Good for the Church, Good for the Community
Assisting others is ‘core’ to his belief, says New Life’s Mike Hilson
Writer: Susan Craton
In 1998, a young couple from North Carolina somewhat reluctantly visited Southern Maryland. Pastor Mike Hilson and his wife Tina had been invited to tour a small church located off a rural stretch of US 301 in La Plata. The church’s congregation included fewer than 100 attendees and needed a new pastor.
Was Hilson interested?
Not at first. Tarheels to the bone, the Hilsons had hoped to continue to work in their home state. But the district superintendent of the Chesapeake District of the Wesleyan Church had a hunch the Hilsons were a good match for the Southern Maryland church.
If exponential growth is any indication, that district superintendent was correct.
Hilson started work in 1999. Now, more than 5,000 Southern Marylanders and Virginians attend the church’s multiple congregations and video venues (in pre COVID-19 numbers). In addition to serving as the senior pastor for all these pursuits, Hilson is now the district superintendent of the Chesapeake Region of the Wesleyan Church, overseeing approximately 70 churches in the mid-Atlantic.
“We’ve seen it grow,” Hilson says of New Life, adding that “there are a few things that just shock me about what God’s allowed us to do.” He said the growth is due to a movement of the Holy Spirit and that “God just sent us good leaders.”
ASSISTING THE NEEDS OF ALL
New Life’s goal, Hilson says, is to bridge the gap between culture and the church through worship experiences, leadership development, cultural relevancy and self-replicating growth. In addition, Hilson believes it is the church’s mission to assist with the needs of all Southern Marylanders, not just those who pass through the church doors.
“It’s core to who we are; core to who we are as Wesleyans,” he says.
For instance, back in 2002, when the tornado destroyed a swath of the region, New Life sent out teams of church members to assist those affected. They started by helping church members, and then the teams were encouraged to help the next-door neighbors and then to just keep going down the street.
“We did that probably for weeks,” Hilson says.
For about five years stretching from 2010 to 2015, the church launched Project Living Water, an effort to alleviate some of the substandard housing problems in areas like Nanjemoy in western Charles County. New Life fixed dozens of houses, created functional septic systems and added running water to homes. The church continues to truck in loads of wood each year to assist those who heat their home with wood.
A MENTOR TO OTHERS
Pastor John Lewis created Point of Change Jail and Street Ministry Inc., an organization that since 2008 has assisted more than 70,000 at-risk youth and incarcerated adults re-entering society. Hilson is a generous partner in the prison ministry, Lewis says. However, Hilson’s impact on Lewis as a pastor is even greater.
“He sent me to school. … He was my mentor,” Lewis says. “There’s no way I would be where I am today if God had not used him to help me.”
Lewis started Servants of Christ Church, which was adopted into the New Life network of churches and now meets in one of the buildings on New Life’s La Plata campus.
“I’m a better founder of the prison ministry and a better pastor as a result of God putting him in my life,” Lewis says of Hilson.
A more recent outreach of New Life is a food pantry established at the La Plata campus in March 2020 during the COVID-19 shut-down. Run by Mike Petschk, New Life safety director, the food pantry is open each Monday, providing enough food for a family of four to eat for two days.
“Ninety percent of what we distribute comes from church members and community donations,” Petschk says.
Petschk says that Hilson’s leadership fosters the church’s programs that assist the greater community, like the food pantry. “For sure,” he says. “He never loses focus on what our job is — love God, love people.”
New Life also assists the community via counseling services, some of which are provided at no cost.
“Anyone with a need can call the office, and we will make arrangements to provide what is needed,” Hilson says.
IMPACTING THE COMMUNITY
Others community leaders outside of New Life, such as Charles County Sheriff Troy D. Berry, have noted Hilson’s impact.
“I have been working with Pastor Mike for many years,” Berry says. “He has a good sense of what’s going on around us locally and nationally, and he facilitates meetings with members of the community to gather and talk about important issues.”
Hilson frequently invites Berry to attend events at the church to speak about matters such as police-community relations, the importance of mentoring, drug addiction and the dangers of impaired driving.
Hilson believes the church should reflect the makeup of its community.
“Southern Maryland is such a unique animal,” he says. “It is Southern. It has a country edge. But it is also international.” Hilson notes that his family’s friend group here is diverse, including Korean, African-American, Puerto Rican and Filipino people.
He said that one of his proudest moments was to serve as a speaker at the 2013 annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prayer breakfast, sponsored by the Charles County NAACP.
Hilson believes that one of the greatest roles of the church is to “foster the integration of all area residents.”
Pre-COVID, New Life had achieved what most other churches struggle to achieve, with the New Life congregation being close to 45% White, 45% African-American, with the final 10% being a mix of other groups.
“That is a beautiful thing. We want to plant consistently integrated churches. … It’s awfully hard to hate someone you stand beside and worship with,” Hilson says.
To learn more about the network of congregations and ministries that make up New Life Church, go to www.newlife.live. •