
“This is actually our second attempt to plant a church,” Pastor Steve Speer said. “We attempted to plant one in Monroe in our second year. We had the distinction of being the youngest to ever plant a church. Unfortunately, it didn’t last.”
Speer, though, firmly believes in the need to ‘pay it forward.’
“How can a church say it is multiplying and making disciples, if it doesn’t plant a church,” Speer said. “I believe a church plant should plant another church … they should pay it forward.”
And as the sponsoring church, His Church has made a long-term financial commitment to help Progression Church be successful.
“I have spoken with our administrative team and they are behind this,” Speer said. “We don’t have a schedule and we want to do what we can so they will be successful. And we’ve got a good man in Brian running the show. He’s the guy. He is my ‘gun slinger’ … the guy I picked for the job.”
In addition to His Church, four other churches – FBC Sterlington, FBC Urania, FBC Crowville and FBC Harrisonburg – as well as the Louisiana Baptist Convention are all supporting Progression financially or prayerfully.
Crain felt called to plant a church for the millennial generation after hearing speaker Steven Furtick at a Catalyst Conference in 2008. At the time, Furtick was only 28.
Furtick, was the founder and lead pastor at Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C. When he spoke, the church had 5,000 members. Today Elevation Church has more than 12,000 members and meets in 10 different locations.
A graduate of the University of Louisiana at Monroe, Crain prayed hard about the church plant. He and Speer joined forces to make it happen.
“After listening to Steven, I felt called to plant a church to reach our generation,” Crain said. “I did a lot of praying about it but honestly there were many days when I didn’t really see that happening. But God is faithful … even to goofballs like me. Brother Steve was a great encouragement and help as we began to put things together.”
‘Putting things together,’ though, would take almost three plus years as Crain completed his studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastored a church in the small town of Kopperl, Texas, an hour south of Fort Worth.
“I gained a lot of experience at Kopperl in those three and a half years,” Crain said. “There were 900 people in the town and only three churches with mine being one of them. God did some really cool things while I was there and we were able to grow to over 100 people.
“It was a good church, good people but God had other plans for us,” Crain said. “I was a little nervous but I told the church two months before we left to allow them enough time to find someone. It was a tough thing to do but it was the right thing to do.”
The second to last Sunday (May 26) before he left Kopperl, he baptized 10 people.
Crain and his wife Hannah arrived in Baton Rouge in early to mid-summer soon to be joined by five longtime friends and their families who moved there from Texas and parts of Louisiana beginning last August.
The team consists of Crain and his wife Hannah; Joe Handy and his wife Jessica and their daughter; Michael Young and his wife Maranda; Joe Ashley and his wife Jami and their four little boys; and Ryne Hester and his wife Brittany. Ryan Andress, another longtime friend, and his wife Aryel recently moved to Baton Rouge to join the team recently moved to Baton Rouge.
Additionally, Chris Black and Dan Herring, both of whom Crain knew from ULM, were already living in Baton Rouge and they both pitched in to help with the start up.
Handy serves as the teaching pastor, Young and Andress will serve as co-worship pastors, Ashley is well suited to serve as pastor of children and family ministries, and Hester serves as assimilation pastor and is in charge of the connection team.
“God has brought together a great team,” Crain said. “He gave us two of everything. We all have certain skills – some stronger than others – but our combined skills is what make us into such a solid team.”
And the team wasted little time in putting those skills to good use.
Beginning in late August, they started with prayer, Bible study sessions and services in their homes. They expanded to small groups, better known as community groups.
“We started what we called community groups,” Crain said. “We knew there would be a lot of baby steps at first but we were ready. As the different members of the team got settled in Baton Rouge, and our team grew, so did our efforts.”
The community groups are designed to do just what the name suggests … foster community. According to Crain, “we accomplish this through sharing a meal, studying scripture, and spending time in prayer for one another. We started several groups that met throughout the city in different homes and on different nights of the week.”
Once the community groups became established, the team then proceeded to spread the word not only about the groups, but also the church. They used 5,000 mailers to a targeted zip code in specific areas in Baton Rouge.
“We picked a lot of different routes which had people who did not have a church; had not been to a church in a long time or where looking for a church,” Crain said. “We concentrated a lot of our mailers around LSU because of the age of those we were trying to reach.”
Besides sending out those mailers they also did a lot of ‘leg work’ while relying heavily on the internet (www.progressionbr.com) and social media, mainly Facebook (www.facebook.com/progressionbr). Jessica Handy, Joe Handy’s wife, created a logo for the church – the I-10 Mississippi River Bridge on a black background to help give the church a clear Baton Rouge identity.
And finally on Jan. 12, the team held its first church service in LSU’s Baptist Collegiate Ministry, which is located at the North Gate on the LSU campus next to Chimes Restaurant. BCM Director Steve Masters allowed the group the use of the buildings.
The church is designed for young people and young families. There is a children’s church held in the center’s adjoining chapel. Church services are designed to be informal and contemporary with a small band providing contemporary worship music.
“The BCM fits ours needs,” Crain said. “It is a really a win-win for both of us. The BCM wants to reach college kids and we would love nothing better to do the same. We need a place to hold church and our rent check goes back into the BCM to aid their ministry.
“It is a prime location,” Crain continued. “There are a lot of people who walk by the BCM daily, so that’s great for us.”
That first Sunday (Jan. 12) saw 77 people attend services. The next three weeks they averaged 47 for services, which had a lot of new faces each time. Progression Church is presently averaging 50 to 55 weekly.
“We had 10 people come to that first service because of the mailer,” Crain said. “Six of them are still here and five said they were going to join the church. By week three, two of them had joined our team and were serving. They said it just felt right.
“Fourteen people have indicated they were interested in joining the church that weren’t part of our core team and one for sure and maybe another will be baptized in March.
“Every visitor that comes, we greet them, walk in the door with them and if they have children we walk them to children’s church or nursery,” Crain said. “They are given a guest information card, and taken to the connection room where we hang out with them. I don’t want them to say they weren’t welcome. It is hospitality to the max.”
Crain then sends each visitor a hand written note encouraging them to return and asking for any feedback.
“I am so excited to see what is happening,” Crain said. “Last week we had three teams setting up while two college kids walked up and down the street looking for people to invite to church. God led us together and he is leading this plant.
“I can’t thank all the people who have been so encouraging and so supportive of us – (DOM) Tommy Middleton, (LBC Church Planter) Lane Corley, (LSU BCM Director) Steve Masters and (Pastor) Steve Speer,” he said.
Even though Crain knows the church is still in its infancy, it hasn’t stopped him from planning for the future.
“We have big plans for Easter,” Crain said. “We are still talking with LSU but we would like to hold a big Easter egg hunt that Sunday on the parade ground. We couldn’t hold church service there but we could hand out flyers and invitations to come to church. It would be another big step for us.”