CHARLOTTE, N.C. (BP) – What should a traditional, white Southern Baptist congregation do when they can no longer sustain their ministries or their facilities, when the community around them looks nothing like their membership, when they know they are dying?
Emmanuel Baptist Church was a thriving rural fellowship. But after 61 years of ministry, the North Carolina church’s leaders faced some painful decisions.
In June 2014 by unanimous vote, Emmanuel’s property was deeded to Meeting Place Church, an African American church plant in cooperation with the Charlotte-area Shady Brook Baptist Church and Metrolina Baptist Association. Lead pastor Vince Riley is a former Charlotte police officer and a former crusade director with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Glenn Flowe, Emmanuel’s interim pastor, said, “On our campus right now we have the Meeting Place Church, Emmanuel Church, a Hispanic church, and a Christian school is meeting in some of our facilities.” By agreement, Emmanuel will continue to meet in their facilities for five years before ceasing to exist as a church.
“I can honestly say that with a situation like this, involving so many major decisions and changes, I don’t see how it could have worked out any better,” Flowe said. “And keep in mind we still have people in our church who are charter members.
“It’s amazing how happy our people are about what they’ve done. When our church services are over on Sunday morning we walk out into the parking lot, and even though we have only six or eight cars for our congregation, the parking lot is filled. It is very gratifying to us. Our people are tickled to death.”
Flowe, with more than 50 years of ministry, retired in 2003 after 29 years at another Charlotte congregation. This is his third call as Emmanuel’s interim pastor.
A few years ago the church woke up to the reality that their community had changed. A survey revealed the neighborhood was approximately 66 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic. “The remaining white population was primarily senior adults who had lived there many years,” Flowe said.
“The situation was very bleak humanly speaking. The first Sunday I came as interim there were about 16 people in attendance. There was some disunity, some hurt, but the Lord brought healing to us.”
The church had no youth, no children, no choir and one adult Sunday School class.
Revitalization was an option. They considered a partnership with a larger church. “We talked to at least two churches about the potential of merging or finding someone who would come alongside of us.
But nothing was working out,” Flowe recounted.
Emmanuel’s leaders invited Bob Lowman, director of missions for the Metrolina association, to help them explore options. Lowman has been “extremely instrumental in leading us through this transition,”
Flowe said. “He has been very encouraging and understanding of our situation. He knew there would be pain with the separation and transition.”
At the same time, Lowman was talking with Vince Riley about the growth pains of Meeting Place. The young church was meeting in an abandoned library not far from Emmanuel. Lowman arranged a meeting with the two churches’ leadership.
Riley was pleased with the initial meeting. “We were impressed with their heart for the Lord and their openness to even sit down and talk about the possibility of a partnership,” he said. “We had no idea what to expect, we were just praying for the best outcome. We had a great meeting and we walked away excited about the possibilities.”
Then a phone call from Emmanuel put everything on hold as the leaders wanted to explore all their options.
“[We] continued to pray,” Riley said, “and knew that God was doing something. We felt our hearts were knitted with Pastor Glenn and the leadership at Emmanuel, so we began to pray about all the possibilities.” Several months passed with no contact.
Flowe and Lowman continued to explore Emmanuel’s options, but no plan seemed to fit. “I think I’m going to go back to the deacons and tell them the church needs to dissolve.” Flowe said, “and give the property to the association for a church plant.”
The leaders of Emanuel and Meeting Place met once again and a workable plan grew out of the discussions.
Meeting Place has now assumed ownership and financial obligations of the six-acre property including utilities and maintenance. Emmanuel is meeting in the church’s sanctuary. Meeting Place assembles in the Family Life Center, and a Hispanic church also worships in the facilities. “At the end of five years on Emmanuel’s 66th anniversary,” Flowe said, “it will simply cease to exist.”
He added, “We ought to be meeting in one of the classrooms and Meeting Place should be in the sanctuary. But you have older people who built the sanctuary and they have a lot of ties to this place. Out of deference to the people of Emmanuel, Meeting Place gave us the sanctuary. They have taken into consideration the thoughts and feelings of the people. This has won over the hearts of our people. We don’t feel like someone has come in and run over us or taken over. We developed a plan [with] combined activities, but we would have separate governance. That was the magic key that reopened the discussion.”
“When we came back to the table,” Riley said, “Emmanuel gave us a proposal that was beyond our wildest imagination. It was one of those Ephesians 3:20 moments that God is ‘able to do exceedingly, abundantly above all that we ask or think.’ … We were just overwhelmed by the generosity of the proposal. … Our folks love their folks, and their folks love our folks. If there can be a picture of what heaven can be, come to the Meeting Place/Emmanuel campus and see what God is doing.”
Flowe has talked to fellow pastors who are in situations where the church is declining, the prospects for growth are not there, and the mindset is “we’ll go as long as we can and the last one out can turn out the lights and lock the door.” The people of Emmanuel “rejected that course outright from the very beginning,” he said. They want to be proactive.
“I heard our folks say over and over, ‘Emmanuel started in that community to be an instrument to glorify God, and we want to go out as an instrument that’s glorifying God.'”
There were painful decisions and thoughts of what might have been. “If you know you are being led by the Holy Spirit,” Flowe said, “then whatever you have to surrender or however you move on, these things are not just randomly happening. They are happening under the controlling, sovereign hand of God. Therefore it is a good thing. We are just bathing in the afterglow of this surrender.”
Reflecting on the process, Lowman added, “It is hard for a church to go through a decision-making process like this where they’re signing away things they worked to build. In this case, they were not signing it away for no reason; they were doing it for a Kingdom purpose. That is something we kept coming back to — this is about the Kingdom. Everybody is united around that.”