By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
CLEVELAND — All Baptists want our churches to be healthy but when a church needs revitalization, it does not always occur the way we think, said Phil Taylor, director of missions, Bradley Baptist Association, based here.
That is the case for Stuart Park Baptist Church, Cleveland, which closed March 30 after holding its final service. Several weeks earlier it had transferred all of its facilities and assets totaling about $1.9 million to Bradley Association.
Then after weeks of study, the association transferred the properties to Candies Creek Church, Charle-ston, to assist its new satellite, Candies Creek City Church, which is meeting in a Cleveland high school.
City Church, which has just been meeting for five months, will benefit greatly from the facilities, said Taylor. The church already is drawing about 140 to Sunday morning worship services and has baptized seven people.
On May 31 members of City Church and Candies Creek will begin renovating the former facility of Stuart Park to meet its needs though it was well maintained by the small congregation over the years, said Taylor.
Stuart Park Baptist faced, like the rest of Cleveland, a changing community as more and more people from different cultures and worldviews migrate here, reported Taylor. Many of these new residents are unchurched and young in age.
Stuart Park began its decline in the midst of these changes. “The congregation valiantly maintained their witness” longer than most predicted, noted Taylor.
At times the struggle of the small congregation could be identified as spiritual warfare as self-seeking groups came into the church. God led the congregation to deny those groups, he noted.
Then in 2013 Candies Creek Church and the leadership at Stuart Park began working on a revitalization plan in the form of a merger. While that initial revitalization plan was not approved by Stuart Park, the “groundwork was laid for seeing a fruitful, growing, and dynamic ministry return to the Stuart Park campus,” stated Taylor. The association was not in “the position of being a caretaker for the property.”
The merger would have been ideal, he noted, and the “most biblical approach for revitalization” of Stuart Park because a congregation who needed help would receive help from another congregation. That follows the biblical teachings of the Apostle Paul.
Yet later, thankfully, “they were willing to give it (facilities and assets) to the association even knowing we would give it to Candies Creek,” added Taylor.
About 14 years ago Taylor met with leaders of Stuart Park who asked for help to revitalize the congregation. He advised them.
That meeting and other facets of his work have led Taylor to lead the association to offer continuous revitalization training. That training ranges from Harvest Fields Plants, Ocoee Outreach, block parties, Servolution, Love Cleveland, mentoring of young pastors, Sunday School, to Vacation Bible School.
Interestingly, Taylor was prepared for revitalization work when he first came to Bradley Association and met Malcolm Jones, a retired DOM, who befriended him. Jones was aware of many unhealthy Baptist churches and gave Taylor New Life for Dead Churches by Harvey Kenisel. The book has been reissued as Lazarus Effect: New Life for Declining Churches.
The book has been a great help to him, said Taylor, and he recommends it. Kenisel includes case studies of declining churches. He discusses options such as the adoption of a mission congregation. He considers the lease with purchase option and other contractual relationships. He includes do’s and don’ts. The book is endorsed by John Bisagno, pastor emeritus, First Baptist Church, Houston, Texas, and features some of the church’s revitalization efforts.
In the June/July 2014 issue of the Bradley Association newsletter Taylor is featuring the transfer of Stuart Park Baptist to Candies Creek Church. He has included a blog by Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, based in Nashville, entitled, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” (see story on page 8).
This topic “hits home with a lot of churches,” said Taylor.
“The reality is that more churches are going to be closing if we don’t engage on the topic now. … We need a model for how we face church closures in the future.” He added that each revitalization, which can include closure, will look different.
DOMs need to prepare to negotiate these situations, continued Taylor. The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention is just too removed from the situations.
DOMs are aware of the health of churches in their area and have relationships with the people, observed Taylor.
If Stuart Park Baptist had decided earlier to do what it did, time and money would have been saved but it didn’t, said Taylor, adding that it was their choice as an autonomous church. Now looking back he believes “it was certainly in God’s timing.”
He is proud of both churches involved though for many individuals including himself it was “emotional.” Taylor noted that Candies Creek, led by Jamie Work, senior pastor, was going to start City Church whether the Stuart Park property became available or not.
Candies Creek has a “mentality of sending people out,” said Taylor.
He also is proud of Daniel Malone, who several years ago as pastor of Stuart Park, helped the church grow some and reached out to Candies Creek for help. He now is a pastor of Big Spring Baptist Church, Cleveland.
Finally, Taylor is thankful for a $10,000 Church Revitalization Grant from the Tennessee Baptist Convention to help City Church. It came from the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions.
Work thanked Stuart Park for their generosity, saying “We are grateful that the remaining members of the Stuart Park Church were willing to cooperate with the vision of our local association to strengthen existing churches and plant new churches across our county.”
“These are stories that we’ve got to celebrate,” said Taylor.