By SHELLY WILKISON
Twenty years ago, a group of Liberty Hill Baptists decided to form a new church. Believing in things unseen they bravely named themselves after one of the oldest of Christian traditions — Fellowship.
Through many phases of evolution, the congregation of Fellowship Church will celebrate two decades of worship at 10 a.m. Sunday, with dinner on the grounds and a remembrance service to follow.
“Fellowship started like a lot of small town churches start — when there was a disagreement and there was some faithful who stepped outside and decided they wanted to begin a new work,” said Pastor Michael Wright.
Wright was called as Fellowship’s pastor nine years ago.
The church was started by 27 members of the former First Baptist Church of Liberty Hill. They left that congregation and started meeting in homes for bible study, also at the historic Masonic Lodge building downtown and the elementary school.
Wright said after some time, the original members pooled their money and purchased the old white church building at 811 Loop 332. Currently home to The Grove Church, that building 20 years ago housed a woodworking business.
According to stories that appeared in The Independent in March 1997 at the time of the purchase, the white church building was built in 1903. It was home to First Baptist Church for 87 years until that congregation moved to the church building on State Highway 29, which is now home to Life Springs Church.
The original members of Fellowship called the Rev. Don Gurney as their first pastor. At the time, Gurney had retired from Main Street Baptist Church in Georgetown. He served two and one-half years as pastor at Fellowship.
Wright said the church went through many changes and experienced its share of struggle in the years prior to Wright’s arrival in July 2007.
As Fellowship’s longest-serving pastor, Wright has been instrumental in the growth of the church and guided the congregation to involve itself in ministries and help those in need far beyond the church house now on RR 1869.
“There were only 60 in church when I got here, and my responsibility was to take that group of faithful and do what God called us to do,” he said. “We started praying.
“We started praying for servants to show up at church. God was faithful because within a couple months, we were at over 100, and within the first year, we were over 200,” he said. By comparison, Wright says that in 2016, the attendance for Sunday morning worship ranges from 450-500.
Wright said within a short time of his arrival nine years ago, the youth and children’s ministries “exploded” as more people were moving to Liberty Hill drawn by quality schools. The average age of Fellowship’s membership began to drop and the church was reaching across the generations. Wright said the average age today is “in the 30s.”
Wright, who is a Commander with the City of Austin’s Emergency Medical Service, said his first challenge as Fellowship’s pastor was to complete the construction of the current church building. Before he arrived, the congregation had purchased the land on RR 1869 and started construction on the building, but the church “had run into problems,” he said.
“The money started drying up and it was a difficult time for the church. It had to focus on being healthy, not the building, which was a good decision at the time,” he said.
With some experience in construction, Wright supervised the completion of the church building within his first six months on the job and received the Certificate of Occupancy from the City in November 2007.
“We had already sold the white church building, so we had our first service on a Wednesday night in the parking lot here,” he recalled. “And 12 people gave their lives to Jesus that night.”
Wright said God opened all the doors so that his family could be positioned to accept the call to serve in Liberty Hill.
While he was working full-time at Austin EMS, the Wrights were living in Georgetown and were active members of Crestview Baptist Church. He said he participated in a mission trip to Russia in 2004, and it was there at an orphanage where they were working that he heard the call from God to enter the ministry.
So at age 39, Wright went back to college to pursue an education in theology, and began preaching at various churches in central Texas filling in for pastors as needed.
He and his wife, Christina, had already planned to move their family to Liberty Hill because of the schools.
“This church called me to preach one Sunday,” he said. “I thought everything went really well, but I didn’t hear back for six weeks. I thought I had made someone mad, but they were having a lot of internal struggles.”
Wright said one day he received another invitation to return to Liberty Hill, and his visits became more frequent as the former pastor moved on. After some time, the search committee asked him to serve as interim pastor.
“It was kind of hurtful because it meant ‘you’re an okay guy, but you’re not right for us’,” Wright laughed. Within weeks, the offer was made permanent.
“Funny thing was that I didn’t meet one requirement for the job,” he said. “I didn’t have the education they required, had zero experience as a senior pastor and the only preference I met was that they preferred someone who was married.”
Wright said it was a unanimous vote.
Since that time, he has earned two master’s degrees and is a third-year doctoral student.
In two years, Wright said he will be eligible to retire from the City of Austin, but working with EMS is what inspires him as a pastor.
“People call us on their worst day,” he said. “That’s what helps me keep the foot on the gas pedal here because the world out there needs a relationship with the Lord.”
Caring for community
Through the years, Fellowship has given generously to help care for families from Liberty Hill to India, and across the globe.
Wright says everyone in the community, whether members or not, should recognize Fellowship as the safety net, regardless of one’s position in life.
He added that the church is still the primary contributor to Operation Liberty Hill. Additionally, it hosts an after-school program for children who might otherwise go home to an empty house.
The church also contributes to the construction of clean water wells in India. The generous giving of Fellowship families has provided fresh water to 37,500 people from 25 wells in India, he said.
The church has also come to the aid of tornado victims in Alabama, and supported mission teams in Arlington, Alaska, Uganda, Turkey and other countries.
“We tithe as a church,” Wright said, adding that 10 percent of what it collects in tithes is in turn distributed among other charities.
Wright noted that the words “fellowship” and “community” share the same Greek root word. “Fellowship was the most appropriate name for this body of believers,” he said.
To reach Spanish speakers in the area, the church added a Spanish-speaking pastor, Angel Perez, last year. Church services are offered in Spanish and Perez is visiting Spanish-speaking families in the community and bringing them to church.
