"Planting Christ the King: Can Derek Bass Start a New Church?"
At our first meeting, Derek Bass leans in with a firm handshake, holding his gaze. Boyish at 37, with thin wire glasses and an un-tucked button-up over dark Levi’s, he would melt into any crowd of East Side academic hipsters. His voice is laced with the Texas drawl of his childhood: slow, deliberate and packed with hard r’s.
He was reluctant to talk to me, worried he’ll be made into a “caricature.” He gets anonymous hate emails from people who make assumptions about his beliefs, he says. He’s a regular guy, he assures me, just your average sinner. Like many, he has a wayward past littered with the shallow pursuits of football, weed, women and booze. But all of that was a long time ago.
Derek Bass is here in Providence on a mission: he has a church to plant.
Bass is the pastor of Christ the King church (CTK), an evangelical, gospel-driven church plant making roots in Providence and after two years of groundwork behind the scenes CTK is ready to go public. As of the fall of 2013, CTK has held four free events and two introductory church services. The church’s mission is called “The Providence Project” and is funded mainly by the NETS Institute for Church Planting, a Vermont-based nonprofit organization that, in their words “mobilizes and equips seminary graduates to plant churches in New England and beyond through gospel proclamation.” Through a combination of grassroots fundraising nationwide and organizational support through NETS, The Providence Project has a budget of over $150,000, which includes pastor Derek Bass’s salary.
The city of Providence is considered a strategic location, due to its diverse population and high concentration of college students. In NETS’ 2011 prospectus of the Providence Project, the city is described as “spiritually parched” and in great need of evangelical teaching, since less than 2% of the population describes themselves as “born again”. In fact, according the research at NETS, the city of Providence is the least evangelical in the nation. But, with a church plant in place, the Institute envisions the transformation of “rebels into worshipers.”
Followers of Christian evangelicalism adhere to a strict reading of the Bible. The National Association of Evangelicals identifies four characteristics of evangelicalism:
- The belief that lives need to be transformed through a "born-again" experience and a life long process of following Jesus.
- The expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts.
- A high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority.
- A stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.
* * *
Over the last two years, Bass and a team of fifteen volunteers whom he calls his “core members” haverecruited primarily in the Summit neighborhood, a residential area of classic bungalows and multi-family homes on Providence’s East Side, bordering Pawtucket at the end of Blackstone Boulevard. Home to a mixture of families and college students, tree-lined Summit has seen revitalization over the last decade, as restaurants and artsy shops thrive, catering to its well-educated, prosperous neighbors. The Summit Neighborhood Association has practically reinvented itself into a hip party-planning committee, holding summer concerts in Lippitt Park and bake-offs at the local favorite Seven Stars bakery. Summit has seen a baby boom, too, with stroller traffic at an all-time high at the farmer’s market on Saturday. Providence now has its own Park Slope.
Since this past spring, CTK has gotten the word out about their church by holding four free events to the public in Providence. On March 30th CTK held an Easter egg hunt and on June 29th, they organized a movie night (they showed the animated children’s film Despicable Me), both in Lippitt Park. On August 10th, they organized a “block party” cookout that was held on the athletic fields at Hope High School. In addition, on August 7th they held a day of public service in the Elmwood community. Partnering with another church, CTK volunteered to help repair benches and fences in the Peace and Plenty Community Park, a park located between Elmwood and Broad streets.
But some of the responses to these kick-off events -- especially the kid-centric ones held in Lippitt Park -- have been less than neighborly. On the Summit neighborhood email listserv, typically a benign informational forum highlighting contractor references and the fine art of sidewalk shoveling, the conversation turned to culture-war skirmishes: church vs. state, CTK’s stance on gay marriage, and so on. Residents wondered if CTK could legally hold events at Lippitt Park (they can) and if CTK was a progressive church supportive of a post-DOMA United States (they’re not).
And then came the emails, which Bass shared with me:
"I don't know how you got my email address, but I don't ever want to receive another message from you or anyone you're affiliated with."
