FLORENCE, Ky. -- In August 2012, after working for eight years as a youth pastor in Northern Kentucky Baptist churches, Benjamin Jared “B.J.” Sanders decided he’d had enough of the “organized” church.
“I was frustrated at how internally focused all the churches I had worked at were,” he said. “They were much more concerned about how to serve the people in the church than the people outside the church.”
So, with some of his longtime friends, most of whom had quit going to church years ago, he started a church that met in the living room of his home in Fort Mitchell.
Known as Torch Community Church, it now has between 80 and 100 regular attendees on Sunday mornings and has become an organized church of its own. Sanders, being a religious man, sees the hand of Divine Providence in the story of how it got there.
If this story sounds familiar, it should. It’s how new churches have been started since … the Reformation, maybe?
You can hear it in the origin story of Crossroads, the Tri-State region’s largest church: Eleven friends organized the church as a place where they could “explore questions about God without having to pretend they had it all together or wading through a bunch of religious lingo.”
Torch Community Church met in Sanders’ living room for about four months, until about 25 people were attending and the space became too small. A friend suggested the church meet at PeeWee’s Place in Crescent Springs, which had a reception hall.
“I thought it was crazy, because they were a bar and grill,” Sanders said. But the owner liked it and let the church use the place for free.
The church met there for about a year, growing to 40 to 45 attendees. It registered as a tax-exempt organization with the Internal Revenue Service and started a bank account.
Then the congregation began meeting in larger digs at the Gardens of Park Hills and began saving money to buy its own building.
In the fall of 2016, when the church had saved about $90,000, Sanders heard that the First Church of God building in Florence was for sale. Jim Whiteker, who had been chairman of the church trustees, said First Church decided to close because attendance had dwindled to nothing and its pastor had retired.
First Church of God was a part of Church of God Ministries, headquartered in Anderson, Indiana about 30 miles northeast of Indianapolis. It has 22 congregations in the Tri-State.
Sanders might have found much in common with the denomination’s founders and their desire to transcend denominational loyalties and make Jesus the subject of church. The denomination began in 1881 as a movement to “forsake denominational hierarchies and formal creeds.”
Sanders contacted Whiteker, who told him he’d be delighted to see a church purchase the building. But Whiteker told him First Church planned to list the property at $850,000. Sanders knew that with a $90,000 down payment, Torch Community could only afford a mortgage for about $500,000.
So, he gave up on that idea. Meanwhile, the Gardens at Park Hills notified the church that it needed the space for something else on Sunday morning.
“We were in a frenzy wondering what to do,” Sanders said. Other halls were available, but not at the price the Gardens was giving the congregation.
After about a month, however, Whiteker called back and said the church could accept an offer of $550,000. It was still more than Torch Community could afford, Sanders said, but it was close enough.
After seeing the building, the Torch Community congregation agreed to pony up another $20,000 for a down payment for a bank loan. In November 2016, First Church gave Sanders the keys to the building and agreed to let the church use it rent-free until the loan came through.
In February, two days before the sale was to close, a bank officer called Sanders to let him know that because Torch Community had no credit history, the bank would need a larger down payment. It turns out that after the Sunday collection the day before, the church had just enough to cover it, with $330 left in the bank.
“If we had closed a week earlier, we couldn’t have afforded it,” Sanders said. “If (First Church) had asked us to pay utilities, we couldn’t have afforded it.”
The day of the closing, First Church also gave Torch Community a check for $5,000, money it could have given to its denomination with the proceeds from the sale.
“We thought that as one Christian organization to another, that we ought to help them,” Whiteker said.
Since the church moved in, growth has been steady but not spectacular, Sanders said.
Before it had a building, the church grew mainly by friends inviting other friends. Now, he said, the building has attracted people who weren’t previously connected with the congregation. That’s a good thing, but there’s also a drawback to having a building: Of necessity, it makes the church more internally focused. After all, there’s a building to maintain and a mortgage to pay.
Now, he said, the church must be very intentional about offering opportunities to help the community. For example, every Saturday morning, a prayer station is set up on the sidewalk in front of the church. Passersby can stop in and have church members pray for them.
If enough members show up, Sanders said, they go to a nearby apartment complex and ask for prayer requests.
Finances are still tight. The church pays Sanders a salary – not as much as he was making as a youth pastor. Rather than hire a janitor, the church uses an automated, self-propelled vacuum to clean the sanctuary.
But the church has been a great healing experience for Sanders and others who’ve been hurt by established churches.
“If you hang around with Christians long enough, you’re going to get hurt,” he said. “Just because we love Jesus doesn’t mean we quit sinning.”