Salvation without a steeple

Ben Greene

Pastor & writer

  • Church planting & multiplication

Larry Baker doesn’t remember the name of the bar. He was 28, and he’s 55 now, so it’s been 26 or 27 years since he sat in his sadness.

The barstools and beers, the booths and brokenness are lost to time. Baker remembers a friend drinking with him. But the neon signs, the elbow-worn wood, sticky with spilled beer, are all beyond his recollection.

Baker’s life was spiraling down more and more. He and his ex-girlfriend had a child. But that woman ended the relationship and left him.

“I didn’t have anybody,” he said. “My daughter’s mother left me, and my family was mad at me. It was a dark, dark season of my life. I was drinking, getting high, just working to party.”

Then, sitting in the North Carolina bar with a friend, he knew in a moment he was done. That life had become so old. To this day, Baker believes the prayers of his ex-girlfriend’s mother defeated his darkness. So, he walked away from the worn-down wood. He turned his back to a life of empty pint glasses and called a pastor.

A few minutes later, Pastor David Hicks picked the 28-year-old up at the bar. Baker was drunk, so the pastor took him home. But the friendship would soon invite Baker to rise up into newness of life.

Baker didn’t know what to make of a Protestant pastor. He grew up Roman Catholic in Brooklyn, New York. So seeing a pastor who was married and wore regular clothes was “all weird to me.”

“He was just a cool guy to hang out with,” Baker said.

It turned out Hicks had recently started a church in Durham, North Carolina. Once Baker was sober, the pastor invited him to meet at the church. 

The only problem was the church worshiped in a bank. Baker was so accustomed to traditional church he was looking for a steeple. He drove past the bank building so many times, he was practically lost in Durham. 

“I finally made it there, and that’s when they shared the gospel with me,” Baker said. “I prayed for like an hour, confessing all the stupid things I did. I gave my life to Jesus right then and there.”

Related: Sharing your faith with one verse (video)

Learning how churches start ― with or without steeples

Realizing church buildings don’t always have a steeple taught him the first of many lessons about how God uses people to start churches.

“I started going to church, and I started serving right away, making coffee,” he said. “It was a little church plant.”

Now, decades later, as a Converge church planter starting Anastasis Fellowship Church outside Reading, Pennsylvania, Baker is putting many of those lessons to good use.

His biggest priority and pursuit is helping others learn what he did: people can serve right away in a new church. There’s no waiting period for worshipers.

Related: Mobilizing & inspiring volunteers (Unfiltered church planting podcast)

“At the end of the day, I want to see people get saved and be in ministry right away,” he said. “I want to see them rise up and be missionaries for the kingdom.”

Christy Ahrens, who joined with the Bakers in starting the new church, has embraced opportunities to be in ministry right away. So, when Larry and Shannon Baker were out of town for a family wedding, Ahrens gave the message that Sunday.

Christy Ahrens and her sister also started a Bible study over Zoom with women in Florida, South Carolina, Maryland, Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania during the pandemic. 

The core team for the new church in Reading is reading Surprise the World by Michael Frost, which illustrates five habits of highly missional people. Seeing people live like missionaries is one of the book’s main points.

“I want to be a church of unchurched people and people of peace,” he said, referring to believers who build bridges between the church and people far from Christ.

Baker previously planted a church in Curtis Bay in Baltimore. There, he saw how the gospel creates freedom for people in their darkness.

“We had prostitutes and drug addicts coming to worship, and when they got saved, they just worshiped,” he said. “When there’s no church background, and you just love Jesus, it’s the coolest experience. They just love Jesus and they’re free.” 

What is Reading like?

Baker said Reading is a more populous version of Curtis Bay. There are about 60 thousand people, and many are poor. At one time, Baker said, Reading was the fourth poorest city in America.

But, outside the city are suburban townships where upper-class or middle-class income people live. Golf courses and nice houses fill Wyomissing, Exeter and Shillington, where Baker lives with his wife, Shannon. People shut their doors and everything seems fine, he said.

“How do you connect with people outside the city and reach them and have a mission right next door?” he asked. “We’re connecting with the middle-class suburbs one way, and we have the mission in the city.”

That mission in the city comes through a partnership with Tony Bilotta. He is an evangelist with Luis Palau’s Next Generation Alliance and the leader of One Luv Outreach in Reading.

That ministry to city residents, including people representing multiple cultures, balances out the small-group meeting in Baker’s home. For their mission in the suburbs, Anastasis Fellowship Church has been focused on outreach as well. 

Ahrens said a woman coming to Sunday services is rising from her life challenges through the love of Anastasis.

“You see a weight lifted off her shoulders,” Ahrens said. “God has demonstrated his love to her through us, and that has really impacted her.”

