“We're sharing the love of Jesus with them.”
“At Bell Branch, we’re family and so are you.”
In January 2020, the leadership team at the Bell Branch church in Gambrills, Md., prayed that God would bring five new people into their church. Then COVID-19 hit.
But despite the pandemic, the church has seen unprecedented growth in 2021, adding 21 new members—a growth of more than 20 percent. And they’re not done yet.
“I think it goes back to that meeting in January 2020,” says Geoff Crowley, pastor of Bell Branch. “We wanted a phrase that would sum up our mission and vision and everything we say and do here, and what we settled on at that meeting was this: ‘At Bell Branch, we’re family, and so are you.’”
Crowley continues, “I think that [phrase] is the thing that’s driven everything. We’ve been really intentional about welcoming anybody who comes to our church and asking, ‘How do we make you part of the family?’”
Church elder Serrah Thomas was part of the conversation last year. “When you strip away all the pretenses of being something you’re not, and you just open up and let people be who they are, it creates a space where the image of Christ is shown. It draws people to our fellowship,” she says.
Many of the new faces at Bell Branch agree. “Coming to church here each week has been the highlight during what feels like a tough and dark time in the world right now,” says Aja Schorr, who was baptized this summer along with her husband, Chris. “I don’t feel like anyone here is trying to be somebody they’re not. … A lot of people think we’re crazy to drive an hour each week to be here, but you do it for family.”
Traviss Green was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church but admits he had fallen into a bit of a spiritual slump. When his daughter Nyle insisted she wanted to be baptized, the family decided to search for a new church online.
“We came across Bell Branch,” says Green. “We started watching, and every Sabbath morning we’d hear, ‘Welcome to Bell Branch, where we are family, and so are you.’… Every Sabbath morning we’d huddle together, and we would hear those words, and it would just warm up the home.”
After watching online for some time, Green emailed Crowley to ask if Nyle could receive Bible studies online. She was baptized a few months later, and today the whole family is active in the church.
Attendance at Bell Branch has now reached pre-pandemic levels, even though a number of longtime members continue to stay connected virtually because of ongoing COVID-19 concerns.
“I think the strength of Bell Branch has always been an authentic and welcoming community,” says Crowley. “I think what happened during COVID-19 is a lot of people realized their lack of community, and I think that gave Bell Branch a chance to really show our strength.”