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Making Space for God to Show Up
Once upon a time, a church planting team started with a dream, a calling from God and a master building plan. Now, twenty years later, this Tulsa-based congregation is well on the way to accomplishing that same vision — with help from the same financial partner.
When Evergreen Baptist Church first met in December of 1999, it wasn’t exactly an auspicious beginning. The service took place in a Holiday Inn, and Pastor Michael Gabbert, who led the church planting team, had some pretty mundane worries on his mind — namely, could they cover the rent?
“This is not an exaggeration,” Gabbert says. “We started at a church meeting in a hotel ballroom, hoping that the offering was big enough to pay the rent on the room and pay for the coffee, which we bought from the hotel. It was expensive.”
Fast-forward two and a half decades, and things have changed for Evergreen. Each week, they welcome about 1,200 people to Sunday services and run 1,000 in Sunday School classes. The church is situated on a beautiful 50-acre campus in Bixby, Oklahoma (a Tulsa suburb), with an eye-catching main building and verdant walking trails. If you visit the church today, you’ll also see the rafters rising on the congregation’s newest construction project: a preschool center, worship venue and multipurpose space slated to open at the end of this year.
It’s taken time and perseverance to get to this point — plus a lot of faith that God would, as Gabbert puts it, make the church’s leaders look “smarter than we actually are.” For WatersEdge, who financed each step of Evergreen’s master plan, including the current construction, it took a step of faith to become the church’s financial partner. But both sides have since seen that partnership pay off in a big way.
DREAMING IT, BUILDING IT — A worker installs flooring on the second level of Evergreen Baptist Church’s newest building. The church hopes to open the facility by Christmas.
All the Way Through
During those first few weeks at the Holiday Inn, Evergreen’s congregation stood at about 175 people. Growth followed quickly, and church leaders soon found themselves thinking about the future. They researched South Tulsa, identified the place they felt their ministry could be most effective, and even found someone willing to sell them 40 acres of land in the Bixby-Broken Arrow area. There was just one problem: no bank would go near them.
“We couldn’t find anybody to loan us the money to build,” Gabbert remembers. “We even talked to one bank that said they specialized in church financing, only for them to tell us no because we were so new.”
A PLACE FOR WORSHIP — Evergreen’s 50-acre campus is ideally placed at the junction of Bixby and Broken Arrow, in the Tulsa metro area.
FROM THE GROUND UP — The new building will provide Evergreen’s congregation with a desperately needed children’s space and an alternate worship venue.
Eventually, the owner of the land agreed to self-finance, and Evergreen was able to make the purchase. They began making payments on the undeveloped plot, dreaming of the day they’d be able to build something on it. The patch of grass served as a reminder of God’s faithfulness to the church — after all, He’d provided a way for them to buy it — but also as a reminder that they weren’t finished yet.
“About 2005, we had paid it down to a pretty respectable number,” Gabbert remembers. “That’s when we crossed paths with WatersEdge. As we began to talk, they seemed genuinely interested in developing a relationship.”
The meeting came at an opportune time for WatersEdge, too. Looking to grow the organization’s loan portfolio, the nonprofit’s leadership understood the unique need churches had for ministry-minded financing partners — the same struggle Evergreen had experienced years earlier. But the amount Evergreen needed was a challenge unto itself, and served as something of a crossroads for both parties.
“At the time, they had never made a loan that big,” Gabbert remembers. “So they went to their board, laid out our situation, and really advocated for us.”
Eventually, WatersEdge agreed to finance the construction of Evergreen’s sanctuary, the first step in the congregation’s master building plan. As the years went by, WatersEdge also agreed to finance each of the church’s subsequent projects. That consistency was important to Gabbert.
“We’ve changed architects since then. We’ve changed civil engineers and we’ve done other things differently. But we’ve had the same financial partner all the way through,” he says.
Room for Growth
Evergreen’s new project is a 54,000 square-foot, two-story building that will connect with their existing sanctuary like the spoke on a wheel. The bottom story will house a new preschool space that will accommodate an influx of younger families. It’s a good problem to have, Gabbert admits, and the result of an intentional focus from the church’s beginning.
“You do preschool and children’s ministries top-notch, you make it the best available, and you’re going to get whole families,” he says. “That’s part of what we’ve done here.”
