BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Chris Crain, a pastor in his mid-30s, was called six years ago to his first full-time senior pastorate. It was at a declining church in a transitioning community.
By “sticking to the basics,” he has seen a revitalization in South Roebuck Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and the launch of a second campus, North Valley, 18 miles away. An early learning center has been opened and another one re-established. All the while, the church has maintained its longtime commitment to missions through the Cooperative Program, the Southern Baptist Convention’s method of supporting missions and ministries of state conventions and of the SBC nationally and internationally.
“I interview missionaries on my Sunday platform in ‘prime time,'” Crain said. “Missionaries should not be relegated to evening services if we are serious about raising up a new generation of missionaries.
“The younger generation wants to do something, not sit in a room and look at a prayer map,” Crain said. “Mission opportunities light fires of interest.”
A missionary residence at the South Roebuck campus adds fuel to that fire, the pastor said, noting, “They infiltrate our church with enthusiasm for missions.”
South Roebuck and its North Valley campus have plans this year for short-term mission trips to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, to the African country of Zambia and to Missouri as an outgrowth of the church’s emphasis on missions.
“The Cooperative Program provides a way for churches of any size to get the Gospel from its Jerusalem to the ends of the earth,” Crain said. “I think the Cooperative Program can survive and thrive in a changing world.”
An important element in South Roebuck’s new energy is being part of the Southern Baptist family, Crain said. “We exist to lead people toward connection with God and community with other believers,” he said, quoting the church’s mission statement. “It’s all about connection and community.”
Because of the Cooperative Program, Crain said South Roebuck is able to reach out regionally as well as globally, connecting with the entire Southern Baptist community — working in obedience to God’s command with all Southern Baptists to go, share God’s love and make disciples.
“When we needed help to start our new campus, state missionaries were right beside us, giving us sound advice and wisdom,” Crain said. “This is an aspect of the Cooperative Program most people don’t think about: The state conventions use their share of Cooperative Program dollars to strengthen and start churches — and to evangelize — and all this strengthens us to reach out globally ever more effectively.”
About 450 people participate these days in one of three worship services at South Roebuck’s two campuses. When North Valley was started three years ago, about 170 were attending the downtown church.
“It [South Roebuck] had been in decline since the late 1980s because of demographic changes and falling population in Birmingham, and it had been plateaued since the 1970s,” Crain explained. “We began our second campus in 2006 in an elementary school located in a bedroom community showing growth.
“We purchased property and built a modest facility for the second campus and made this [the North Valley campus] our primary outreach,” Crain continued. “Many of the homes in the area were newly built or under construction — especially before the housing crunch hit in 2008. We began reaching and baptizing people like never before.”
The South Roebuck congregation uses a traditional Sunday School concept, which works well for its setting and church culture, while the North Valley congregation incorporates the use of home Bible studies.
“For North Valley, we found that home Bible studies saved the church thousands of dollars in facilities cost,” Crain said. “Home Bible studies — we call them community groups — also help us get the Gospel message to many places within our community.”
Both the South Roebuck and North Valley campuses provide early learning centers — weekday preschools — for their communities. Under the leadership of associate pastor Michael Ethridge, both operate “in the black” with money left over to give back to the church.
“We have seen these centers make a real difference in the lives of our families,” Crain said. “I love families…. I talk about family life in almost every sermon. This is where most of our people are in their lives.”
Crain said he and his wife Carol have been best friends since he was 14. Their first child, Lauren, was adopted from Taipei; she’s now 6. Redheaded Carianne, 4, and Jackson, 3, complete the family. His active family is a constant reminder of the challenges faced by the young families at the North Valley campus. The older congregation that comprises the South Roebuck campus have different but equally challenging needs, the pastor added.
“We don’t crowd the church calendar to have something going on,” Crain said. “We stick to the basics: worship, evangelism and discipleship. We ask our members to give the church four hours a week: one hour for worship, one hour for service, and one to two hours for Bible study.”
Ministering to two different congregations is a challenge, the pastor said. South Roebuck, started in 1955, meets on the east side of Birmingham in a stately red-brick horseshoe-shaped set of two-story buildings, with a soaring cathedral ceiling in the worship center. North Valley, situated on 30 acres in Margaret, northeast of downtown Birmingham, consists of a simple one-story structure.
“Trying to communicate effectively to both locations keeps me thinking,” Crain said. “Our Birmingham location is in a demographically transitioned area…. In our newer location, we have younger families who are struggling to get their footing financially. This often means that we do some ministries on a shoestring.
“I am encouraged with the spiritual depth of the younger generation of believers,” the pastor said. “Even those who are recent converts are growing and learning as believers. I also appreciate their well-roundedness in growth. Many younger adults are not only studying the Bible, but they are trying to integrate biblical teaching into their family life, work, finances and community endeavors.”
The two campuses give 10 percent of their income to missions through the Cooperative Program; they also support the work of the Birmingham Baptist Association and the St. Clair Baptist Association.
“This year, our scholarship fund at South Roebuck provided almost a dozen scholarships to seminary students at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University,” Crain said. “Since our founding in 1955, our missions giving has remained stable even through economic challenges.
“We give enthusiastically to support North American and international missions through missions offerings and the Cooperative Program…. Our church has always done more than pay its 10 percent — we do more.” The pastor paused in reflection. “God has really blessed our church to do a lot for its size.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.