Are big churches an advantage?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 10, 2001

If fix-ups and add-ons lead to saved souls, Natchez seekers need not worry.

A spate of church additions and renovations has raised the question. Do newer, bigger, fresher facilities give the shepherd an edge in managing the flock?

Maybe. And maybe not. Natchez-area ministers and lay leaders in some of the churches where projects have been undertaken or are planned are quick to cite the needs for updated facilities. On the other hand, they caution that congregations must not lose sight of priorities.

‘Double-edged sword’

&uot;A fine facility is a double-edged sword,&uot; said the Rev. Dr. Bill Hurt, pastor at First Baptist Church in Natchez. &uot;Our facility is great because we can do anything we desire in it. We are able to have 500 people in the family life center; we can host graduations in the sanctuary. The facilities are a way we can connect to the community. But we have to be careful not to worship the facility.&uot;

What’s more, the large, elegant First Baptist complex, easily the envy of other churches because of its utility and spaciousness, may be a detriment to attracting certain new members, Hurt said.

&uot;Someone might drive by and look at the church and say, ‘this is too big for us,’ and drive right on by.&uot;

Thus the challenge for a church, regardless of the facility, is to put its real self before the community. &uot;The church is not the building but the people. We’re the body of Christ and God’s dwelling place is in our hearts and in our lives.&uot;

Still, most congregations grappling with the question are answering yes to renovations.

Remaining vital requires growth, an active member of Jefferson Street United Methodist Church said, describing the congregation’s decision to increase the size of the complex on the corner of Jefferson and Union streets.

&uot;We began to realize we had the nucleus of the finest group of young couples with young children at our church,&uot; said Jane Kimbrell, long-time member and a former delegate to conference. &uot;It was those young people who made us aware that the need was there.&uot;

The Jefferson Street church is a historic building and located in the historic downtown district. Finding a middle ground between need and historic preservation caused some delay in plans to add the large family life center to be constructed on the west side of the church.

Nevertheless, plans now are approved and construction soon will be under way. &uot;We’ll have a great kitchen, a gym; and even the senior members of the church will benefit, as there will be ramps for easy access,&uot; Kimbrell said. &uot;The basement area, where we used to have fellowship, will be renovated for another use.&uot;

Kimbrell applauds the addition to the church, citing the need to keep up with the congregation’s needs. &uot;You can stand still and stagnate, I always say,&uot; she said.

A center to serve the Lord

At Rose Hill Baptist Church, another historic building constructed in 1908 by a congregation that easily is the oldest black Baptist flock in Mississippi, an addition should be under construction within a few weeks, said Mae Marshall, who chaired the finance campaign for the project.

&uot;We thought June would be a dry month and a good time to start the construction,&uot; Marshall said, citing the irony of a very wet beginning of the month that had postponed the groundbreaking at the Madison Avenue site.

The plan at Rose Hill is bold, ambitious and comprehensive, she said. &uot;We wanted a multiservice center that would enable us to better serve the Lord in word and deed.&uot; The handsome sanctuary, where protection of the fine stained glass windows was a project undertaken in the mid 1990s, has been used not only for church services but also for Sunday school classes, Marshall said.

&uot;We wanted classrooms for Sunday school and for after-school tutoring programs,&uot; she said. Also, members wanted a place to have meals and fellowship. &uot;Our kitchen is very small. And we wanted regular planned meals at the church.&uot;

Young people and older people were at the center of the plans, she said. For elderly members, the congregation hopes to create a peaceful and pleasant place. &uot;Whether they’re using canes, walkers or coming in wheel chairs, we want them to come and to be comfortable. And we want them to come to Bible study and prayer service all through the week.&uot;

Plans abound at Rose Hill, where an active food program for the needy already operates successfully and where funds routinely go to families in the fall who need help buying school uniforms for their children.

&uot;We have to keep things going, motivate our people,&uot; Marshall said. &uot;We’re in the process of reorganizing the youth program to get them more active. We want younger people to work with the older people to teach them how to use computers to get information that would be useful to them, such as on health care.&uot;

Hopes for future programs lie in the new addition, where space will allow the expanded schedule of events, Marshall said.

‘The best possible place’

At Parkway Baptist Church, the growing congregation saw a need for improving facilities for its young people, said youth minister Jim Reid. &uot;From the bed babies on up, we saw that, while our facilities were good, they were getting old; and we wanted to provide the best possible place for the young people.&uot;

The recently completed new wing includes a large fellowship hall. &uot;We have wonderful fellowship at this church, and we wanted a place where others could come and share in the fellowship. We can comfortably seat 400 to 500 for a sit-down meal.&uot;

Reid said the congregation believes the church must have the new space in order to grow, especially in the youth areas. Moving fellowship hall to the new area freed the old hall for renovation as a teen center, Reid said. &uot;Parkway has a history of showing great interest in youth ministry. This new area will be our permanent place for teens, 7th to 12th grade.&uot;

Like other churches involved in expansion projects, Parkway, on Seargent S. Prentiss Drive, also took into consideration the needs of older members, Reid said. &uot;With our new ramps and our elevator, you don’t have to take a single step up to get anywhere within the facility. And you can do it all out of the weather.&uot;

First Presbyterian Church members also are planning extensive renovations to the complex on two corners of Pearl Street at State.

&uot;We just need renovations,&uot; said David deVries, pastor. &uot;We want our place to be welcoming. We want our buildings to be usable by everyone. We’ll update some rooms so that they can be useful throughout the week, especially in the education building. We’ll make the chapel area of Stratton Chapel more intimate for worship. And we’ll renovate the basement area of the chapel for the youth.&uot;

Many churches, especially small ones, may be in need of renovation or expansion but not have the funds. That is the case at Kingston Methodist Church, where pastor Lou Knighton said the historic character of the church makes upkeep very expensive.

&uot;We have to try to keep it up because it’s so historic. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and on the Methodist Register; but it is expensive.&uot; The outside shutters should be replaced; but estimates for replacing them totaled about $14,000.

The congregation has put off that project but did build a fine fellowship hall, Knighton said. &uot;It is really a plus for that congregation. They get together there frequently for Bible study, fellowship and other meetings.&uot;

Joan Gandy is special projects director for The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 445-3549 or by email at joan.gandy@natchezcdemocrat.com