A fertile mission ground

The pastor of NorthStar Christian Center likes to says his church's mission is "to point people to the way to Jesus."

Now, after a name change and a move to an expansive 41-acre site on Longtown Road, the former Forest Drive Church is preparing to be "that navigational compass" that draws congregants to make spirituality and outreach the centerpiece of their lives.

"Basically, we believe as Christians that we should shine for Jesus in the dark and depraved world that we live in," said Pastor Brian Thomas. It has been an unusual journey for a congregation that began as a mission planted in 1948 by First Baptist Church to minister to World War II veterans and their families.

The congregation slowly gained membership and vibrancy under the leadership of Thomas' stepfather, the Rev. Glenn Anderson, who was pastor between 1974 and 1999.

"Our concept was that we wanted to be not particularly denominationally-minded, although not opposed to it, but we wanted to be open to the move of the Holy Spirit," Anderson, 79, recalled. The church remains part of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"Every service was extremely alive - and that does not mean it was not in order, it was - but there was just a freedom to move in the things of the spirit yet we kept biblical order."

It also earned a reputation in the 1970s as a church that was open to people of diverse backgrounds and skin colors, unusual in a state shedding the last vestiges of segregation.

"There was just no distinction made in terms of race," Anderson said. "We didn't have a token black; we had black elders, black deacons, we have black people on the staff, and we didn't think a thing about it."

"Everybody says Forest Drive was the most loving church they had ever seen."

He still marvels that his stepson has succeeded him as pastor. But he recalls the moment, when Brian Thomas was about 19 or 20, when Thomas came to his stepfather and asked to serve on the church staff.

"He mentored me and poured into me, and what I got you can credit him for," said Thomas, who does not hold a seminary degree but has taken advanced religious coursework.

Thomas and his wife, Susan, have guided the move, with nearly unanimous support of the congregation. A few families decided to leave, citing the distance.

The church sold the seven-acre property on Forest Drive for $5 million and purchased the Longtown property for $2.5 million. It includes two ponds and three houses, a Spanish hacienda-style building, which will be remodeled for a youth complex; a Georgian-style home, which will eventually house offices, and a wood-frame home.

The new $4 million sanctuary, designed by CDA Architects in Columbia, is one story with architectural elements that include exposed pipe and a raised pulpit spacious enough for band equipment to fuel the contemporary services. The green chairs, used in the Forest Drive sanctuary and at the temporary worship location at Crayton Middle School, provide a familiar element of the old congregation.

Longtime member Buddy Welch calls the new location a "wonderful blessing."

He met his wife Margaret at Forest Drive in 1978 and has been associated with the congregation ever since. The couple raised their three sons in the church, driving from their home in Sandy Run.

"We have a great opportunity there to reach people," said Welch, who, along with his wife, conducts seminars for young married couples.

"We're family, and location doesn't change that love and appreciation and respect we have for each other."

The master plan includes establishment of a child development center and, eventually, a Christian elementary school, along with a sports fields and programs.

The congregation already has been invited by Killian Elementary School to offer a voluntary Monday afternoon faith-based program as part of the federal 21st Century Learning Centers grant program.

It is that kind of spiritual connection that Thomas believes will intensify as the congregation's relationships with surrounding neighborhoods grow.

"At Forest Drive, we really weren't a neighborhood church, but with the move (to Longtown Road) we are one," he said. "We are constantly looking at ways to impact the community."