What do you do when ethnic and socioeconomic changes around your church cause attendance to drop by thousands?
That was the question facing Rehoboth Baptist Church in Tucker, Georgia.
The congregation answered by turning its sprawling campus into a multinational hub, where eleven different churches meet each week, most of which are non-Anglo. In the process, it has experienced God's blessing and established a new model for church revitalization.
Appropriately, the word Rehoboth is a Hebrew term meaning "broad places" and conveys the idea of a place where all people are welcome.
"This is an extraordinarily viable model where there are churches with space and an abundance of it in a location where new churches need to be started—whether those be language churches, multiethnic churches, multigenerational churches, or even additional Anglo churches. There is no reason we should not be leveraging those resources," said Troy Bush, Rehoboth's pastor of administration since August. "In fact, I think it is poor stewardship when we're not leveraging those capital resources so that multiple congregations can meet in them."
In the early 1990s, Rehoboth was among the Southern Baptist Convention's most innovative and healthy churches. It had more than 5,000 in attendance at three worship services each Sunday morning and 3,000 at two Sunday School hours. The massive campus included a full gym, recreation fields, and education facilities.
But the community was changing. As northeast Atlanta, once a predominantly white area, became home to refugees and immigrants from around the world, many Anglos moved elsewhere and Rehoboth's style of ministry no longer connected with its neighbors.
"The primary challenge gradually became, how would a predominately white traditional church in the South effectively reach out to multinational ethnicities in its surrounding community?" said Jon Langford, Rehoboth's interim pastor from 2010 to 2011. "Various ministries of the church would attempt multiple methods but nothing seemed to be connecting well. Rehoboth was facing its largest opportunity ever and couldn't seem to crack the code."
Membership dropped from 7,500 in 1998 to approximately 1,000 in 2010, and worship attendance was less than 500. By that time, the church's building debt was oppressive.
"There was concern by the bank as to whether the church could maintain the service on the loan," Langford said. "With decreased attendance and a decline in financials, the church had become high risk…The bank offered no guarantee of renewal on the loan. Rehoboth was now faced with a challenging debt, a declining membership, declining offerings, and a recession that was claiming many church buildings in a volatile market."
The solution to Rehoboth's dilemma began with Peace Baptist Church, a predominantly African American SBC congregation. Growing explosively, Peace became too large for the facility where it was meeting and approached Rehoboth about sharing space in its facility and helping to pay for the building.
In November 2010, more than 2,000 members of Peace Baptist began meeting on the Rehoboth campus. Today that number continues to increase, with another 1,500 Peace attendees meeting elsewhere.
In addition to sharing a building, the two congregations hold some joint events, including 4th of July and Easter celebrations, and combine youth ministries frequently.
"Peace Baptist's ministry is truly a thriving ministry. Every month they are baptizing new people," said Bush, who also serves as director of the Dehoney Center for Urban Ministry Training at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Though two other congregations had been meeting at the Rehoboth campus for several years before Peace, this was the most expansive partnership to date and opened the door for additional facility sharing.
"In the next month, four more mission churches would be added to the campus," Langford said, "including a church plant started by Rehoboth for Bhutanese refugees. Church services were alternated throughout the day to accommodate all the churches that were now meeting at the Rehoboth facilities."
By the end of the year, eleven congregations were meeting on the campus, conducting twelve different worship services in seven different languages. That translated into 3,500 people flowing through the campus each week.
Several of the congregations are affiliated with the SBC, and all are evangelical. The partnering churches are:
- Peace Baptist Church (African American)
- First Agape Baptist Church (Bhutanese)
- Cellebration Fellowship (Multicultural Cell Ministry)
- Mosaic Fellowship (Multilingual Church)
- Gospel Baptist Church (Burmese)
- Templo Iglesia Bautista (Hispanic)
- Cornerstone Baptist Church (Multilingual African Church)
- Voices of Hope Baptist Church (Kenyan/Swahili)
- Mission Evangelique D'Atlanta (French African)
- Ethiopian Bible Study (Ethiopian Church Plant)
The congregations are still working out details of their partnerships, including how often to participate in joint ministry endeavors and what types of projects to undertake together.
One successful joint venture, however, involved the Bhutanese congregation, First Agape Baptist. Last summer First Agape hosted a thirty-day training event at Rehoboth for Bhutanese church leaders across America. Not only did Rehoboth members host the training at the church building, some also hosted the attendees in their homes for the month.
At times Rehoboth brings together all of the congregations.
"There are times that we do events with them and pull all of them together," Bush said. "This is the beginning of our journey together. In days ahead we fully expect to see that type of collaborative effort increase. It's something we welcome and look forward to."
In the future, Rehoboth anticipates inviting additional congregations to meet on its property, Bush said, adding that there is still plenty of space.
"I get calls regularly about the possibility of other congregations meeting with us," he said.
Rehoboth is also working to expand its own congregation. In its worship services, the church averages about 400 attendees and has had several young families visit recently. In the next several months, outreach ministries will spread the Gospel in the surrounding community, Bush said.
Among the church's plans are to engage a nearby elementary school with students from fifty different language groups and to start a church for people from a closed area of the world.
"The journey certainly included a lot of work and a robust reengagement of the community," Bush said. "And instead of sitting back and being passive and choosing to stay the course and not engage the community or choosing to close the doors, what [Rehoboth] has chosen is to be very intentional and very forward looking as to how they can engage this community."
Part of the church's strategy involved calling Larry Wynn, vice president for evangelism at the North American Mission Board, as transitional pastor this fall.
Though reaching people for Christ is Rehoboth's most important goal, it has also worked with its partner congregations to formulate a plan for paying off its debt.
"The church body prayed constantly concerning the debt, anticipating a renewal of the loan," Langford said. "In the eleventh hour and the final week of review, Rehoboth received a modest loan renewal with its bank. In a time when a reasonable commercial bank loan seemed impossible, God in His sovereignty provided for the church."
While Rehoboth has a policy of not discussing publicly the specifics of its indebtedness, Bush said that "God has really given Rehoboth favor, especially even in the last year to put together what we think is a locally contextual plan that is missional and establishes a great financial and ministry foundation for Rehoboth and all of our partner churches."
MODEL FOR OTHERS
Rehoboth hopes other churches with ample space and declining numbers will follow its example and host sister congregations on their campuses. Such a strategy leverages resources for God's Kingdom and injects energy into the host church, according to Bush.
"We do stand at a bit of an unusual place. But the principles that Rehoboth is fleshing out in a Gospel manner are transferable," he said.
Buildings "are Kingdom resources that God's people have given and sacrificed to make available for ministry. And they're not useful for ministry just in their own lifetime. They are Kingdom resources to be used until Christ returns."