Related: Keeping new believers from falling through the cracks

That style of influencing people fits with Baker’s approach too. He doesn’t draw a crowd and preach the gospel. Instead, affirming he’s an introvert, he develops relationships with neighbors and makes community connections.

“Our philosophy is to build trust, to build the bridges, to share the gospel at the right, appropriate time,” he said.

Every Friday night in July and August, the 12 people on the church’s core team have been prayer walking in the suburban townships around Reading. They are asking God to reveal a community for them to adopt.

“We want to join him in what he’s doing,” he said. “We’re just praying over the community, and our goal is to adopt a community. How do we meet their needs? How do we build relationships? How do we do outreach there?”

Often by himself, Baker went door to door visiting with neighbors, often praying with them in the months leading up to Easter. That tilled the soil, he said, for the church’s first service on Easter.

When the church started, Anastasis did a Hope Bag giveaway at Easter. They put the book 40 Days of Hope and Easter eggs with Scriptures in the bags and gave away 200 bags to the community. 

The Converge Cornerstone Fund supplied a grant, as it does for all new Converge churches. You can invest in various accounts through the fund to increase your assets while helping start Converge churches.

Converge has a goal of starting 312 churches by 2026. Anastasis Fellowship Church came out of Harvest Bible Chapel in Reading. Even though Anastasis is so young, the church hopes to see more churches planted from their community. 

“We have big visions and big dreams,” Baker said. “We want to plant a church that train, develops and deploys missional leaders.”

Related: Developing leaders and your staff (video)

So far, the church has seen one person express interest in baptism. And three new families have joined the church, which is meeting every Sunday for praise, preaching and fellowship in a home.

Baker sees his high point in ministry ― so far ― in reaching out to his Curtis Bay neighbors. Because of his own dark moments, he pursues people in need whenever he can.

In starting a church, they seek people loved by the Father, yet far from the Lord. Anastasis Fellowship Church keeps telling people they can rise up.

“Anastasis is the Greek word for resurrection,” Ahrens explained. “So it’s an appropriate term for rising up, for beauty rising from the ashes.”

She knows God is doing that work in her heart and others as well.

The Bakers know there’s a rising up in their life as well, thanks to a pastor who picked Larry up at a bar. Shannon was saved at the same church two years before Larry. He says Pastor Hicks loved them both into the kingdom.

And they’ve shown more than once they are willing to go to those who don’t know Christ. When Hicks returned to North Carolina many years ago to officiate their wedding, he also asked Larry to come to Louisiana and be a youth pastor. 

Shannon and Larry were happy to follow the pastor and do more ministry. So they quit their full-time jobs and moved more than 900 miles. Their new home was a town of a few thousand people past New Orleans but not quite to Baton Rouge.

They lived like missionaries for the first year of their marriage. They were so poor they went from home to home, living with different people from the church.

Also, in that season, Baker applied his love for learning to achieve a bachelor’s degree in ministry and a master’s degree in divinity from a nearby Christian college and seminary.

“It was really cool,” said Baker. “We were so poor.”

But they were rich because of a pastor and church who loved them. Pastor Hicks welcomed them into small groups and service as part of, not a precursor to, their spiritual formation.

Through Hicks’ example and Frost’s book, the Bakers are finding fresh spiritual influence for the dynamics of church planting and the hard work of ministering in a highly religious but often spiritually dead community.

“Instead of making people come to the church and help do ministry, how can you engage where you live?” he asked.

That’s a question many churches in Reading are not successfully answering. Baker said the people he’s befriended over the last five years all have a big word ― “religion” ― that defines their perception of church and God.

“People are religious and think they know God and live that life of rules and procedures,” he said. “That’s a scary thing, judging and pointing fingers.”

Instead, Anastasis Fellowship Church stays focused on inviting people to rise up into a transformed life.

“The old has gone, the new has come, which is a resurrection story,” Ahrens said for herself and others. “It’s just how God works. He wants to separate you from the old and have no lingering negativity.”

So, the church keeps on doing cookouts and giving gifts to people who come. In addition, the towns around Reading have a barn, community centers and golf courses where Anastasis can do events and games to get to know their neighbors.

Therefore, Baker is passing on the ministry he received while still leading a church without a steeple. He may not remember the bar so many years ago. But he still knows the pastor who loved him enough to speak the gospel, share his life and help the Bakers rise up out of brokenness.

“I love going out to people,” he said. “I’m always bringing Jesus to people. My personal goal is for people to discover Jesus way bigger and better than the way I have,” he said.

Anastasis Fellowship Church is one of 312 churches Converge’s 10 districts committed to plant before 2026. Read more inspiring church planting stories and learn more about the goal to plant 312 churches in five years.

Ben Greene, Pastor & writer

Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.

Additional articles by Ben Greene