Prayers bring new life to historic Ridgecrest church

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
The Ridge Church lead pastor Trent Holbert moved his family to Western North Carolina in 2018 after praying to find a place that fit him and his family.

Near the top of a mountain in the easternmost part of Buncombe County, a small, unassuming rock church stands in the shadow of a ridge.  

The building was constructed in 1934 using rocks blasted from a nearby mountain and was home to Ridgecrest Baptist Church for over a century, until the church itself began praying for a new beginning.

Trent Holbert, his wife Mandy and their two sons were living a happy life in his native Kentucky in 2017.

“We were an atomic family of four, living just like anybody else,” said Trent, the lead pastor of The Ridge Church, which occupies the former home of Ridgecrest Baptist Church and celebrated its first year of existence on March 3. “I was in the ministry and doing church planting for about 10 years in a rural area.”

The 39-year-old’s passion for helping others pushed the self-proclaimed “relational junkie” to earn a theology degree, but he also possessed a keen interest in fitness, nutrition and health. A fitness instructor who believes in a “Biblical approach to holistic health,” Trent maintains, home of the Fit for the Kingdom blog and podcast.

“I’m pretty holistically minded,” Trent said. “I think that all started to merge with my spiritual believes and through that we began to feel a tug, not only in our hearts but in our location.”

The family began to wonder if it “was possible to live and do our ministry while living this ‘Bohemian-esque’ lifestyle,” he continued.

Mandy Holbert, the worship team leader for The Ridge Church, leads the gathering with a song on March 3.

Even before the Holberts began to feel that pull, hundreds of miles away, an aging congregation at Ridgecrest Baptist Church had long been wondering what the future would hold for their church. Johnny Smith moved to the Ridgecrest community 15 years ago from Louisiana.

“I came here to volunteer at the (Ridgecrest Conference Center) and I started going to Ridgecrest Baptist when I came here,” he said. “Then I met a lady in that church and we got married.”

The history of the church is intertwined with the conference center with which it shares its name although the two are not affiliated, according to Smith, who headed up the church’s 100-year anniversary committee back in 2014.

“There was a little cabin across the street, in the yard where the parsonage now is, and they met there for church in a little cabin,” he said. “The man who started the conference center (Bernard Washington Spilman) started that church, and what you had for a long time was people who came here for the conference center would go to that church.”

This photo was taken during  a lunch break in 1934, when members of the Ridgecrest community gathered to build Ridgecrest Baptist Church.

For years Ridgecrest Baptist thrived, but by the turn of the the century membership had dwindled, according to Smith.

“We’d get 15-20 people on Sunday morning and 10-12 on Sunday night,” he said. “The problem was that everyone in it was a senior citizen, so it had no young people or growth whatsoever. It was stagnant.”

Members of the church, including Smith and interim pastor Steve Harris, began meeting weekly to pray for “something to happen in that church.”

“We really wanted the Lord to make it happen and not us," Smith said.

Back in Kentucky, the Holberts were praying too.

“In our denominational camp of the Southern Baptist Convention we contacted our foreign mission agency, the International Mission Board, and said ‘we’re praying through where we need to be in the world,’” Trent said.

The Holberts looked at Argentina and decided against moving there before spending four days in Cincinnati, Mandy’s hometown. They didn’t feel like they fit there either.

Trent Holbert, pastor of The Ridge Crest, greets the congregation on the one-year anniversary of the new church in Ridgecrest.

“It was around that time that someone, in passing, said ‘dude, you look like Asheville,” Trent said. “We live kind of an alternative lifestyle, we don’t follow normal standards; we’re all artsy and we’re all musicians.”

The family began researching Asheville and found it appealing.

“One of the first things I saw when I Googled ‘Asheville’ was the phrase ‘Keep Asheville Weird,’” he said. “I saw there were buskers and artists and people who were like kindred spirits. We were drawn to the diversity because the Holberts don’t really fit a mold.”

Trent, Mandy and their children took up lodging in Black Mountain when they first visited Western North Carolina.

“We would drive into Asheville during the day, and come back to Black Mountain in the evening,” Trent said. “We all felt really comfortable here.”

They also saw “a great need” in the area, Trent said.

“It’s all growing rapidly and cross-culturally,” he said. “And I look at myself as a cultural bridge builder.”

They decided, in what Trent calls an act of faith, to sell their home and move to the area and live off of savings. They committed to being involved in the local community and finding ways to be of service to others.

Trent would have coffee at the Dripolator in the mornings and get to know the locals in his new town.

“There was no pretense,” he said. “My verse, when people ask how are you going to do this or that, is Acts, Chapter 10: ‘Jesus Christ went about doing good deeds.’ It’s that simple.”

On a snowy Sunday morning last winter, after attending services at several churches in the Swannanoa Valley, the family made their way to nearby Ridgecrest Baptist Church.

“It was by happenstance, really,” Trent said. “I had shoveled their driveway a few weeks earlier and they were right across the interstate so we figured we’d go worship with them and meet them.”

The following day a retired pastor named Harold Turner, who had been supporting the interim Harris and now serves as the executive pastor of The Ridge, came to visit the Holberts.

“They had reached a realization that they weren’t going to grow as a congregation; they were at an end,” Trent said. “Pastor Steve believed that back in October he received a vision, or an impression upon his heart from God, to use the fellowship hall at the church to allow another church to get started.”

This coincided closely with Trent’s November arrival to the area.

“We went to that service in January, and Harold told us that the congregation believed we were the people they had been praying for,” Trent said. “I was dumbfounded.”

Many of the prayers had specifically asked for a young family to show an interest in the church, and Harris offered Trent the use of the fellowship hall. With his background in planting churches, Trent and Mandy established Passion Fellowship Church, which attracted over 60 people to its inaugural service the first Sunday in March of 2018.

The church began finding ways to serve the community, like holding a run on the trails nearby to raise money for Black Mountain Home for Children and the Holbert's were grateful to have the opportunity to serve their new community. 

“I prayed a prayer and told God that if he gave all of this to me then all of it would be used for the community,” Trent said.

By the summer of 2018, as Passion Fellowship continued to grow, Ridgecrest Baptist approached Trent with a different proposition.

“They made the decision to walk a pathway to shut down Ridgecrest Baptist and make it all Passion Fellowship Church,” Trent said. “By December they had dissolved all of their memberships and transferred all assets and resources to Passion Fellowship.”

Not only was Trent appreciative of the church’s decision, he sought to preserve the legacy of Ridgecrest Baptist by changing the name of his church to The Ridge Church.

“We wanted to maintain that connection to the surrounding community and to pay respect to the church that was here before us,” he said. “It felt like the right thing to do.”

Among the members of The Ridge is Smith, who is pleased to see the home of his former church reenergized.

“There are children running around now and that was something you never saw around here,” he said. “We had one baptism the whole time I was with the church, and The Ridge has had 20-something over the past year.”

The Holberts have worked diligently to restore the 80-year-old building since opening The Ridge. They hope to make the space welcoming to the surrounding community.

Trent has reached out to drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities in the community and welcomed participants to the new church. He told a large congregation on the one-year anniversary of the church that the first year of a planted church is typically one of the toughest, but he was pleased to see The Ridge thriving. 

The pastor is still amazed by how The Ridge Church came to be.

“I don’t know if I’d believe this whole story if I hadn’t been living it,” he said.

Smith, who is 78 years old, is grateful he’s had a chance to witness a young and thriving church in the former home of Ridgecrest Baptist Church.”

“God answered our prayers,” he said. “No human could’ve orchestrated this.”