History of SMBC, 1: The Decision to Plant a Church

The elders have asked me to put together some reminiscences of the early years of Signal Mountain Bible Church.  How did we get here?  I’ll use this blog to tell part of my story; also, we have captured some video-interviews with our long-time members (which we plan to make available).  In addition, our sermon series, Church 101, will describe the New Testament plan for the church, with the rationale for some of our SMBC distinctives embedded in our teaching of various topics.

Here’s how it all started for me and Betsy.  In 1984 I was chairman of the Bible Department at Bryan College.  Two Signal Mountain residents, both Chattanooga businessmen, approached me about starting a Bible-teaching church on Signal Mountain.  They said that they and other people who wanted more of a teaching-oriented church were going off-mountain, and asked if I could help them start a local church.  I think they called me because they knew I was from Chattanooga (one was Jim Cooley, whom I had known most of my life) and they knew that Betsy was from Signal Mountain (we were married at Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church).

I said no.  I was happy in the college classroom and academic administration (I was soon asked to become the Vice-President for Academics at the college).  In fact, one thing I knew: I would never be a pastor—I was so certain that in seminary I never took any of the “pastoral” courses.  I wished these men well, and told them I would look around for someone who might help with a church plant.  I did talk with a few people, including other faculty members, but no one I talked to connected with the vision.  So I basically forgot about it. 

Maybe eight or nine months later, my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Dad came out of the surgery well.  (In fact, the doctor said he was surprised—there was a cavity where the tumor had been, but no tumor.  It’s clear to me that God healed my father.)  While I was helping Dad in a slow recovery, God softened my heart.  He taught me that I needed to look beyond the classroom to the waiting room and the emergency room to understand what “ministry” really is. 

A couple of months later, in summer of 1985, to my surprise those same two men called me again, and asked me to pray with them about the church plant.  This time I was open, and so we met and talked.  They told me that a Bible-teaching church was needed and eagerly anticipated.  They also told me that they had talked with many people on the mountain and they knew who was coming: the first Sunday we would have about 50 people, the second Sunday as word spread, maybe 200, and then go on from there and call a pastor.  Their plan sounded good to me.  (Yes, I was very naïve about the logistics and struggles of planting a church.) 

And here's something I did not know but found out later.  Both of the men who approached me were committed Southern Baptists, and they assumed that the fledgling church would become a Southern Baptist church.  That detail was never mentioned to me.

So I pledged six weeks to six months to help them get going.  I have now been the interim supply pastor for well over 34 years (don’t tell anyone).  But here’s the rest of the story that was going on with the Phillips family: in addition to my teaching and administrative roles at the college, from 1980-1986 I traveled about 65% of all weekends teaching Walk-Thru-The-Bible (WTB) Seminars in Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, New York, Texas, Utah, New Mexico—almost everywhere, really, in the United States.  I was sent by WTB to a different city most weekends (and had a lot of opportunities to share the Gospel on airplanes).  But I was tired of the travel, and wanted to be home with my family.  I had always worked two jobs so that Betsy could stay home with our children (a choice we made), but it would be nice if the Lord provided a ministry that was local and didn’t involve travel—even if only for a few weeks.  However, after we started meeting as a church I continued to do the WTB seminars that first year; I just had to make sure my return flights got me back home Saturday night. 

This is critical: when Betsy and I met with those two men and their wives in a restaurant in the summer of 1985, I opened my pocket testament to Ephesians 4 to make sure we were agreed on the “job description” of the church.  In sum, that passage makes clear the role of the pastor-teacher: he is “to equip the saints” with the Word of God so that the church members can “do the work of the ministry,” which is “the building up of the Body of Christ.”  This passage also makes clear that, according to Scripture, God’s plan is for the body of Christ to generate its own growth (see Ephesians 4:11-16).  This happens when we are “equipped” from Scripture on how to THINK and how to LIVE, and as a result we fulfill the “one another’s” of God’s word.  The outcome is that the local church becomes a visible manifestation of Jesus Christ—His love, grace, and salvation—to a confused, but watching, world. 

Over the dinner table, this understanding of the local church was enthusiastically received.  And so, in a few weeks, we began.  It was October, 1985.