People living around the Roanoke Valley who call themselves Baptists are by far the most numerous church group in these parts. There are 75 congregations that are part of the Roanoke Valley Association of Southern Baptists (RVBA); this does not include as many others who designate themselves “Independent” with no affiliation with the predominant group.
No wonder folk from other denominations sometimes suppose “The Baptist have it made. They’re always growing.”
Yet in these times when many people of any age no longer attend a church, Baptist leaders as well as others are studying ways to bring neighbors and work partners into a saving and personal connection with God.
This was evident when representatives from most of the RVBA congregations came together for their annual spring business and education gathering with the host Ridgewood Baptist Church in East Salem.
After a brief business meeting in which officers for the coming year were approved and a positive vote was recorded on permitting more than 50 acres at a nearby camp to be cleared of woods, the representatives adjourned to one of several small groups. Regarding the tree cutting at Jubilee Acres, the small conference center the association owns on Catawba Mountain, it was pointed out that the southern pine beetle has ravaged trees on 30 acres and the fallen trunks are a fire hazard.
Money realized from the logging will help fund some services to people and the hilly shale soil will be reseeded, it was noted.
The Rev. Dr. John Saunders, executive director of the Roanoke Association’s many cooperative ministries from his office on Plantation Road in Roanoke, led one of the several small groups with the theme of “The Life Cycle of the Church.”
In a PowerPoint presentation, he outlined three stages of life in a congregation from hopeful beginning in the vision of one or more persons, through its peak of growth and influence and finally its decline.
He suggested that those of us present consider if our own congregation is currently Inclining, Reclining or Declining. As I thought of my Salem church, which is more than 150 years old and tends to be slow to accept change, I could identify many ups and downs in its long history. For most of the 20th Century its ministers tended to serve 25 years or more. Since 2000, however, clergy leadership has been much less predictable.
To warn his small group of Baptist pastors and lay leaders that growth is not inevitable, Saunders revealed that 85 percent of Southern Baptist congregations are stagnant or declining in membership. Some are closing.
In the association, he cited Bonsac and North Roanoke as currently moving forward in reaching their communities effectively with programs offering the love of Christ in ways that get people into the church fellowship. He noted that two creative strategies are working in the valley; when the old declining Belmont Church neared closing two years ago its leaders partnered with a new younger congregation with both groups benefiting the needy in urban Southeast Roanoke.
Another interesting change occurred, he noted, when Salem’s Tabernacle congregation closed, only to be renewed by a younger “homeless” group which now has a needed building.
Above all, said the executive, church people must pray and look to needs of people living near the building. These might be as diverse as a homeless shelter, a free pre-school or regular visitation of the elderly living alone. Leaders in declining churches who do this can reverse the status quo in which a familiar structure of committees and predictable programs stifle acceptance of new people, he pointed out.
Hearing the executive, I was reminded of newsletter remarks from the 20-year minister of Second Presbyterian Church, George Anderson as he commended his old downtown Roanoke flock of the people outreach ministries now reach.
Getting out into the communities too is a frequent plea of Mark Bourlakas, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia as well as the new Virginia Conference United Methodist bishop, Sharma Lewis.
Meeting people where they are may or may not result in swelling the church rolls. For Baptists, as for many others, it’s “missional” service that matters.