“Take your holy rolling homophobia back to the 19th century, thanks.”
"I've got a great idea...Why don't you and your army of leaflet droppers piss off and stop dropping unwanted flyers all over the East Side and Pawtucket. Fuck off or I will report your organization as disturbing the peace, you fucking bible thumping degenerates."
Ever the optimist, Bass refuses to “look like a martyr.” He is quick to point out that he has received his share of thanks, too. People were appreciative of his events, even if they didn’t necessarily believe in his mission, he says. When he and I discuss some of the negative local reactions, he sighs.
“We’re not here to get involved with the political system [and] we’re not here to take over the schools,” he says. “God called us here to start a new church. What I hope for is more conversation. Not screaming across the aisle.”
Bass has tempered his expectations over time, adopting a very un-Texas pragmatism, a more New England “so it goes” approach that helps us survive the long winters and news out of the General Assembly. He speaks about “uphill battles” and “long hauls” with a shrug, almost in resignation. At one point, he politely asks about my religious background. When I tell him I’ve been an atheist since a young age, he leans back, purses his lips, and lets out a short, quizzical “Huh…” sounding more like a man worried about a leaky faucet than a lost soul.
* * *
The act of Christian church planting in the United States is not a new strategy. In fact, it’s as old as the Republic itself. Dr. Robert Barry, Director of the theology program at Providence College considers Roger Williams’ founding of Baptist churches in Rhode Island as the first intentional churches in this country, beginning with Providence’s First Baptist Church, founded in 1638.
“[Since] there never was a state-sanctioned church in Rhode Island,” Dr. Barry told me via email, “any church (usually Baptist) that came to be would be, de-facto, a “planted” church.”
Barry also cites the westward expansion of Methodist churches in the early 1800’s as an example of church planting. But for a new church in an urban setting, there’s much more competition for members, especially in a state like Rhode Island where more than half of residents indentify as members of the Catholic faith (according to Gallup, 52% of Rhode Islanders are Catholics).
While local in its intentions, The Providence Project is part of a larger mission. Today, New England church planting is a movement all its own; the reach and influence of NETS is growing. By using the Internet for funding, training and recruitment, NETS is zeroing in on traditionally liberal, educated, financially well-to-do areas of the country that were once written off by evangelicals as unreachable. The organization now has a church plant in every New England state, a total of seven church plants in all, each in different stages of operation. The Boston plant named Redeemer Fellowship Church (where Derek’s brother Chris is pastor) has an average attendance of 100, while the “Hartford Project” in Connecticut isn’t slated to launch until 2015. Small numbers, to be sure, but NETS’ mission is still in its infancy and the organization is driven to spread the gospel to New England. (NETS Institute for Church Planting did not respond to my multiple requests for comment).
Church plant training at NETS is typically a two-year residency program that includes working as a staff member at a local church, preaching regularly and getting feedback on, what Bass describes as, “application of the gospel” to church members. In basic terms, “the gospel” is the teaching of Christ; the word gospel is a translation of the Greek noun euangelion, meaning “good news.” Derek Bass spent double the time at NETS practicing and refining his delivery of the gospel, working with NETS for four years. First, he finished his doctoral dissertation in his first year and stayed on longer to work as a pastor, which required another three-year commitment.
“By getting to minister in a solid and growing New England church for four years,” he told me, via email, “we came away better equipped to start new work in Providence.”
Even still, church planting is an expensive, risky proposition. Providence College’s Dr. Barry suggests that, for a church plant like CTK to make it in today’s world, it all rests on “the dynamism of an individual evangelical leader. [That’s] the key to the success of such a church-planting.” But in Derek Bass, NETS might have its best messenger.
Born and raised in Houston, Bass grew up attending a non-denominational church where “there wasn’t much talk about Jesus.” While attending Charleston Southern University on a football scholarship, the young freshman was deeply influenced by his born-again brother, Chris.
