|New church brings authentic faith to St. Pete’s changing face
By Barbara Denman
July 3, 2014
In his 39 years, Chris Stafford, a father of three, has experienced his share of rough times. Although raised in a home as a Jehovah’s Witness, as an adult he visited other churches and “always wanted to accept Christ, but didn’t know how.”
When he began attending a new church plant meeting at St. Petersburg High School, Pastor Danny Lewis walked him through the plan of salvation “without using big words, making it simple so I could understand,” Stafford explained.
The St. Petersburg resident accepted Christ as his Savior and in March was baptized in the choppy, emerald blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico at Fort DeSoto Beach, as the Sunshine Skyway Bridge stood on the horizon.
In a video presented to the church on the day of his baptism, Stafford said in simple terms, “I know Christ died for me. My life has changed.”
Offering a simple message of authentic life through Christ is the reason Pastor Lewis is planting Reliance Church in downtown St. Petersburg, where a growing, young adult population is in stark contrast to the once famous retiree haven.
“We take to heart Christ’s mission where he states in John 10:10 that He came so that we might have life, life to the fullest,” Lewis said. “It is from this that we cast our vision to demonstrate authentic life in Christ in our lives and to our community.”
Lewis and his wife, Mary, started Reliance Church in June 2012, first meeting as a Bible study in their home. The move to St. Pete High, located on the cusp of downtown, was made in June and now draws 30 primarily young adults to worship in the school’s historic auditorium, whose stage bears the motto, “Loyalty and Service to God, Country and Home.”
As if the words are appropriate, Reliance Church “is all about relationships,” Lewis reminds his congregation.
The commitment to plant a church in St. Petersburg grew from a small group Lewis led at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., where the Liberty Seminary graduate served as Life Groups pastor.
They soon felt God calling them to plant a church, utilizing the principles developed in their own small group. As they prayed for God to show them where to locate the new church, the needs in Tampa Bay continued to surface, specifically, St. Petersburg.
“We feel that God did indeed answer our prayer to take us to a place of need,” Lewis explained. “St. Pete needs a revival. There are good churches here, but in downtown St. Petersburg churches are few and far between.”
In the Tampa Bay area as a whole, Lewis explained, there is one evangelical church for every 10,000 people. “The city is in desperate need for good churches for it’s a very diverse city that has strayed greatly from Christianity,” he contends.
While the couple shared their vision and calling with their small group in Lynchburg an unusual thing occurred. Many in the small group, who had grown to be “like family,” Lewis said, “felt God’s confirmation that they would transplant their lives to come to St. Petersburg and plant the church.”
Thomas Road pastor Jonathan Falwell stood behind the group and the Lynchburg congregation became the sending church.
Two families from the small group, Devin and Sarah Quesenberry and Joel and Bethany Hastings, serve bivocationally on staff, leading worship and providing media support. They have been joined by other Liberty graduates who found careers in the community, including several pediatric nurses at All Children’s Hospital, and now provide a nucleus of leadership for the new church.
To minister to and reach the community, Reliance Church has focused on developing relationships through home Bible studies, setting up a concert in a local theatre and participating in St. Petersburg’s extensive special events and festivals.
Each week, church members deliver coffee and donuts to Unity Park and under a highway overpass where homeless gather to spend their day.
While handing out the donuts, church members embrace the men and women congregated there, calling them by name, asking about their health issues and needs then praying with them.
Reliance is partnering with the Florida Baptist Convention, which has provided financial support, and Suncoast Baptist Association.
“The Florida Baptist Convention has been fantastic in helping us to get to this point,” Lewis said. “There are so many key elements that I am thankful for. Their support for one has been invaluable and has allowed us to be able to meet in the school where we are.
He also has attended the Convention’s church planter training, which “helped to define and shape the model of ministry that we use,” he added.
“But the number one thing that I am most thankful for is their connection. They have come alongside us and, especially Robert Beckman (Florida church planting strategist) and Ervin McWilson (associational director), have encouraged us, prayed for us, and in the case of Robert, has been a mentor.”
Lewis said he is often asked, “Why plant a church in St. Petersburg?” The answer is simple, he explained.
“Church planting is the natural outcome of the Great Commission. Jesus commanded us to go make disciples.”