ASHEVILLE — At first glance Pat Hand seems nothing like the itinerant evangelist he once was some 30 years ago. Walk into his office and you immediately get the feeling that this is no ordinary pastor.
From the African carvings on his floor to the pictures on his wall, this is a man who has been around the world and served in some of the most oppressive places on earth. When listening to this 54-year-old man, there is a sense that he has passed through many iterations of ministry and begins, in his words, “his last pastorate” with a certain sense of determination to finish well.
Many unexpected tributaries jut across the landscape of his life. From Canada to upstate New York, he has served churches separated from “Southern” religion with its accompanying stereotypes (both good and bad) of life in America’s southeast. He comes to Woodland Hills from Istrouma Baptist Church, a large Southern Baptist church in Baton Rouge, La., whose most famous pastor, Forrest Pollock, died in an airplane crash last year in North Carolina. When he first arrived in Asheville late last summer as the official candidate for the office of Woodland Hills’ senior pastor he immediately felt that “God had been strategically preparing this church for a bold leap forward — something which I sensed throughout the entire process with the search team,” Hand said.
“There was never any doubt in my mind that this church had made some critical decisions which placed it on a track to impact those outside its four walls, and I was quickly drawn to such a ministry.”
Normally such changes do not come easily to congregations in what Hand terms “a standard Southern Baptist church.” When pressed about his standardization of Southern Baptists, he is somewhat open about the fact that so many SBC churches seem to exist to reach other Baptists or run programs able to serve people like them through a certain conforming of outward forms into a “be like me pattern.”
In the 120 days he has served as Woodland Hills’ pastor, worship attendance has increased by over 100 and the church has already established a second worship service to accommodate new guests who arrive every week.
“Many of the young families who are new to our church are the children of Southern Baptists who left church after they left high school never wanting to return,” he said. Those children are now young adults with their own children and they begrudgingly “want to give church a second chance.”
Yet, Hand is noticing a clear pattern as he talks with this group of visitors: they want nothing to do with the worship services and ministry programs of their past. “Many feel as if what they grew up with made it easy to hide and masquerade real life issues,” he said.
In contrast, Hand is always quick to remind this generation of church drop-outs that what they left as teenagers can all too easily be replicated in their own lives if they aren’t careful.
“The same legalism and phoniness so many of them remember can become their own experience if they aren’t becoming better disciples of Jesus Christ,” Hand says. Here is where “we have missed it. Never are we instructed in the New Testament to simply preach for decisions or to make converts. We are called to make disciples and that is a very messy process — one I’m not quite sure most of us are willing to embrace.”
Hand sees a tension in Scripture — a radical obedience to Jesus that requires people to be holy even as God is holy and a compelling openness and willingness to intentionally be among lost people as an act of love to God for their souls and their eternal destiny.
“Unfortunately,” Hand says, “it takes time to get to know people and build relationships. And honestly, we just are a bit too good to be around people who are lost, who aren’t like us, who might offend us, who might cause us to be uncomfortable simply because in many ways we have abandoned the way Jesus evangelized.” As a pastor, he is learning to “enjoy people who are still trapped in sin.” Jesus made quite a statement when he “was publicly seen eating with sinners, and we must imitate Jesus.” Hand is quick to state, however, that engagement with the culture never allows the Christian to simply be with lost people without calling them to repentance at some point just as Jesus did. “Perhaps not immediately, but over time we must share the gospel with them,” he said.
When Hand speaks of the gospel he quickly sweeps through the entire Bible highlighting the acts of God planned from “before the foundation of the world which were done at precisely the right time by the right man — the God/man — so that a real relationship with God could be restored to sinners.” Hands sees the ongoing ministry of the gospel advancing through God’s greatest evangelistic tool — the church.
“When my wife and I were praying about where God would send us, we knew we wanted a church that was ready to move forward in a serious way to reach lost people and we only looked at churches with an elder system of church government,” he said. This would come as a shock to many Southern Baptists who view elders as a rare (even unbiblical) form of church government. He embraces the elder model because “there is safety among other counselors and men of God who are capable of bringing wisdom and insight into areas where I am not gifted or seeing things clearly.”
As for the city of Asheville with its high concentration of homosexuals, Wiccans and urbanites who have little regard for the church, Hand “loves the community because it is a mission field filled with people who care very little about Jesus or the gospel.” Of course, many could find it difficult to minister here.
“If all I want to do is tell homosexual jokes and speak of environmentalists as some sort of crazy people, then it is obvious that I do not love these people enough to care about how to reach out to them and seek to understand what is motivating them to sinfully act in the way they do,” he says. “I must biblically speak to their condition from a posture of humility as I too am a sinner in need of Jesus.” Hand’s challenge is just where to begin in a city filled with so many lost people.
For him, it starts by thinking like a missionary in his community. While attending a recent training session at the International Learning Center of the International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in Richmond, Va., Hand observed that the young people in their 20’s and 30’s who were training to go to countries across the world were “accommodating their dress and lifestyle to that of the people they were serving.” Hand wants that same missiological principle to be employed in Asheville at Woodland Hills. “Why don’t we think like those missionaries do?” he asks. “We should work to engage our culture with the gospel and not ask them to conform to us in ways which would cloud the gospel.”
Woodland Hills is a church changing almost daily, Hand says. There was a time not long ago when many thought the congregation was trapped in a death spiral certain to end up on the ash heap of Southern Baptist history. It seemed as though it could not break free of the inertia of nostalgia and resisted the necessary changes which had to take place in order to reach the lost in Asheville. Yet the church has undergone radical changes and is now on a path toward what Hand hopes will be a trajectory of growth. While shedding some of the most visible Southern Baptist identifiers, Hand is adamant the church remains a cooperating congregation in the “network of churches who cooperate together to actually do missions.”
Not shy about stating what to him is “obvious about the Southern Baptist Convention” he is, nevertheless, hopeful that the denomination can passionately re-invent itself “before it is too late.” He believes there is a short window of opportunity for something radical to take place in the SBC “before the apex of Cooperative Program giving is reached, followed by a steep and dramatic downturn in the denomination’s engine because younger pastors are not giving to the Cooperative Program.”
Hand is not sure Southern Baptists can recover if local churches do not reassert themselves as the primary agent of evangelism and discipleship. For him, church is not an event. He often reminds the congregation that they must not merely “do” church but they must “be” the church. “Without apology, we must recommit ourselves to a conservative theology with a progressive methodology that is able to connect with the lost people in our communities.” Absent that, Hand says, “we cannot expect the SBC or evangelicalism as we know it to last long beyond our lifetime.”
“The gospel must anchor this ministry, and I am hopeful that soon we can work to plant other churches to reach this city for Christ. I want this church to be known as a place where the gospel is real, the Bible is preached and disciples are made.”