By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
KNOXVILLE — Once a strong, vibrant congregation, Cumberland Baptist Church here had fallen into hard times over recent years as attendance had dwindled from nearly 400 in its heyday to between 70-100 people.
Two issues were readily seen — the church had few young families and those who attended no longer reflected the neighborhood.
Bob Brown, church revitalization specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, began working with the congregation about two years ago. Brown was very familiar with the church, having grown up in the congregation.
“The folks at Cumberland knew they could not continue on the path they were on,” Brown recalled.
Brown noted that the church had the financial resources to “continue on the path they were on for the next 10-plus years. However, due to the aging demographics of the congregation it would become increasingly difficult to maintain any kind of effective outreach in the community,” he observed. “They were growing tired.”
Despite valiant efforts on the part of some church members, the church “had become ineffective in reaching its own community,” he observed.
Brown said the turning point for the congregation occurred when they finally realized that “God has made us stewards over the resources He has provided for this time. If they buried those resources in an effort to preserve the past, they would not be investing in kingdom purposes.
“They could play it safe and maintain or they could walk by faith and focus on the main thing – that being to love God and to love people,” Brown said.
“You can’t please God by playing it safe. That requires no faith and without faith, it is impossible to please God.”
Brown recalled that assimilation (the process of giving up resources and becoming part of another congregation) was on the bottom of the list of options for the church when he became involved.
The church engaged in dialogue with Wallace Memorial Baptist Church and then-pastor Mike Boyd along with other leaders from Wallace. Wallace Memorial was very familiar with Cumberland because it had started the church as a mission decades earlier.
“While no one could have seen the final outcome of becoming a campus of Wallace Memorial, there was a pervasive sense that status quo was not an option,” Brown said. “I was so thankful for many of the long-time members for whom much change would be required. They had hung in there through the hard times and now were faced with making a very difficult decision.”
Over the course of several months, they formed a joint transition team that addressed some of the logistical questions. After a lot of prayer and discussion, the members of Cumberland agreed to become a campus of Wallace Memorial. The transition took place at the end of last year.
During the transition, Wallace Memorial ministers took turns preaching at Cumberland. About a month ago, the church called Chad Crawford, who had been both interim pastor at Cumberland and college and young adult pastor at Wallace Memorial, as the full-time campus pastor at Cumberland.
The decision enabled Cumberland to maintain its legacy in the community while being given an opportunity to once again reach the community for Christ.
Crawford had witnessed the assimilation (also known as a legacy church plant) from the beginning. “The real heroes are the core leaders of Cumberland Baptist Church who decided they needed to do something besides start a new program or find a new pastor,” he said. They realized they needed “a new option.”
During the period in which Wallace Memorial ministers were preaching at Cumberland the “people here heard our hearts about what we thought the church needed to once again reach its community,” Crawford recalled.
In November of last year the church voted “overwhelmingly” to become a community campus of Wallace Memorial and has moved forward ever since, Crawford said. Among other things, that involved Wallace Memorial assuming financial obligations of Cumberland and Cumberland’s property now belonging to Wallace Memorial.
About 30 members from Wallace Memorial came to Cumberland to assist Crawford and Steven Hoover, worship pastor at Cumberland, who was the only remaining staff member of the church.
Hoover especially is grateful for what he has seen transpire at Cumberland. “I was praying and hoping that the church would make it but I knew God would have to do something powerful for that to happen and He did,” Hoover recalled.
Hoover affirmed the transition “has been for the better and is the fulfillment of things hoped for and prayed for. God has been faithful to provide for His people.”
Crawford formed an advisory board comprised of people from both church backgrounds and a variety of ages. The advisory board was instrumental in helping Crawford gain insight as to where the Lord was leading the congregation, he said. The process “helped us to be respectful of our legacy while moving forward at the same time.”
After a year, the church has made progress. Attendance has climbed to between 115-120 and the church has seen an influx of new families and young adults, Crawford said. At the same time, they are even seeing new faces among the senior adults.
“We’re trying to be a multi-generational church,” the pastor said.
Though attendance has increased and three people have been baptized this year, the Cumberland campus is operating on a new “scorecard,” Crawford said.
The church is focusing more on “making disciples who in turn make disciples” and “being a blessing in the community,” he stressed.
“My job is to help all generations rediscover what it means to have a gospel impact in this community,” he said.
Crawford is the first to admit that the transition has not always been smooth. “There have been some who have struggled as they have seen the church make major changes over the past nine months,” he acknowledged.
Brown agreed. “They have lost some folks from this assimilation. Some left in anger and disappointment. Some who left simply desired to make a change in church membership, but most stayed,” he observed.
Crawford shared that one senior adult lady told him she did not like all the changes, especially in worship, but “if it means we keep reaching young people and making an impact with the gospel,” then she was all for it.
The new pastor said he is beginning to see generations come together “and set aside their preferences for the greater good of the gospel.”
Brown, who is now serving as interim pastor at Wallace Memorial after Boyd retired due to health reasons earlier this year, observed that Crawford is “doing a fantastic job at loving the people and dealing with their fears since he came as interim and is now the permanent campus pastor.
“There is a growing love and trust among all ages within the church,” Brown observed. “I look forward to seeing the plans God has for Cumberland in the days to come.”