When you ask the Rev. Matt Stephens about the mission of his church, he tells you “revive and restore.”
For the Fort Church at Eastern Heights in Columbus, that refers to buildings and people.
Stephens says the mission statement stems from John 10:10, which reads: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Stephens said his church is about seeing people experiencing a full life through Jesus.
“We are about real revitalization,” he said. “We are about bringing life back to both congregations and facilities. God has given us this mission. We want to see families restored. We want to see people come out of addiction and into recovery.”
The well-traveled church has been at several locations since forming in 2011.
A plant of Phenix City’s Golden Acres Baptist Church, the church began with six couples in Fort Mitchell, Ala.
Haylee Alley has been at the church since the beginning and works in the office. She said services were first held in the Mount Olive Elementary School cafeteria with offices in a vacated store.
It then took over the building of a Fort Mitchell church, which had seen better days. Major renovations were made before moving in.
A church building in Phenix City was next. Again, a complete renovation was done, changing the sanctuary and adding a welcome area.
At one time, the church was holding services in both Phenix City and Fort Mitchell.
But the biggest restoration is the church’s latest.
The church now resides in an impressive brick structure on 17th Street in Columbus, the former home of Eastern Heights Baptist Church — by far, the biggest largest structure the Fort has occupied.
Eastern Heights Baptist Church dates back to 1889, the building back to 1926.
“It is a great old building that so many people in the community know and love. We are excited to be a partner with Eastern Heights, ” Stephens said.
The pastor explained the facility had become too much for Eastern Heights, an older congregation with a shrinking number of members. A merger with the Fort’s growing, younger congregation made good sense.
On April 5, in a Facebook message to his congregants, Eastern Heights pastor Jason Cardwell talked about the situation noting the Fort had outgrown its Phenix City location.
“We have had ample space, but we have been in much need of people. It seems that God is moving to meet the needs of both churches,”Cardwell wrote.
The decision to make the merger was a unanimous one by members of Eastern Heights.
“We understand this to be the next chapter in Eastern Heights story as it is being written by the Lord,” Cardwell wrote.
Stephens applauded the move by Eastern Heights.
“Some people would rather die than change,” he said.
For approximately four weeks, church members worked. There was painting, washing building, redesigning.
The first service was at Easter on April 16 and about 750 attended.
“It was great,” Stephens said.
Come November, the 41-year-old Stephens will have been pastor at the church for two years. The married father of two boys came to Columbus from a church in Vienna, Ga., at which he preached for 10 years.
It was a homecoming. He is a Columbus native and graduate of Columbus High School.
He said it is good that the church continues to grow, but he does not expect this congregation to outgrow its new digs anytime soon.
Still, growth is continuing. Alley remarked that just in the last month the average attendance at a Sunday morning service has grown by 100.
“We are seeing a lot of new faces,” he said.
Some are from Alabama. Quite a few are from the surrounding neighborhood, not far from Lakebottom.
It is a nondenominational church, though it leans toward Baptist.
It is a casual place to attend a Sunday service. Stephens said the church’s Sunday morning worship service provides a casual environment, where one can enjoy a cup of coffee and deepen relationships, both with friends and neighbors, but ultimately — and most importantly — with God.
Stephens preaches in outfits he could wear to the golf course. He walks around a broad, recently constructed, platform and talks in a conversational style.
“We don’t care about dress or background,” he said.
Stephens is backed by drums and guitars.
He prefers that to the traditional organ.
“Some people associate an organ with the instrument played at their grandmother’s funeral,” he said, smiling.
And that is not the way to reach folks who have not been to church in a long time or ever.
The church music is contemporary.
“A few old hymns are mixed in,” Stephens said.
He said he tries to but a vocabulary that makes it easy for people to get the message of the gospel without hurdles is no “church speak.”
“We want everyone to feel comfortable in church,” he said.
He wants to build as many relationships as possible and is proud of the way the church members reach out to friends, neighbors and co-workers.
“We want to show that God is a good father,” Stephens said. “We are excited about seeing God use this building for the glory of his kingdom.”