“I watched God change my brother’s life, yet morally my life was spiraling out of control,” he said.
Bass goes on to tell me a seemingly-fantastical tale. He was about to set up a deal for weed -- even considering to deal it himself -- and the second before he picked up the phone, it started to ring. His brother Chris was on the other line.
“God told me to call you,” Bass says his brother said.
Several months later, at nineteen years old, he converted to Christianity and began an intense study of the gospel.
A few years later, Bass connected with an inner city Baptist church in South Carolina, the now-defunct Joy Baptist Church, and began working alongside a pastor named Darrell Coulter. Coulter became a mentor to Bass and schooled him on the tenets of church planting.
Joy Baptist was a church plant widely seen as a great success of its time, using a strategy called Intentional Community Evangelism or “ICE”, a boots-on-the-ground approach to church planting and missionary work. On their website, the South Carolina Baptist Convention writes that the ICE strategy was originally developed by the North American Mission Board [and it] “combines prayer, evangelism, discipleship, coaching and neighborhood events to engage entire communities.”
During his time at Joy Baptist, Coulter shared stories involving this strategy for saving the lost, including a homeless teenage couple – which Coulter described as suicidal -- living under bridge.
“We blanketed the tri-county area with people with a passion for souls,” Coulter told a reporter at that time. “We’re just nobodies trying to tell everybody about somebody who can love anybody.”
Alongside Coulter, Derek Bass was a quick study. At Joy Baptist and beyond, he started preaching the gospel as an associate pastor, quickly developing a strong reputation as an effective, persuasive teacher. He had found his calling at 21 years old.
Ministry followed in 1999 at a Fort Worth seminary. Four years later, he traveled to Kentucky to study Greek and Hebrew. He met his wife Elizabeth, marrying in 2005. He and Elizabeth started a family, eventually having four kids in six years. At the close of his residency in Vermont, he huddled with his wife and the leaders at NETS to choose where he would plant his church. Bass had no real conditions, except for one: He wanted a challenge.
* * *
On a Sunday evening in mid-September, I attended CTK’s “preview service”, the church’s first official sermon open to the public. It was held in Hope High School’s theater production area, located in the basement of the school. CTK’s set-up was sparse: the low wooden stage held little more than a screen projector, a stool, a couple of microphone stands and a small table in the back holding a stack of silver plates, a jug and small loaf of bread -- the materials for communion.
When I arrived, I went to sit in the back, but an usher directed me to the front.
“We want to fill in the front rows first,” he said.
Within a minute of sitting, a man in front of me turned around and introduced himself as John from West Warwick. He gave me a handshake and asked if I was “part of the movement.” When I told him I was writing about CTK for the Phoenix, he was curious about the publication. He had never heard of it. When I asked him why he was there, he said it was nice to see something different happening and that CTK was “needed”. Also, his son, Jay worked for NETS in Vermont and was playing the music.
Soon after, Jay took the stage. With his black hair, scruffy beard and Taylor guitar, he looked like a shorter version of Dave Matthews. In a husky voice, he began to read a prayer over warm open chords. The congregation rose. Consisting of about 50 people, it was primarily a white audience. The age range was more mixed, from young people in their early 20’s and 30’s to middle-aged couples and older. On the stage, Jay strummed along as the words to a well-known, modern Christian song called “In Christ Alone” projected on the screen:
In Christ alone, my hope is found, He is my light, my strength, my song; this cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm. What heights of love, what depths of peace, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease. My comforter, my all in all, here in the love of Christ I stand.
The background display on which the words appeared was jarring; a bleak smear of dark greens, tans and black, an almost apocalyptic landscape with the image of a blood red anchor emerging from the muck. The scene deviated from the brightness of the evening’s promotional postcard showing a Rhode Island flag waving under sunshine and blue sky. (CTK likes to include themes and imagery of the Ocean State in their communications; lots of hope and anchors.)