The second floor of the new building will house a smaller worship venue, allowing for an increase in the church’s overall capacity each Sunday. The space will feature its own live worship but pipe in a livestream of the sermon like a satellite campus. It will also house several miscellaneous spaces including a dedicated room for new member classes and a small recording studio for the church’s communications team.
Architecturally speaking, this new wing will continue to build on an emphasis that the church baked in to its master building plan: height. Gabbert and his team wanted to draw the eyes of churchgoers upward as an outward expression of awe for the Lord.
“Nobody builds cathedrals anymore,” he says. “But cathedrals were built on purpose. They were architectural expressions of theology. We wanted height. When you walk into our sanctuary, something happens. I’ve seen it a thousand times — people enter for the first time and their eyes are just drawn up. There’s something transcendent about a space like that.”
Evergreen broke ground on the project last October. Though COVID-19 related construction shortages continue to delay the work, the congregation hopes to open the new building by Christmas of this year — or early in 2024 at the latest.
New, Big and Terrifying
After twenty-five years of ministry at Evergreen, Gabbert admits it could have been easy to settle into a routine, doing what’s always been done. There are two reasons why this hasn’t happened. First, he says, is the genuine excitement that he sees among his congregation for advancing the Gospel. It’s evident through the growing number of people involved in Sunday School or in one-on-one discipleship. Gabbert is quick to stress that their success comes from the Lord, not human planning.
“We can’t explain the hunger and the spiritual growth that’s taking place right now,” he says. “Probably the last ten or twelve baptisms in the past month and a half have all been adults, not youth or children. That shows that there’s something really out of the ordinary going on.”
The congregation’s excitement is also visible through their reaction to each phase of the church’s master building plan. Almost a thousand people showed up to the groundbreaking service for the current project, and the sense of anticipation is evident.
“Anything that you can do to help people capture the awe of what God is doing, that feeds on itself,” he adds. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm right now.”
BUILDING CATHEDRALS — Pastor Michael Gabbert stands in the heart of Evergreen’s lobby. The building is designed to draw the eye upward, an architectural expression of spiritual truth.
Personally, Gabbert trusts that the Lord is at work through the construction because of His faithfulness in preceding projects.
“I had somebody ask me one time if I had confidence that the Lord wanted us to build. And I said, ‘Yeah — because He gave me a six-phase process over 20 years ago and told me to do it.'”
The second reason that things don’t get stale for the church? Evergreen is constantly expanding into new areas of ministry: a school, to start, but also the first seeds of a future Bible college — even an equine therapy program for which they’ve recently acquired horses. It’s a lot, but the pressure of continuing to grow keeps the entire church dependent on God’s mercy and direction, just like in the beginning.
“That terror and excitement from the early days of trying to start a church? I still have that now, because God’s still saying, ‘Now go do this; now go do that; now expand here,’” Gabbert says. “All of it is tied to a single vision of creating Kingdom impact, and there’s always something new and big and terrifying. I’m as enthused about pastoring a church now, at 61, as I was at the age of 38 when we started.”
Even so, the new building’s construction provides an opportunity to look back, to assess where Evergreen has been since first approaching WatersEdge for a loan.
“We all understand that this is the Lord’s work, both here and at WatersEdge. There’s no question that the partnership with a ministry-based lender who was willing to see our vision and let that carry more weight than the numbers on a page has been a consistent part of this miraculous story,” Gabbert says. “We’ve asked for things we didn’t deserve, but we believed that the Lord was in it. WatersEdge has come along and said, ‘We believe the Lord is in it, too.’ We all stretch ourselves out of our comfort zones and then God shows up.”
It’s as good a mission statement as any for the Evergreen story — and with continued faith and perseverance, God will continue to write that story for decades to come.
PARTNER IN MINISTRY — Jerry Voris, Evergreen’s executive pastor, has been an integral part of the church’s journey, helping plan all six stages of the building process.
Partnering with Purpose
WatersEdge partners with churches of all sizes to provide biblically grounded loans for new construction, renovation, refinancing and other projects. Unlike traditional financing, a WatersEdge loan returns interest dollars to ministry instead of a bank’s bottom line. Visit WatersEdgeServices.org/loans to learn more, compare rates or apply online.