Jonathan Leftwich had just wrapped up his most exciting year of ministry at Fellowship Church at Plum Creek in 2019. The church in Kyle, Texas had been planting churches, had baptized 60 people that year and was poised for more.
But God had a change in mind.
In January 2020, God began stirring the hearts of Leftwich and his wife, Elizabeth, about Rockport, a coastal community where he had served as a youth minister 15 years before.
‘Something new in our hearts’
“It seemed like every day we were having a conversation with somebody in Rockport we hadn’t talked to in 15 years, and we just knew over the course of that month that God was doing something new in our hearts,” Leftwich said.
Just before the pandemic started, the Leftwiches traveled to Rockport and talked with people about a church plant.
“We talked to 12 different family units, and everybody said, ‘We’ve been praying about something like that for this town for several years. I know somebody right now that I would want to invite,’” Leftwich recounted. “It was a great affirmation to come down and plant.”
The Leftwiches and their four teen and preteen children made the move to Rockport in the summer of 2020, along with a family of four from Fellowship Church that wanted to help plant. Rockport is growing much more slowly than the town south of Austin they left, but “there’s a great need” for hope, Leftwich said.
“What we found is that a lot of people come to the coast to escape a problem,” he said. Just over 20,000 people live on the peninsula, but only a few thousand are in church on a Sunday morning. Also, Hurricane Harvey devastated Rockport, and though the town has been strong to rebuild, “there’s still a lot of hurt and pain.”
When Hope Church launched on Jan. 10, 2021, 167 people showed up. They averaged 132 people in January and by November had gained 100 people. They started with five small groups and by the fall had 10 adult small groups.
“We’ve just been trying to keep up with what God is doing over the course of the year,” Leftwich said.
Elizabeth Leftwich serves as the church’s part-time children’s director, and they have a part-time worship pastor and a full-time associate pastor. The church has already purchased six and a half acres of land for a future building. For now, they meet in a half-gym that they’re able to lease and use throughout the week.
“Something that is important to us is being out in the community,” Leftwich said, “so we had a Christmas Eve service on the beach.”
At the end of Rockport Beach is a Christmas light display that people all over the peninsula drive through, he said, so the church got permission to have a Christmas Eve service right in the middle of the light display.
“There’s nothing as easy as inviting people to the beach,” Leftwich said. “We told them we wanted them to remember what made Christmas special. We read the Christmas story. We sang Christmas carols.”
They estimate more than 350 people were at the Christmas Eve service, sitting on blankets and milling around.
“Our strategy has been that if there’s a town function, we want to be a part of it,” Leftwich said. “At one of the bigger football games, we had a tailgate party right outside the stadium. We’re not trying to come up with something new; we’re just trying to be where the town is.”
Hope Church had baptized 24 people in a local bay before the weather turned cold enough to make at least six more wait. “Even when we go out into the bay to baptize,” Leftwich said, “we have conversations with people that are there on the beach watching.”
Stories of changed lives abound:
- A young woman who had attempted suicide couldn’t escape the shame until she met Jesus at Hope Church, was set free from guilt and now has a reason to live.
- Another young woman saw herself in the story of the prodigal son and realized God was putting a ring on her finger and a robe around her back and calling her “daughter.”
- A couple had separated, but the husband started attending Hope Church and convinced his wife to go, too. Now they’re living together again, and the whole family attends on Sundays.
“Every church that exists right now at one point was planted by somebody who had a vision to reach an area with the gospel of Jesus,” Leftwich said. “In established churches, that vision is still the same, and there’s not a shortage of lost people.
“People need to respond to a vision and a calling to see an area that’s in need and figure out a way to reach those people with the gospel.”
Hope Church is considering a ministry to the shrimping and oyster boat business in Rockport. People leave on their boats at 6 a.m., and as far as Leftwich can tell, they are largely unreached. “We’re praying about being there at 5 a.m. when they show up to start prepping their boats to start praying with them.
“That’s the vision of church planting: Here’s a people that need Jesus. Let’s be the hands and feet that accomplish that,” Leftwich said. “Being a church planter has been the greatest leap of faith of our lives and the greatest feeling of fulfillment in following after Jesus and seeing him answer prayer and provide.”
EDITOR’S NOTE —This article was written by Jane Rodgers and first published by the Southern Baptist Texan, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.