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A legacy church reverses the slide, begins the climb

An evangelistic effort from FBC Gadsden, Ala., named Reach Week culminates in a Sunday morning outdoor worship service in the city's biggest park. (Submitted photo)

GADSDEN, Ala. (BP) — A comeback story doesn’t exist without the “before” – when things weren’t so great, hard decisions were needed and a different frame of mind was required.

First Baptist Church was there in 2012 when Mat Alexander arrived, a fresh-faced 26-year-old in his first full-time pastorate.

Mat Alexander recently celebrated 11 years as pastor of First Baptist Church in Gadsden, Ala.

Like many cities that grew out of industrialization, Gadsden began experiencing an economic downturn in the 1980s. The decline grew in the 90s when the steel mill plant closed and Goodyear Tire and Rubber downsized by more than 1,300 jobs. Goodyear closed down for good in 2020.

During that time drug addiction became a measurable factor in the crime rate as the homeless population grew. Season 6 of “60 Days In,” a reality show where cameras were allowed inside the Etowah County Jail less than a mile from the church, showed the effects.

First Baptist has remained in its historic downtown location with an easy view of the changes and challenges.

“We don’t have to go looking for needs. If anything, we have to pace ourselves,” said Woodie Turner, associate pastor.

First Baptist had experienced instability of its own, including several short-term pastorates and the common plight of legacy churches with an aging congregation and young families moving away.

“We had been in decline for a long time and had to deal with the things a lot of churches have to,” said Alexander.

There were a little more than 100 in attendance when Alexander arrived and his daughter was the only baby in the nursery. However, there was a starting point on which to build.

“It was not a dead church,” he said. “People loved the Lord and wanted it to grow, but there had been a lot of circumstances.”

And it wasn’t like ministry had stopped. Dentists in the church were donating their services for a free monthly clinic. Today, the church serves as a hub for a massive food distribution effort throughout north Alabama.

Influence across generations

Alexander wanted to address other points of the church, though. The first was to demonstrate how happy he was to be at First Baptist and to raise his family there.

“Much of that was because of the wonderful people we have,” he said. “I want my kids to be around senior adults. They need that and I’m glad they have those surrogate grandparents.”

It was also important to communicate the benefits of a multigenerational church.

“I was able to present a vision plan for reaching families, to encourage them to visit the church,” he said. Central to those efforts was “relentless Gospel commitment.”

“That’s not to say the church never had that, but I do feel like we renewed our emphasis on the Word and Spirit, on the preaching of the Gospel of grace and a depth of teaching that has been a blessing across generational lines,” Alexander said.

Early concerns existed about a young pastor swooping in with big ideas and bigger changes. That wasn’t Alexander’s plan.

A desire to serve

Training Union was shortened to Training U, but First Baptist still has a traditional worship service. The choir wears robes.

And not only is there still a pipe organ, it’s being renovated.

He also had the guidance of church member and previous interim pastor Larry Fuhrman, a well-known minister and former local Christian school headmaster. Calling him a “fixture in the area”, Etowah Baptist Association director Craig Carlisle, said Fuhrman has officiated more funerals there than anyone.

Alexander’s desire to address deferred maintenance, particularly in the children and youth areas, was important.

McSpadden Music Camp is hosted by First Baptist and named after its late organist George McSpadden, who served in that role for 50 years. Over 120 students participated this year, learning music theory, percussion, choral and more.

“Those renovations started to turn things around,” said Fuhrman.

“A few folks didn’t understand the need for changing things in order to welcome a new generation,” he said. “I don’t think it was meant to be negative, but an understanding of how things used to be [versus] what they needed to be.”

The elder minister’s influence was palpable.

“I never felt like he was looking over my shoulder, but I never felt like I was alone,” said Alexander.

The city of Gadsden is undergoing a rebirth of its own. Some restaurants have moved in. There is talk of a main road being moved in order to open up a massive riverfront development.

“First Baptist has always been involved in the Gadsden community and our congregation has always been a serving congregation,” said Alexander.

“We love it that way.”