MARIETTE — A place of worship for ‘outsiders’ who came to work at the city’s Bell Bomber factory during World War II, Roswell Street Baptist Church by the 1970s had become one of the largest mega-churches in the east of Mississippi, according to Pastor Michael Lewis.
At the time, some 2,000 people flooded the church for Sunday services. Now, swept away by forces that have reduced church membership across the United States, that number has fallen below 500.
“I believe we are on the threshold of an event that is greater than anything that has come before,” Alex Owen, a lay leader and member since 1974, told the congregation Sunday morning.
The Roswell Street Baptist Church must decide what to do with its surplus property. The church owns 11 acres and its buildings total 250,000 square feet, according to Lewis. Only 15% of this space is used on a regular basis.
“It’s like someone who lost a lot of weight and still wears the same big clothes,” he said.
Marietta developer Walton Properties has begun construction of a mixed-use residential and commercial development on church property, Owen told the congregation on Sunday.
No formal offer or proposal was made, Owen pointed out, “only an inquiry into the possibilities of discussion”.
Much of the church’s surplus property is in need of repair. The church estimates it would cost $25 million to “fully operate the campus,” Lewis said.
The Roswell Street Baptist Church isn’t going anywhere.
“We strongly believe we need to be where we are in Marietta,” Lewis said, citing the “great location” near Marietta Square and Interstate 75.
It currently sits on the same property it occupied when it was established 80 years ago, facing a portion of Roswell Street that had not yet been paved. Lay leaders talk about setting their church on the path to another 80 years of success. But that means reinventing the church, they say — not just what its campus looks like, but what its mission is.
“The church has really been, you know, just finding a new identity,” Lewis, who took over as senior pastor six years ago, said in an interview. “My calling is to revitalize the church and help rethink what the future will be.”
Roswell Street Baptist now has around 450 people who regularly attend Sunday service in English, although the church also holds a total of “six different worship gatherings” on Sunday mornings, including services in Spanish, Portuguese and Lao.
The decline in its numbers began in the 1990s and then accelerated after the turn of the century, Lewis said. There was another sharp drop during the pandemic – a third of worshipers attending before the coronavirus never returned.
“It’s not because of security protocols, or it’s not because we don’t have room for people to disperse. You know, I joke with our congregation that our building was built for COVID,” he said with a laugh. “I think Roswell Street, and if you also look at most churches in Marietta, it’s a microcosm of a bigger challenge that all churches in every community face.”
Reports from the Pew Research Center confirmed this decline in church attendance nationwide.
“Over the past decade, the share of Americans who report attending religious services at least once or twice a month has fallen 7 percentage points, while the share who report attending religious services less often (or even not at all) has increased in the same way. degree,” reads a 2019 report. “More Americans now say they attend religious services a few times a year or less (54%) than say that they attend at least once a month (45%).”
In December, Pew shared the results of a new survey, which found that only 31% of adults attend religious services at least once or twice a month, although he cautioned against comparing the numbers. with those of past years, due to a change in the way the data was collected.
“It’s not just a Baptist church or a Methodist church (problem). It’s happened on all levels,” Lewis said. “I think the culture has definitely changed a lot from a Judeo/Christian worldview to a more secular worldview. The largest number rising each year in the polls are ‘nones’ – those who claim no religious affiliation.
But Lewis believes the church is not without fault, and said “mission drift” has contributed to declining church numbers.
“We were just very busy doing good things inside buildings and doing good things for ourselves,” he said. “The mission is that we must love God and love people. If we can bring that love of God into the community and love the people as Jesus loved us, it will revolutionize the whole purpose of the church.
In practice, that means “trying to meet the needs that are so relevant in our community,” he continued.
Roswell Street Baptist offers finance classes and Lewis says it has helped Marietta families clear some $800,000 in debt. The church offers counseling for couples and families in distress, as well as premarital counseling. It provides the city’s foreign-born population with English lessons and helps guide them on their path to citizenship.
Responding to community needs also means reaching out to those in isolation, whether at home or at school, helping those who have found themselves alone and adrift during the pandemic.
All in all, Lewis hopes the efforts will result in a younger congregation that will be “more like our community.”
Ministry, not maintenance
Whether these efforts will bear fruit remains to be seen. In the meantime, the church must figure out what to do with its idle assets.
Regarding Walton’s development proposal, “I said, ‘Wow, that’s ready to go,'” Lewis said. “That’s when I had an aha! moment. We do a lot of things that are inside the box. I looked at my friend (in Walton) and said, ‘How about we throw the box away’, and we started talking, and there have been several discussions since that day.
Lewis called on more than a dozen longtime church members to join a “future vision team” that recently concluded a 40-day prayer challenge, seeking advice on how to proceed. On Sunday, church leaders called on the rest of the congregation to join in another 40-day prayer challenge and come to a consensus on how to move forward.
“One of the main things I learned with this is that we are embarking with God, on what he wants to do with this installation and what he wants to do moving forward,” Future Vision Team member Sandra Sommerman mentioned. “It’s not about telling him what we want, but allowing him to tell us, and we want the church to be part of that.”
Selling excess property is not just about relieving the church of unused space that it must pay to maintain it. Lewis believes the sale will help revitalize the church.
“There are so many things we could do locally…if we didn’t have this financial burden,” he said. “Rather than spending money on maintenance, we could spend money on ministry.”
Just before the start of Sunday service, Owen said he believed the decision would affect future church years.
“What we think is what’s normal – it doesn’t come back,” he said. “What we feel is that the church needs to see the landscape as it is. … We don’t want to one day look and say, ‘God, we should have done it, we could have done it.’