HOUSTON—As neighborhoods change, many inner-city churches find transitions challenging.
Some sell their facilities to another ministry, hoping it will do a better job of meeting the community’s needs.
Other congregations do nothing. Typically, those churches dwindle in number until finances demand they lock the doors.
Baptist Temple Church in Houston chose a different alternative. The 105-year-old congregation elected to sell some of its facility and renovate the remaining portion it plans to use to reach its community.
Baptist Temple experienced about 50 years of growth and enjoyed its heyday in the mid-1950s, when Pastor T.C. Jester led a congregation of more than 1,500. After his death and changes in the community, the congregation began its decline.
By the time Pastor Kelly Burkhart arrived in 2004, the average age of the 175 people who still gathered there was 72, and “we had become an island of white in a sea of black and brown,” he said.
No children attended. The youth ministry demonstrated some success at reaching teenagers, but the church could not attract their parents.
However, Baptist Temple owned a lot of buildings, including a sanctuary that would seat more than 1,300 people—about 1,200 more than attended worship services.
The church owned the whole block, as well as a parking lot, Burkhart noted.
In 2008, the congregation sold two buildings on one end of the block to a drugstore chain, allowing the church to bank money in preparation for renovation.
Last month, the church sold its 1949 sanctuary, along with its first sanctuary built in 1912. The buyer demolished them and will erect buildings to house retail tenants on that property.
The sale netted $3 million, which will allow renovations to the remaining 65,000-square-foot building. (For the next several months until renovation is completed, the congregation will meet in a ballroom at the Sheraton Brookhollow Hotel).
Yearlong remodeling plans include a 300-seat sanctuary, a new entrance and foyer, learning and play areas for infants and children, and numerous other modifications that will bring the building up to code.
The renovation will preserve several elements from the demolished buildings, such as cornerstone of the first sanctuary, many pieces of stained glass and even a section of hardwood flooring made from red pine.
Refusing to close its doors
Through all the change, the church refused to close its doors, Burkhart said.
“That was a conversation we never had out loud, but I had it privately with a few folks,” he acknowledged. “We ultimately decided this neighborhood really needed this church. We’ve said often that we can’t imagine this neighborhood without Baptist Temple, because this church has played a crucial role in this community.”
Regentrification of The Heights neighborhood that surrounds Baptist Temple has made the community even more diverse. Million-dollar houses sit on the same street as the homes of families who need government assistance to survive, Burkhart said.
The congregation at Baptist Temple now averages about 100 on Sunday mornings. The church has lost few members to other churches, but a significant number have died or are no longer mobile enough to attend.
“I sometimes think I’ve preached more funerals than everyone else I went to seminary with combined,” Burkhart said.
Beginning to reach younger families
However, the church has begun to reach some of the younger families in the area. New families make up about half the current congregation, he said.
Members hope the renovations will make Baptist Temple attractive to even more people.
“But we’ve known all along it was going to take a lot more than our building renovations for that to happen,” Burkhart conceded. “You can have the most beautiful building in the world, and if you’re not meeting people’s needs, it’s not going to matter.”
Bettie Clark, a church trustee and a member of the congregation since 1954, agreed.
“When (the renovation) is finished, our real work begins,” she said. “This is not the same community it was 50 or even 10 years ago. But the principles we nurture and teach never change, and they appeal to this generation just as they did when the church was founded. In many ways, we find that the young families resettling The Heights today are searching for those principles now more than ever before.”
Ministry to needy and homeless
To meet needs, the church ministers to the needy and homeless in The Heights, and it works to end human trafficking in Houston. The annual deacons’ barbecue raises money for the Houston Area Women’s Center.
Each week, Burkhart walks the streets around the church and enters mom-and-pop businesses with no agenda other than saying hello and maybe meeting some of their customers.
“We really just want to develop relationships and be an active part of this community,” he said.
New families and the upcoming renovations have added to the hope his congregation already was feeling, Burkhart said.
“There’s a lot of hope here. There is hope for us. There’s hope for our place in this community. And there is the hope we have to offer to the people who live around us,” he said.
“We’re absolutely a much healthier church now, even though we’re smaller. We’re a lot more what a church should be than we were when we had more people here on Sundays.”
While the renovations make for an exciting time, the sale of the other buildings makes it somewhat bittersweet, he admitted.
A chapter is closing
“There’s a sense that this chapter of our history is closing. We’re tearing down buildings. It’s difficult to pretend otherwise,” he said.
“There’s most definitely a sense of loss in what’s taking place right now. We have people in their 90s who were on the cradle roll in this church. They were baptized and married here, and have had funerals for loved ones, not to mention all the other spiritually significant things that happened in that room.
“But I’ve been blown away, though, by their sense that this is really a good thing. They realize they missed an opportunity to reach out to the community around them decades ago when it was changing, and I have a sense that they don’t want to do that again.”
Clark concurred. “We’re not as big or influential as we were when I first joined, but I like us now. We are a family of believers that care about each other, and we are a light for lots of people in this community. I think that is all God wants from any of us.”