Jeremy Westbrook: Covenant community a living hope in nominalist Marysville
When Jeremy Westbrook sensed the call to plant a church in Central Ohio, he didn’t know exactly where the Lord was calling him. When Dublin Baptist Church in Dublin, Ohio, wanted to plant a church in nearby Marysville, they didn’t know who to call. When a missions director connected Westbrook to Dublin eight years ago, “my where met their who,” the Southern Seminary alumnus recalls.
Westbrook was on staff at Kirby Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, when he entered the Doctor of Ministry program at Southern Seminary in 2007. Recognizing Westbrook’s calling to plant a church 35 miles north of Columbus, Ohio, Kirby Woods and Dublin established a church planting covenant in February 2008 to support the work of Living Hope Church.
“I grew up in a Southern Baptist culture in Memphis, in the backyard of Adrian Rogers, and now I moved to a place like Marysville where there’s many church buildings but not much proclamation of the gospel,” said Westbrook, who was raised by his grandparents in the neighborhood of Rogers’ Bellevue Baptist Church. “We’ve seen countless people walk through these doors and hear the true gospel for the first time and repent of their sins and put their faith in Christ. There’s a lot of nominal religion here, but not true faith.”
Indeed, when Westbrook launched Living Hope on Easter Sunday 2009, there was only one Southern Baptist church for every 22,000 people in Central Ohio. In Tennessee, where Westbrook was born and raised, there is one SBC church for every 2,000 people. Southern Baptists are so rare in the Columbus area that when Living Hope held one of its first car wash events, Westbrook says a woman offered him cash to “go back south” when she learned the church’s denomination.
Since Living Hope Church opened its doors six years ago, the church has flourished with nearly 200 baptisms and attendance reaching as high as 500. This is “unbelievable,” Westbrook says, in a rural town known mostly for its Honda manufacturing plant and high rates of heroin use and teen pregnancy.
Westbrook planted Living Hope while completing his D.Min. under the supervision of Adam W. Greenway, now the dean of the seminary’s Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry. Westbrook’s doctoral thesis, “Developing and implementing a church membership covenant for Living Hope Church, Marysville, Ohio,” set the blueprint for how he has combated the nominalism of the town’s residents, many of whom were raised in Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant churches.
“Upon joining a local body of believers, the Bible clearly teaches one is entering into a covenantal relationship with God and one another,” Westbrook writes in his thesis. “Membership in a local church level ought to mean more than membership at the local country club.”
Covenantal church membership, Westbrook says, is an avenue for evangelistic engagement when prospective church members realize that they are not genuine Christians. During membership classes at Living Hope, Westbrook distributes information sheets and provides church covenant statements on which the prospective members are to write out the story of their conversion and baptism.
“We’re striving to engage every single member to be attending, worshiping, giving sharing, serving, discipling, and multiplying,” Westbrook said. “We’re trying to move our membership into discipleship, away from just a Sunday morning gathering but engaging each other throughout the week.”
In addition to fostering a covenant community in Marysville, Westbrook has sought to “tithe” his membership — moving discipleship into church planting in Central Ohio. In 2014, Living Hope sent out its first two missionaries and planted LifeSpring Church in Worthington, Ohio, a larger suburb 10 miles north of Columbus.
Westbrook serves as the vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference, and his success as a church planter has afforded him the opportunity to travel and speak to pastors and churches across the country. He also partners with SEND Columbus, the North American Mission Board’s church planting initiative for the metro area. His involvement with SEND and his board leadership at Stowe Mission of Central Ohio has strengthened the networking relationships with fellow SBC church planters and ministers in Columbus.
His denominational leadership and presence at the 2015 Southern Baptist Convention in downtown Columbus, including a speaking engagement at the Crossover evangelism event, will hopefully raise awareness for reaching the lost in the city, Westbrook said. He says he also hopes that the historic occurrence of the SBC Annual Meeting in Columbus will encourage the pastors and church planters who have been laboring in the city for decades.
“I hope people catch a heart for what God is doing in Columbus,” Westbrook said. “It’s one of the strongest cities in the Midwest and it’s heavily unchurched. We desperately need gospel-centered churches planted in Central Ohio.”