In the spring of 2010, two resurrections were celebrated at First Baptist Church Spring Branch. Easter had just passed when the church had to face the reality that their life as a church had come to an end. An aging congregation, changing demographics that created a language barrier with the neighborhood, and a facility that demanded more maintenance than the dwindling number of members could sustain prompted the vote. The members agreed. After years of weekly prayerwalks, various outreach events, and attempts to partner with other smaller congregations yielded spiritual growth but no visible turnaround in the numbers, the church voted to plan its own funeral.
Within three days, new life burst forth. FBC co-pastors Corey Agricola and Kelli Barron-Agricola had prayed for the church's "resurrection morning" since they arrived almost seven years ago. They knew the facts when they agreed to lead the church through the wilderness of shaping a new ministry from what remained of the once thriving congregation:
• The church is located on almost 6 acres, has 66,000 sq. ft. of building space and a current land value of $3 million. Though expansive, the aging facility brings the value down. • To renovate the building would cost $1.5 million.• FBC has a small membership - 50 members now but many of them are shut-ins - and almost all are over 70 years of age.• 84% of the surrounding community is Hispanic and many of those are Spanish-speaking only.
Even being armed with a keen sense of current reality and a clear vision of wanting to continue a ministry presence in the Spring Branch area wasn't enough to create the needed transformation.
"Our people are not the typical older congregation," noted Kelli in a recent interview. "They have always been willing to go outside the box. We have a history of being forward thinking. We have had backward situations. Now what limits them is not attitude; it's physical ability." Within two years and after weekly prayerwalks, offers of assistance to their neighbors, special events on their campus and in apartment complexes, and an openness on the part of the congregation to do whatever was necessary, the inevitability of the church's demise was apparent.
"We've known for five years," Kelli explained regarding the congregation's growing sense that their ownership of the building located at Campbell and Long Point Roads was coming to an end. "We gave up ownership of the building a long time ago and were ready to go outside the box. . . . It's not our building. It hasn't been ours for a long time so it wasn't hard to give it back to the Kingdom."
"Giving it back" meant, initially, the building had to be given up. Previous attempts at partnering with other congregations had not met with any success. Even four different efforts to sell the property and re-establish themselves in a less costly venue hadn't resulted in a workable solution. So when finances were reduced to the point that keeping the doors open was simply no longer an option, the church vote was to find a buyer as soon as possible. Hopes for another ministry in a new form were dashed.
That's when the child returned to bless the parent. Iglesia Bautista Del Redentor was a church plant that began in Sunday School space at FBC Spring Branch. As the plant became more established and grew, they relocated, but continued joint projects with their mother church. Unaware of FBC's planned upcoming vote, Moises Flores, the current pastor of Del Redentor, contacted the Agricolas days before the scheduled churchwide meeting. Flores knew that Iglesia Christiana Amor y Restauracion with Co-pastors Letticia and Pedro Cantu was in need of a new facility. A meeting with Pastor Cantu was arranged for the day following the church vote.
After the first meeting, Pastor Cantu returned the following day with members of Amor y Restauracion and a message for FBC.
Kelli recounted the conversation, "'We want to purchase the property,' Pastor Cantu told us and then added, 'But the Lord has impressed on me that you should stay. My church feels spiritually called to foster your congregation - which is filled with spiritual elders.'"
And in that one conversation, resurrection occurred.
Amor y Restauracion paid for building and the congregation has already invested $90,000 in renovations. FBC used some of their newly acquired funds to update office space and a chapel with seating for 135.
In only two months, the newly relocated congregation is living up to its name - Love and Restoration. They have done much more that the financial investment might suggest. The 500-plus who worship there each Sunday include many business owners who are using their various resources and "everyone is pitching in" noted Kelli. "It's a family restoration project. They are putting in hours -- sometimes working until 2 a.m. -- as an offering of love."
FBC has an agreement with Amor y Restauracion to begin sharing a regular love offering with them to cover some of the building expenses and ongoing maintenance costs. The two churches are functioning as separate but equal. Kelli explained that while they are autonomous, they are "sisters in outreach".
Currently, that familial relationship is taking on many forms. A neighborhood informational/medical outreach is planned for Sept. 25. And a previously planned English-speaking startup that was in Amor y Restauracion's strategy has been revised so that those members now are integrating into FBC to assist with ministries within the community.
"What we love is this is what we wanted anyway," said Kelli of the influx of new resources, energy, and transformational possibilities. "We were desperate to find partners that would be effective in this community. We now have partners who share our vision and theology and have the skills to reach out in the community - on one of the best corners for ministry in Spring Branch."
Kelli underscores that the success of the new relationships are dependent upon attitude. "There is no paternalism on their part," she said. "They've given us room but they don't' treat us like they are carrying us. They treat us like a mission partner. That attitude is what's making this work."
A benefit of an aging population is the wealth of wisdom that accompanies the years of service. That wisdom acknowledges that while this "inverted mission model" -- from church planter to church partner within a facility they once owned - is bursting with possibilities, pitfalls can also occur.
"We're expecting them," said Kelli. "It's like a marriage. We are well-suited for each other but problems will occur. However, we trust this church because they have a Kingdom attitude. We are using the Hebrew word hesed which means love and grace so beyond what you deserve and is used in the book of Ruth. That is the only way this is going to work -- if we approach each other with that attitude."
Throughout the years of struggling and praying for God's solution to their ordeal, the Agricolas and FBC knew they were not alone in dealing with the impact of changing demographics. They also know that lessons they are learning have some universal value and are happy to share their learning thus far.
"Don't expect it to be easy," said Kelli. "It's probably a whole lot easier to close the doors that try to resurrect. When we voted, we died and three days later God resurrected us to a new church. But that takes willingness to change and a commitment to stepping out of your comfort zone in ways you don't expect."
Preparing for the inevitable spiritual warfare helps, she said. Once again the partnership adds strength to the efforts. While FBC maintains services on Sunday morning and evenings, Wednesday evenings, and weekday bible studies as well as a youth program, Amor y Restauracion worships on Sunday, has prayer meetings four nights a week and will soon launch a 24-hour on location prayer ministry on the property.
Kelli calls it a "neat story to live." While the first years were hard, love for the people of FBC kept them committed. "It was difficult to see them struggle so hard. And it's amazing now to experience God stepping in and have them get to see it. Now we have to take the opportunities the Lord has given us."
©Union Baptist Association. All Rights Reserved. 2916 West T.C. Jester, Suite 200, Houston TX 77018-7051. [Directions]