Bethany Westville: Going to Where the People Are

Bethany Westville Baptist Church near Camden may be a small church, but its members have big servant hearts that are committed to making an impact in their community.

When Craigen Blankenship came to Bethany Westville in 2006, the congregation had gone through “a pretty rough patch,” and attendance was waning, he recalled. Searching for a way for the congregation to not just survive, but thrive, church leaders began looking at where people in the area who needed to hear the gospel were frequently gathering. A key place they identified was at the local schools for athletic events.

“So, we started trying to figure out how could we spend time at our schools, or at least serve our schools in a way that would help us reach people,” Blankenship said.

One of the things the pastor had noticed when he arrived was that his church had a really nice family life center with a commercial kitchen.

“So, I asked them what they did with it,” Blankenship said. “The general response at that point was, ‘We use it for homecoming and Christmas,’ ” he continued. “I thought, ‘Well, goodness, we’re going to do more than that with it. We may not have a lot of money, but we got this nice kitchen. Let’s do something with it.’ ”

Lunch items are provided through donations by Bethany Westville members, businesses and other area churches.

And the idea of a tailgate ministry soon emerged. Members started providing meals at North Central High and Middle schools for athletes, coaches, band members, directors, families, and anyone else who walked by.

“We came with a mindset that if God wants us to be a little church, we’ll be a little church, but we’ll be a little church that serves well and reaches people and blesses people in His name,” Blankenship said.

Funding comes from area churches, businesses, individuals and a “change offering,” where members put pocket change in a bucket, in addition to their regular offerings. All donations go directly to feeding costs, and the meals are prepared in the church’s DHEC-licensed kitchen. Last year, the church spent nearly $21,100 on feeding people in Jesus’ name.

“This fall, we expect to feed around 2,500 meals between the beginning of August through the end of October,” Blankenship said. “This gives us a chance to reach people in our community, to connect with families that we don’t know and who probably wouldn’t walk through the doors of our church.”

In the fall, for example, church members feed the varsity football team and band members. Then they set up a tailgate station in the lower parking lot at the high school, where they feed anybody — the athletes’ families, officials, the guys who run the chains — who will come to eat with them.

“On a Friday night, we’ll feed anywhere from 300 to 400 meals,” Blankenship said. “It doesn’t always translate into us getting to interact with 300 to 400 people, but a lot of times it will end up with us getting to hang out with 80 to 100 people. We’ll get to talk with them and introduce our church.”

Since the church’s tailgate ministry began six years ago, “It has just been God opening doors for us,” he added. In addition to the North Central Knights’ football team, Bethany Westville now provides meals for the volleyball team, band members, ROTC and several other groups. In the spring, they will serve softball and soccer players. They also may host some of the schools’ athletic banquets at the church.

“Our members jump in and help us serve, and they set up and tear down for all those different events,” Blankenship said. “We are not a big church. We probably average about 80 to 90 on Sunday mornings, but they are hard workers, and they are very generous,” he added.

“We just decided we are going to be a place where we go to them, and we will go and find them wherever they are, and we will love on them,” he said. “We may not see them come through our doors, but we’re going to do our best to be where they are.”

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