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“Church Taking Root on Mississippi Coast”

By Grace Thornton

Brian Bridges photoAt hundreds of churches across the nation, when the main phone number rings, no one answers. But when you call the main number of West Bay Community Church in Waveland, Miss. — the number listed on the Web site — you don’t just get an answer.

You get Teaching Pastor Brian Bridges, on his cell phone, at the dress rehearsal of his daughters’ school play. Why? Because Bridges is serious about his church and his community. And it’s personal.

“We really want to engage the people here and provide people with a real church family,” he said.

So when he, his wife Karen and daughters Holly, 13, and Joni, 8, planted the church with the help of a few friends in January 2009, they did that the best way they knew how. They became family. They cooked hot dogs and invited the neighbors over.

They spruced up their new meeting place — the old First Baptist Church building, which sat empty since the congregation dispersed after Hurricane Katrina. They spent hours pulling back overgrown shrubbery, shaking hands with neighbors who came by to see what was going on.

They opened up the building every Friday to the home-school students of Waveland, a group that includes his daughters and draws in a myriad of people in the town.

“We have been able to connect across multiple areas (through the home-school meeting). There’s a NASA scientist, there are families who are local boat builders,” Bridges said.

And there are lots who don’t know what having a real church family is like, he added.

The first couple to join the church were previously divorced and felt unwelcome in church. Neither had darkened the door in ages — him, two decades; her, 12 years.

But the Bridges knocked on their door and invited them to a cookout, and Christ can work miracles over a grill, he explained. “They are now some of our most consistent members.”

“Brian and his family are out engaging the community, and folks are responding,” said Steve Mooneyham, associational missions director for the Gulf Coast Baptist Association. The church, Mooneyham noted, is making “a significant impact with young adult families in the area and filling a niche that was lacking in the community.”

The majority of the congregation are people who were formerly churched but “for whatever reason they haven’t attended church in a while,” Bridges said.

Bridges, his family and his church have gone door to door seeking out those folks — a method that’s proven effective — and they plan to do even more next year. For the pastor, it’s a passion for the place and its people.

Waveland was the weekend getaway of the Bridges family when they were in seminary in pre-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, and they had deep connections to the town, Bridges said. But they had no intention of moving there; in fact, they were pretty solidly heading to a church he’d been helping start in Georgia.

But then Katrina changed everything. It battered the Mississippi Coast, the Waveland community and Waveland’s First Baptist Church. And it battered Bridges’ heart.

“We felt that God wanted us to start rebuilding churches on the Gulf Coast, and we felt like it was the right time to start doing that,” he said. “So we did.”

He’s done much of it with the help of the Margaret Lackey State Mission Offering (MLSMO), which provides vital support for church plants like his in the state.

“We’re a direct benefit of that every month,” Bridges said. “You can imagine the myriad of things we would need to get this running and keep it running, and the offering provides that.”

The MLSMO has now become a year-round missions endeavor that is helping Mississippians learn about missions, pray for missions, give to missions and do missions.

It is used to fund church plants like West Bay Community Church as well as ministries such as Garaywa Camp and Conference Center, Central Hills, Disaster Relief, Literacy, Criminal Justice Ministries, Language-Ethnic Ministries, Christian Women’s Job Corps, Church Planting, Pastoral Benevolence, International Collegiate Ministry, Associational Mission Projects, and Volunteer Missionary Assistance. For more information about the MLSMO, visit http://www.mbcb.org/mission_strategy/missions.aspx.