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Southern Baptist population booms in Panhandle

August 26, 1998

Baptist ChurchBy KERRY LYNN FRALEY / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer [enlarge]




MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Southern Baptists have taken a lot of heat this summer for a statement of faith adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in June that says women should "submit graciously" to their husbands.

But the public controversy and criticism the statement sparked hasn't affected the evangelical church's appeal in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, said the pastors of fast-growing Southern Baptist congregations in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.

Efforts to recruit followers have been so successful that they need new buildings to accommodate overflowing attendance at worship services and Christian education classes, pastors said.

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Attendance at Sunday worship services and Sunday School classes generally falls a bit in the summer, said the Rev. Johnny A. Kelly, pastor of Westview Baptist Church.

But it hasn't slacked enough this summer to offset dynamic growth in the Martinsburg church's membership. Kelly had to add a second Sunday worship service and Sunday School teachers have to use his and other church offices as makeshift classrooms.

"It's a good problem. We're not complaining," said Kelly, who hopes to see part of the space crunch solved this fall with the construction of a roughly 4,800-square-foot addition.

Building a new worship center that can seat at least 300 people will hopefully follow within three years, he said.

Meanwhile, if growth continues at the current rate, Kelly said he could be forced to add a third worship service.

Westview Baptist Church, formed in 1965 by 76 members of First Baptist Church in Martinsburg, now has 374 registered members, he said.

The church is one of a growing number of expanding Southern Baptist churches in the Eastern Panhandle and neighboring areas, said Jim Carpenter, associational missionary for the Tri-County Baptist Association.

Since he arrived in October 1996, the association has grown from nine churches and two missions to 10 churches and six missions, Carpenter said.

A new church starts as a mission, focusing on building membership before worrying about a church building, he said.

Like Westview Baptist Church, most of the congregations are relatively small but growing, Carpenter said.

Covenant Baptist Church, just outside Shepherdstown, W.Va., on Flowing Springs Road, is an exception, he said.

Thought to be the largest Southern Baptist congregation in the state, Covenant Baptist Church has experienced growth since 1986, when it started with seven families meeting in a basement, said Senior Pastor Ron Larson.

Taking an innovative, contemporary approach to worship that appeals to nonchurchgoers, the church has steadily grown to about 1,200 active members and an average Sunday attendance of 1,000, Larson said.

It has been able to maximize its too-small space by adding more worship services - it will go to five in September - and having classes at four different times on Sundays, he said.

The church is trying to raise funds needed for a planned $6 million construction project, including a worship center, a Christian school and a multipurpose building, Larson said.

By utilizing volunteer labor from other Southern Baptist churches, Westview Baptist should be able to get the addition done for a little less than the $160,000 members have pledged, Kelly said.

Mirroring an educational wing added to the other side of the church in 1975, the addition will include a choir room, a large kitchen and a 3,200-square-foot room that will be used for fellowship and divided for Sunday School classes, he said.

The Martinsburg Planning Commission granted conditional approval to the construction plans earlier this month, according to City Planner Michael M. Covell.

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