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This article first appeared in Outreach magazine in July/August 2009, in my Small Church, Big Idea column.

A New Reputation For An Old Church
by Chuck Warnock

When the doorbell rang at Cradock Baptist Church not long ago, the staff buzzed in a man who announced, “I’m Mike, and I’m homeless. I heard you help people here.” With that, Pastor Rob Edwards knew his small church again had become a vibrant witness to its struggling community.

Cradock Baptist Church was founded 90-years ago in the Portsmouth, Virginia community of Cradock, the first planned community in America. In 1918, the U. S. Housing Corporation built Cradock to provide housing for shipyard workers. Today Cradock’s high-density, urban culture reflects typical big city problems of low income, high unemployment, and struggling families.

Like many churches of its era, Cradock Baptist Church has large buildings, declining membership, and an aging congregation. But Pastor Rob Edwards has led his congregation in new ministries to their multi-ethnic neighborhood, and in the process the church has benefited, too.

Historically, the church has reached out to those with special needs. The Robin Class has taught the developmentally-challenged for over 40-years. Pastor Rob has built on that concern for others, leading the church to reach out to its neighborhood. This summer 250 volunteers from World Changers, Southern Baptists’ volunteer workforce, will rehabilitate homes in the community. A partnership with the city and a grant from HUD for materials will enable the church to help revive its historic neighborhoods. That’s just the beginning. Pastor Rob envisions hiring a housing counselor to help prevent foreclosures among the financially-struggling.

One program, however, really kicked the church’s community engagement into high gear: a coop food ministry where combined ordering doubles a family’s grocery purchasing power. At their last food distribution, over 1,000 families received 27,000-pounds of food, with the help of 50 volunteers from eight different congregations.

Cradock Baptist Church changed their focus from self-service to community engagement by:

Spotlighting established ministries. The Robin Class for the developmentally-challenged joins the congregation for worship frequently, giving higher visibility to this longstanding ministry.
Touching people during the week. Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs meet in the church 7-days a week. In turn, the church and staff have gotten to know many by name, caring for them in times of grief, and sharing in their moments of joy.
Believing community renewal creates church renewal. By banding together to help revitalize the community through housing projects, feeding programs, school supply give-aways, and weekday ministries, church members found a new sense of mission.
Creating new worship experiences. The church retains its traditional worship at 11 AM on Sunday morning, but voted unanimously to create casual worship at 5 PM on Sunday evenings to reach their younger, unchurched neighbors. Special, one-time events also have drawn neighbors together at block parties, and musical presentations.
Celebrating the church’s weekday ministries on Sundays. While Sunday morning worship attendance hasn’t grown much, Sundays have become the celebration for what the church is doing during the week.

Today Cradock Baptist’s small Sunday morning crowd of 60 touches the lives of hundreds each week. One family called asking for prayer recently. “We’re one of your food box families,” they said. “Please pray for us.” To many of these unchurched families, Pastor Rob is their pastor, and Cradock Baptist Church is the only church they know. In the process, the church’s spirit has been revived and their reputation in the community changed. Now people in Cradock know when they need help, one small church won’t turn them away.