By Jeff Brumley
They tried hiring a consultant, new worship styles, luring nonprofits as renters and seeking other churches for mergers. But each approach fell through for the roughly 50 aging members of Scott Boulevard Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga.
The congregation’s next step will be to rent worship space later this year. Next for their home of six decades is the wrecking ball, and the property eventually will become a retail development.
There’s no doubt about it, Pastor Greg Smith says: Congregational aging, if unplanned for, can be gut-wrenching.
“There is some sense of a spiritual unfaithfulness, that they are somehow being unfaithful to God by this action,” Smith said. “And that’s painful.”
And it’s likely in store for more congregations who fail to track the intersecting trends of giving and aging that eventually forced Scott Boulevard from its property. Another factor is having rigid beliefs about what church and ministry must look like.
“I began asking the question, ‘what are we doing as a church that nobody else is doing?’” said Smith, who became pastor in 2007. “I couldn’t come up with a good answer for that question.”
But all is not lost. Smith said the ordeal has pushed the church to find its ministry niche in the surrounding community.
“It’s new life coming out of death,” he said. “Now it’s a missional model of resurrection that will bear fruit as we go out in the neighborhood.”
Smith spoke with ABPnews about the factors that led Scott Boulevard Baptist to take drastic steps, and how they hope it will result in that resurrection.
How and when did you come to be at Scott Boulevard?
I’m 56 and I had been in ministry full time since since 1982. Most of that was in music ministry. I went back to McAfee in 2004, got an M.Div. and graduated at 50. There aren’t a lot of churches that will call a pastor who is over 50. So I knew I would be looking at a smaller congregation, and that is what I wanted. I wanted a more personal touch with my congregation.
How was the congregation when you got there?
This congregation had its heyday in the ‘60s with an average attendance of around 500 people. But the neighborhood … aged out as the children left home in the early ’70s and never returned. So the congregation aged with the neighborhood. And by the time I arrived here in 2007, we had a congregation of 70 people — and 50 percent of the active membership was over 80. That statistic really caught my attention.
How did things unfold from there?
I realized that while the congregation had made the financial adjustment, there were not enough people who were healthy and had the vitality… to provide leadership and ministry for younger ages. So we did a strategic study within my first year at the church and decided not to take away a lot of the traditional ministry but to add new ministries…. We chose to respect the people who are here, recognizing they are the ones who pay the bills.
What kind of new ministries?
We did some alternative worship, a mix of contemporary and emerging church styles of worship. But one of the things about emerging church worship trends: It’s labor intensive and we didn’t have enough people – just a half dozen young adults…. We were never able to develop a cohesive group of young adults. They didn’t stick. And we did not have the ability to offer viable ministries for youth and children – we didn’t have facilities that young families are looking for.
What were the traditional ministries you continued to offer?
Sunday-night worship. The older members felt a faithfulness to that program. They felt that worship service was faithfulness to the gospel. We hung on to it until the point when their health prevented them from driving at night.
When did the church begin looking at other solutions?
Two years ago, we lost some key elderly leaders who were also significant contributors, and that loss created a sense of crisis within the congregation…. They began to see it financially in the church and we recognized we had a crisis we had to address.
How did you try to address that crisis?
We negotiated a lease with [a nonprofit serving the developmentally disabled] to house their state-wide offices in our education building…. But they were unable to come because … they couldn’t sell their building and the contract expired.… We pursued a merger with another church in which we would relocate to their building, but that merger fell through. That was a big blow to our people…. The third option was for an assisted living and nursing care provider to purchase our building … but zoning regulations killed that deal.
What did you do after that?
Throughout all of this process I had conversations with 17 different churches and nonprofit organizations about partnering with our church in one way or another.… And we reached a point last fall when we felt we had tried everything that was out there, and at that point there was a commercial developer — who we had turned down twice. So last September we signed a contract to sell the property to the commercial developer, who will tear down the building entirely…. So we have negotiated with First Baptist Church of Decatur… to lease their chapel for worship and one room for Sunday school and an office. We will continue to exist as an independent church. We will create a foundation from the funds of the sale of the property.
What kind of ministries do you envision having?
We have a large homebound list and we are wanting to develop some ministries with the elderly that will give them a spiritual purpose beyond a building. Yesterday we had our first small group meeting in a home. I see that as one way of maintaining ministry with people whose health circumstances don’t allow them to get out of their homes.
Is that going to be a house church model?
Not in the way emerging churches understand house church. It’s more like small group ministries that meet in homes because it’s a more effective way to minister to older people.
It does sound more missional, though.
Certainly the missional model is shaping this new way of looking at ministry. It’s a hard concept to accept because for them church has always been in that building.
What’s all this been like for you?
One of the commitments I made to this congregation was that I would walk with them through this process and that has become more emotionally difficult than I had anticipated. I feel a great deal of responsibility in how I lead these people to use the resources from the sale of this property for the greater benefit of the kingdom of God.