Pastor Chris Alford began serving Litz Manor Baptist Church in 2009. Photo by Ned Jilton II.
In 1963, an African American family came to Sunday morning services at Litz Manor Baptist Church, which was, at that time, an all-white church.
Church leaders weren’t quite sure what to do about this, especially in 1963, during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
“They’d never had this happen before. So, that night, they had a meeting to determine what to do about this,” said Pastor Chris Alford.
And although Alford wasn’t pastor of Litz Manor in 1963, joking he wasn’t even born yet, he says from everything he’s read about this meeting, it sounds like it was a unanimous decision to allow this family to continue coming to Litz Manor to worship.
“It wasn’t the norm back then, but it sounds like leaders decided to allow people of any race, any background, any ethnicity to worship here. This was in 1963, before they were obligated to do this. And for that, I am really proud to be a part of this church today,” Alford said.
And continuing this progressive way of thinking, in the mid-1980s, Litz Manor became the first Southern Baptist Church in Sullivan County to address women in leadership positions in the church.
This year marks the 68th anniversary of Litz Manor Baptist Church, which is located right off of Fort Henry Drive at 1383 Dewey Ave. in Kingsport — directly behind McDonald’s near the Kingsport Town Center.
The area of Kingsport where the church sits was once its own little community, known as the Litz Manor community. This community was named after John Litz, an affluent land owner whose manor house was located approximately where Warpath Bowling Lanes now stands. In the early 1940s, it was decided that this community needed a Baptist church. Thanks to the help of First Baptist Church of Kingsport, ground was broken for Litz Manor on Aug. 5, 1945.
Like most churches, Litz Manor has seen periods of growth and periods of decline.
Alford said in the 1960s and into the very early 1970s Litz Manor thrived. But, beginning in 1973 and continuing through 2009, Alford said the church remained on a very slow decline.
“Some of this was caused by Eastman shipping people out to other states. Some of it was kids graduating and moving on,” he said.
Alford became pastor of Litz Manor in 2009 and says from the beginning he believed the church could be relevant in the community again.
“I wanted this church to become very relevant and become a leader in our community, and not just ‘exist’ in our community,” he said. “We want to be a church that’s a catalyst. In other words, we want to be a church that not only grows itself and reaches people, but we want to be a church that helps other churches reach people. We want to be a church where anyone can come and feel welcome. We have Methodists, Pentecostals, Baptists, Presbyterians all sitting in our congregation. I think it’s because we’re not trying to be a ‘good Baptist church.’ We’re trying to be a ‘good church’ for our community.”
Alford, who is a self-described unorthodox Southern Baptist minister, is the son of missionaries and grew up mostly in Venezuela where his parents still live today.
“My background was church planting. A lot of my approach in how I do things comes from watching my dad. He’d go to a new country or a new city and survey the city and figure out what people are like, what their customs are. You don’t change the message, but you adjust your methods to fit that area. That’s what I did when I came to Litz Manor,” he said. “My first year here, I tried to learn the history of the church and the culture of the church and to take the good things that happened throughout those years and say, ‘How can we take those good things from the past and do those again, but change it to fit today?’”
Longtime member June Mynhier says five years ago, Litz Manor had only about 60 people attending.
“Now we have 160. We’ve had some changes in our music. Contemporary music has come into our service. We have a tremendous leader in Chris. And I think God just blesses Chris in everything he does,” she said. “One of the constants I see in our church, besides the love of one another and being a family, is being very open to change. Whether it be different missions, whether it be different pastors and their ways or whether it’s women in leadership, they’ve been pretty open to the changes. Our church has changed a lot, especially in the last five to 10 years. But I honestly believe that God has truly blessed our church because of Chris’ willingness and our willingness to reach out to others.”
Alford says there has been a shift in the style of worship during the last four years, which he says seems to have resulted in a revitalization of the church.
“We grew 43 percent last year. We’ve gone from being ultra traditional, to holding on to our traditions, to a more casual style. Come as you are. Our approach is, if you want to come in a suit and tie, nobody’s going to judge you. If you want to come in jeans and a T-shirt, nobody’s going to judge you. Just come however you want,” he said.
“We try to stay away from saying we’re a traditional or contemporary church musically. We just do what works. We blend things together. And the beautiful thing is, we have people of all generations joining our church now. So, we’re definitely not a mono-generational church. We’ve got people from 91 years old all the way down to our growing youth group. We’re taking a multi-generational approach. We want our worship to be alive and our style to be relational. So, if relational means casual right now, so be it. If 10 years from now, it means a little more proper, then we’ll do whatever it takes to be relational.”
Today, in addition to its regular Sunday morning service, Litz Manor also offers a Hispanic service every Sunday. Alford, who is bilingual, leads this service, too.
“The local Hispanic church in Gray lost their pastor a couple of years ago. Litz Manor allowed me to preach here and then drive to Gray and speak for them after they lost their pastor at the Hispanic church. Since then, the Spanish church has moved from Gray and actually meets here in our building now. We have our regular service from 10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. and the Hispanic church follows that. I do this every week. I preach the same sermon. I have to change the culture a little bit, but the essence of the message is still the same. We have about 60 coming to this service now. It’s taken us awhile to build it up, but we’re slowly penetrating the Hispanic culture here,” he said.
Alford says Litz Manor’s vision comes from Micah 6:8 — He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
“We want to do justice in our community and around the world. We want to love mercy. We see love and mercy as giving mercy the way we were given mercy. And we want to walk humbly with God. Those are our three things. In everything we do, we want to accomplish those three things,” Alford said.
Mynhier gets emotional when she talks about how she wants the church she loves so much to be remembered.
“I want to know that the young people have carried on the mission of Litz Manor Baptist Church and its mission of reaching out to others and loving the way we should,” she said. “I want it to be remembered this way.”
Litz Manor is also involved in several mission projects including the Help and Hope Food Pantry and SHINE! which provides home repairs to families in the community.
On Sundays, Litz Manor begins Sunday school/small groups at 9:30 a.m. followed by worship services at 10:30 a.m. The Hispanic service begins at noon.
For more information about Litz Manor, visit the church website at http://www.litzmanorbaptist.com/