October 22, 2020

A Small Church Tragedy

A Small Church Tragedy

I’m back. I want to talk about a story from back home in my hometown, Owensboro, Kentucky. I wish I could link the newspaper account of this story, but it’s under a registration page, so you will just have to trust me on this one.

The church is Wing Avenue Baptist Church in Owensboro, a small church where I preached quite often as a young preacher. It’s in a poor part of town, on the wrong side of the tracks- literally- in a changing neighborhood. The kind of little SBC church that grew enough to get beyond mission status, but never really was in the kind of community to attract new people just from location or the usual programs.

Then, several years ago, the church did something unusual for our community. They hired a Liberian as their pastor. Not a librarian, but an African from Liberia. Now, I grew up in this community, and I can tell you that while it’s never been a town known for racial tension, it is definitely Southern enough that white, SBC churches weren’t hiring black pastors. African or otherwise. This was a bold move, and everyone sat up and took notice. How would things turn out?

I can tell you that I know these kinds of small, traditional churches. They are quite simple. There is a core group that wants to run the show. They want the church to grow, but that means 1950’s SBC style worship, evangelism and so forth. Don’t rock the boat or get to creative. That group wants to be visited, fawned over and placated. If they are happy, you can hardly do wrong. If they don’t like you, leave. Because they aren’t going anywhere, and they will only follow when they know they are running the show.

From all reports, WABC experienced a marvelous positive turnaround under this new pastor. Like many African Christians that I know, he was warm and welcoming, conservative, devoted and hard-working. He’s a good preacher, as my mother can report from several hearings. In one year, the church took in almost 50 new members and baptized 27. Most remarkably, the church took in enough minorities to be able to call itself multi-racial, which in our community, is far from the norm.

Things changed. Worship changed, as anyone might expect, and the church seemed to be growing with little of the expected stress. All seemed to be going well. So it’s sad to report that the pastor has, with the help of a hefty vote against him, decided to leave the church, and IMO, most likely start another congregation.

What happened?

Apparently two things. First, the pastor asked the church to change their name to something less geographical and non-denominational. It seems like a small thing, but in an established, traditional SBC church in my town, it’s major league serious. Ultimately, it was never going to fly. Those West Kentucky Southern Baptist know who they are, and they don’t intend to go generic.

Secondly, the pastor tried to restructure church government in a completely non-traditional manner, a move that was perceived by many- rightly, IMO- as a way to get enough power to make decisions like the name change without having congregational votes. When you are dealing with a core group that pays the bills, anything that takes them out of their traditional power dynamics and allows the pastor to deal with a group other than the congregation is going to be opposed.

So, losing these votes, he left. No racial tension, but a repudiation of the philosophy the pastor was pursuing. The church is back where they started, because it is safe to say that the majority of the growth people will move with him to whatever he begins.

This is a sad story, because it shows what so many pastors are all about. I am not in any way bad-mouthing this young pastor. He did a great job and the church grew. Good things happened. Christians were seeing the kind of congregational transformation that most traditional churches never see.

If this young pastor could stay with it, even more good things could happen. But what’s going to happen now is yet another church is going to be born out of the generational warfare among evangelicals. Call it the worship wars, the seeker sensitive controversy or the influence of Rick Warren on ordinary pastors. Whatever it is, it seems to increasingly come down to this: If these changes can’t be made on my schedule, then I’m not willing to stay until the transformation in lay leadership makes it possible. In the end, this becomes about what changes can be made from the top down. If a church isn’t on board for them all, then it’s cya later.

It’s a shame, and it’s a failure. I wonder when the innovators will start writing books on how to stay at a church and see some things through on a schedule that might admit real change won’t come at the same pace as a pastor’s ambition might dictate.