Longleaf focuses on ‘unchurched’ in Houston

Sun News correspondentOctober 23, 2013 

John Hastings, pastor of Longleaf Church, in one of the church’s many children’s ministry rooms.

MICHAEL W. PANNELL

  • Longleaf Church

    Address: 4851 Russell Parkway, Suite 500, Warner Robins

    Phone: 478-333-2956

    Leadership: John Hastings, lead pastor

    Worship: Sunday worship 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.

    Website: www.longleafchurch.org

WARNER ROBINS -- Three years ago last month, Longleaf Church began with the goal of creating an environment unchurched people would want to come to.

“Our focus is on the unchurched in Middle Georgia, people who have given up on or who’ve never been to church,” said John Hastings, who became the church’s new lead pastor in June. “There are a lot of people seeking God who want to know about Jesus but who may not like church. We want to be a place they are comfortable and have a safe, predictable environment to hear a relevant message. Cultural relevance is a huge part of what we do.”

Hastings said Longleaf steers away from traditional church norms but delivers “the great principles Jesus taught.”

What does Hastings mean when he says safe and predictable?

“I think a lot of people today initially want to come to a church and not feel they have to conform to anything,” he said. “They want to see what’s going on without jumping through religious hoops. A lot of traditional churches can be awkward. We don’t want to offend someone just by doing something churchy or because it’s always been done that way. We want to be helpful and bring people the teachings of Jesus whether they take it or leave it.”

Hastings said Longleaf leaders put emphasis on preparation and excellence in their offerings to those who attend. He said relevant teaching, good music and an emphasis on family and children’s ministries are priorities along with the no-pressure approach.

Longleaf is a partner church with the Atlanta-based North Point Ministries and North Point Church. North Point is one of Atlanta’s largest church groups and is led by Andy Stanley, son of well-known Bible teacher Charles Stanley.

Hastings said he teaches occasionally at Longleaf and that the majority of sermons are video-teachings by Andy Stanley. Even so, he said Longleaf is an independent congregation and only a strategic partner with North Point with relational rather than hierarchical ties.

Hastings himself is a former professor of microbiology from South Africa where he also pastored a North Point-related church. His Scottish parents served as missionaries there, and it was there he met his Atlanta-native wife-to-be, Becky. The two have five children who live in the Southeast U.S. now. It was the Hastings’ growing number of grandchildren that helped them decide to move here.

Ben Robbins is a native of Byron and serves as service programming director at Longleaf and leads the church’s music team. He said he became aware of North Point while a student at the University of Georgia. Still in his 20s, he’s the longest serving staff member at Longleaf.

“What drew me was they were using the kind of music I was playing at the time whereas most churches weren’t,” he said. “Quality, modern-sounding music. What kept me was the mission and model. I’m very proud of the way we attract unchurched people. We’re not against other churches, we just do what we do. I grew up in a traditional church, and there were a lot of expectations I feel were a little odd or off to someone just beginning their journey.”

Hastings and Robbins emphasize that Sunday morning services are just one aspect of Longleaf. The other is small groups where they say people can do things together and where real life change happens.

Hastings said he thinks people come to Longleaf, which he said gets its name from the pine tree, because they’re looking for something a little different. He said that’s why the church pays such attention to having an appealing context, an engaging and relevant presentation and to delivering helpful content.

“People are looking for God and relevancy,” he said. “We’re looking for people who share our mission to build a church to reach the unreached and who don’t mind going about it in seemingly unconventional ways. We’re married to our mission and fundamental message -- we’re not married to our model of how to do it. We’ll change and do what it takes to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus.”

Contact Michael W. Pannell at mwpannell@gmail.com.

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