Wright said Fellowship’s ability to minister to the community’s large Spanish-speaking population has been significant in the life of the church.
“I believe we should continue to be so vital to the community that the community would mourn and the leadership would protest if we were to close our doors,” Wright said.
A new identity
“The fact that man has divided God’s church into denominations can’t set well with God,” Wright said. “What denominationalism ultimately represent is division in the church.”
Formed as Fellowship Baptist Church 20 years ago, Wright said he removed the denomination from the church’s name after realizing that it might be keeping some away.
He said when he learned that the husband of a woman he had recently brought into the church wouldn’t attend because of its Baptist affiliation, he removed the word himself from the church sign.
“I left the gym, drove to the house, got my toolbox, drove to that sign and unbolted the word Baptist from the sign,” he said.
Wright said he told the church that, “We can’t identify ourselves as Baptists. We are Christians, not Baptists. If that denominational link is keeping people from being here, we have to get rid of it, and we did.”
He said some of the traditions of the Baptist denomination were dropped from the order of service at Fellowship, but those who identify with the Baptist church still feel comfortable there.
A voice in a world divided
Wright isn’t one to shy away from communicating his beliefs, regardless of the popularity of his views.
At a time when the country seems divided, when anger and hateful words are taking precedence over issues in the race for the highest seat in government, Wright says Christians are seeking guidance from the church.
While he admits he is “sickened by this election cycle” and has advised Fellowship members to “stop paying so much attention because it’s a distraction from what we should be doing,” he is encouraging members and anyone else who asks to vote pro-life. In his view, it’s the “only real issue” that should drive believers at the polls. Wright adds that “pro-life” isn’t just a position on abortion — it’s also about the end of life. He says brain-injured adults are “passively euthanized” as part of living wills or in the absence of living wills.
“If we vote pro-life, we have to believe that God will honor that vote regardless of who that (candidate) is,” he said. “If one is more (pro-life) than the other, then we can stop our decision-making there. If we are allowing people to kill people around us, we shouldn’t have the expectation that God is going to bless this country at all. That’s the number one and only real issue.”
Wright said his position, which he believes is “Jesus’ position” on abortion, is the position of Fellowship Church. The church gives generously to organizations like the Pregnancy Help Center of Williamson County, and at one time started a pregnancy help center in Liberty Hill.
Wright says Fellowship has lost a few parishioners over his position on abortion, but he doesn’t apologize for that view. Ultimately, he says, the church has gained more from his work to promote the pro-life movement than what it may have lost.
Wright said in the primary election, he “campaigned against (Donald) Trump in the pulpit” and at the National Day of Prayer event at Lions Foundation Park. There were other Republican Primary presidential candidates who were stronger on the pro-life issue.
“I’m not telling people who to vote for now. Instead, I tell them to ask themselves, ‘do we believe his (Trump’s) seeking forgiveness is real?’ And everyone has to decide that on their own,” he said, adding that he receives email daily from parishioners asking for help figuring out how to vote.
Wright believes Fellowship Church has an important role to play in the community, beyond its primary mission to bring souls to Christ.
Wright and the church became involved in city council elections several years ago. He said the church hosted candidate forums, primarily promoted among business leaders, with the hope that it would improve communication with city government. He said the year Fellowship and other churches became involved in city council elections resulted in the highest turnout to date.
“I think it was because we were inspiring people to get involved,” he said.
Since that time, Wright’s involvement in local politics has diminished because he said he has more confidence in city leadership now and current elected officials.
Growing from here
Church planners say when 80 percent of the seats in the worship service are filled on most Sundays, then the facility is full. At Fellowship, that has been the case consistently for some time. On Wednesday nights, every classroom is full with bible study groups. What was built years ago for $120,000 as a multi-use facility on 14 acres stays occupied seven days a week.
Wright says church leaders are considering a building program to add more usable space onto the existing campus.
The church commissioned a Next Steps Assessment from Strategic Church Solutions of Georgetown. The organization is conducting surveys of church members, and looking at programming and use of facilities to develop a facility needs plan.
Wright said it was important to step back and hear from a third party, and he expects to see recommendations in December.
Wright said planning for the future also includes ideas on how the church can better connect to a growing community. When exploring building and expansion options, he said the establishment of satellite churches is part of the discussion.
He said generally, the recommendation is that a satellite church be 15 minutes from the main campus. While today, a 15-minute drive would end in another town, Wright anticipates that fast growth in the school district may soon change that.
He said the original design of the current church building, which was meant to serve multiple uses, was only built for 200 capacity. In 2010, the church added a second floor to it for classrooms.
He also noted that the original design didn’t include a baptistry. Wright said it was because there were only one or two baptisms a year then. But as baptisms became more frequent, a parishioner donated a $1,500 portable baptistry, which Wright refers to as the “hot tub on wheels.” He said so far this year, more than 50 have been baptized.
How the church body has coped with challenges through the years is an important part of its evolving story.
After problems in 2012 led to an exodus of 70 members, Wright said church leaders put better systems in place to ensure transparency. He described the situation as the most painful time, but prayer changed everything.
“We had a rough time,” he said, remembering business meetings with church elders, “but the Lord spoke to me and said we were off track.”
Now, every business meeting starts with about two hours of prayer as leaders take a page from the membership directory and pray over every person.
“It changed everything for us when we took the focus off business and put it on prayer,” he said.
“We look at those (challenges) as opportunities to improve, not reasons to cower. We want to do better for our community,” he continued.
While the church celebrates faith and fellowship this weekend, Wright said it’s the future that’s important.
“Really, the last 20 years don’t actually matter,” Wright said. “It’s what we do from here.”