Most of CTK’s branding, including their stylish website and logo is developed by Church Plant Media, a company of young web developers, art directors, and coders dispersed around the country, self-described as “a group of believers who love Jesus [and] focus all of our efforts on developing a web solution that serves the mission of the local church.” Their website includes a “gospel agreement” outlining their beliefs, including a special place for Genesis 2:21-25, cited regularly as the Bible’s definition of traditional marriage (one man and one woman).
The song came to a close and Bass took the stage. The title of his sermon was “A Certain Hope: What Anchors Your Life in the Midst of So Much Uncertainty?” Bass kicked it off by thanking affiliated churches, specifically singling out Sacred Journey and Renaissance, two Providence churches located on the South Side and Reservoir neighborhoods respectively. Bass described to me as sharing the same “kingdom-mindedness” to spread the gospel, explaining that CTK does not exist in a vacuum. His team receives help with their events from these other local organizations, he says, and Bass, in turn, has preached to their congregations. Bass is CTK’s only employee and he works with a number of volunteers.
Via email, I spoke to one of CTK’s volunteers; 25-year-old Chad Bowditch. A New Jersey native, Bowditch spent years drifting around the country. He studied film in Grand Rapids, then traveled to Iowa to work as a door-to-door book salesman, lost all of his money and eventually ended up in Providence in 2011 as an AmeriCorps volunteer (AmeriCorps is a government-sponsored year of public service). He ran after-school programs in Providence and began attending a church in Attleboro, Massachusetts. One day at a gas station, he saw an ad for CTK on the gas pump and decided to join in the cause.
“I've been to a number of churches and have felt frustrated when strife or division occurs in the church,” he said, hoping CTK will be different. “I don’t have a defined role. I’m just happy to live as a member of the community, and serve in whatever capacity the church needs. ”
At the service, Bass began reading from a prepared text, rocked on his heels and spoke with his hands. He seemed comfortable, if a little breathless at times. Overall, his delivery was measured, pleading, with no fire-and-brimstone histrionics. In a sense, Bass has spent this past year in a constant plea with his new community. It’s no accident that the website URL he chose for CTK reads as thisischristtheking.org, as opposed to “ctkprovidence”, “wearectk” or any other number of more inclusive choices. That declarative This is serves as a window into Bass’s need to explain himself, always tending his mission to plant.
In our earlier discussion, Bass lamented that the word “evangelical”had become a loaded term and was “tainted,” though tainted by whom or what he didn’t say. When I suggested that Christian leaders and politicians have similarly tainted the word “liberal” -- a designation I suggested many in his chosen neighborhood would identify with -- he quickly spoke over me, as if to bury the suggestion as a dead false equivalency, unwilling to quibble over semantics.
So what does the future look like for Christ the King? And what would qualify as a success story for this fledgling church? How many members would he need?
“Success right now would mean our core group of individuals growing to the point of being able to hold weekly services,” he told me via email. “Ideally that would mean growing to around 35-50 in our core. […] To be self-sufficient, 200-300 members might put us in a position to then be looking at starting a new work in another area”
Bass predicts could take ten years for CTK to reach these goals. But if it fails, there are cushy teaching jobs at Christian universities to fall back on (Bass holds a PhD in Old Testament Literature). If anything is certain, he’s not in this church-planting business for the money. He’s here to do the job God sent him here to do.
But what does he want from us, the people of Providence and beyond? Asking Bass direct questions like this invites long, multi-layered answers that dovetail through Bible verses, history and pronouncements that, to the non-religious ear sound like a language born of a distant planet. It’s a puzzle of words, but when pieced together, the answer reveals itself as a simple request: Just hear me out.
Our interview was over. My phone was burning hot from recording our two and a half hour conversation. Shaking hands and stepping out into the blazing August afternoon, I felt dazed, blinded under a cloudless sky. People all around us were rushing, rushing, getting to wherever as fast as they could. Bass and I stood for a quiet moment, watching the bustle. Would they listen the good news? I wondered. Would they even hear it?