By Jeff Brumley
Tony Lankford is about to make what may seem, on the surface at least, like a drastic change in preaching jobs.
For the past decade, Lankford has been lead pastor at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta. It’s an inner-city, multi-cultural church with an eclectic worship style, about 100 members and attendance of between 70 and 75 on Sunday mornings.
But Lankford, 35, was recently called to be the lead pastor at First Baptist Church of St. Simons Island, Ga. On May 31, he’ll take the helm of that congregation of about 450 predominantly white members with 300 Sunday morning attendance.
So why does a minister with 10 years of successful experience applying missional church concepts in an urban-core setting want to lead a more affluent church on an island known by many as a resort destination? And for that matter, why does the church want that kind of minister?
‘A strong, healthy church’
Lankford said it’s because the two communities aren’t as different as they seem. Another draw is that First Baptist is poised to take a long, hard look what it’s mission in life is – just as Park Avenue Baptist was when he became the pastor there in 2004.
“They are in unison and they are ready to envision a more missionally engaged future,” Lankford said about First Baptist, which he described as a healthy, growing church.
“They are ready to work together to cast a vision and to guide the church into its next season.”
Besides, there are more similarities between Park Avenue’s surrounding neighborhood and St. Simons Island than many would guess, he said.
The island has seen a lot of housing construction in recent years geared to middle-class and other full-time residents. The island has two elementary schools and numerous apartment complexes.
“And both (churches) are historic congregations that are landlocked within their place,” he added. “Both have long reputations as assets to their communities.”
And both saw the need to have serious conversations about the future.
“Park Avenue did that 10 years ago and came out a strong, healthy church,” Lankford said.
Guiding ethic: reflect the neighborhood
Ministers who have watched Lankford at work in Atlanta say the turnaround he led at Park Avenue Baptist was a major accomplishment.
“That church had roughly eight members and was about to close,” said Frank Broome, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.
Hitting the 100 mark just 10 years later, he said, is quite an achievement.
“It’s impressive to see a young man take an old church and turn it around,” Broome said.
While First Baptist does not need that kind of rescuing, it needs to determine how to best serve its neighbors. It’s why Lankford will be a good fit at First Baptist, said Trey Lyon, CBF field personnel and a community pastor at Park Avenue Baptist.
“Our guiding ethic – Tony’s guiding ethic – is that any church ought to reflect the community where it is placed,” Lyon said.
It’s why that church intentionally sought an African-American as associate pastor and why the faces in the pews are a mixture of races, Lyon said. But it’s also made up of a wide range of educational and economic backgrounds – which also reflects the neighborhood.
‘Always moving forward’
Not long after Lankford arrived at Park Avenue, the church converted 4,500 square feet of unused space in the huge building into Lydia’s House, which serves as housing for missionaries and mission workers visiting serving inner-city Atlanta.
That, Lyon said, reflects Lankford’s asset-based ministry style that emphasizes churches using existing resources to accomplish their missions.
Lyon, who said he’s familiar with First Baptist, guessed the island congregation is equally in need of ascertaining the demographic shifts occurring around it. Then they must channel their resources to meet those needs.
And there are also the changes in attitudes and practices toward religion in the U.S., he said.
With the rise of the ‘nones’ and the Millennials, does anyone care about church anymore, is it relevant?” he said.
Lankford is skilled at honoring a congregation’s history while orienting it to the needs of the community and the realities of the culture, Lyon said.
“Tony would tell you if he weren’t a pastor he would be an entrepreneur,” Lyon said. “It’s in his DNA to always be moving forward.”
‘Doing the things I love’
First Baptist was likely drawn to Lankford and the transformation he inspired at Park Avenue, said Broome, who advised the congregation in its pastoral search but was not involved in the selection process.
“He has what every church needs: he’s a leader,” Broome said. “He’s a person who can bring people together – he’s proven that.”
Those are ideal qualities for a church that wants to missionally re-engage the St. Simons Island community, Broome said.
Lankford acknowledged there be cultural adjustments to be made for he and his family in the move from inner city to seaside community. But it’s worth it.
Because of its resources, being missional at First Baptist could include helping local schools and those in need in neighboring towns or around the world.
“This church can do financially far more than Park Avenue ever could,” Lankford said.
But it’s not that the church isn’t already an asset to its neighbors. A local elementary school is using the church gym, he said.
“It’s already doing the things that I love about Park Avenue,” he said.