Birmingham church closes doors; offers fresh ministrycomment (1)
September 7, 2000
By Greg Heyman
The final Sunday in August was a day of endings for South Avondale Baptist Church, Birmingham.
It was also a day of beginnings.
In an often emotional service, the congregation held its last service at the church Aug. 27. After years of declining membership, South Avondale is merging with First Baptist Church, Irondale.
What was once South Avondale is now gone after 113 years, but the church may also see a new life. Following Avondale’s final service, the deed and keys to the church were presented to Ricky Creech, director of missions for Birmingham Baptist Association (BBA).
The association plans to start a new church in the area that will target the primarily black community surrounding the church.
“This may be the first time in the 169-year history of the Birmingham Baptist Association of an Anglo church intentionally merging with another church,” Creech said, “with dreams of giving up their church to start an African-American church.”
Long lines of both current and former worshipers filing into the front and side of the church prevented the more than two-hour service from starting on time at 10 a.m.
Members with lengthy membership were recognized, as were former staff members. Following the service, which was billed as both an ending and a homecoming, old friends gathered for lunch prepared by members.
Some 550 people packed into the sanctuary that on a normal Sunday holds only 450 people. Several rows of folding chairs in the back and along the side seated worshipers, with some still left standing at the back of the church.
The church, which once had 1,400 members, has seen its membership roll decrease to 231 people in the past few years with only about 50 still active.
For LaVelle Wright, a member of South Avondale for 41 years, the church’s final service was bittersweet.
“You’re feeling sad and you’re looking forward to the future,” said Wright. She noted the theme for the church’s final service was “Celebrating the Past With a Vision for the Future.”
She said church members are excited about the possibilities of what God can do with another congregation.
Howard Cobble, a youth pastor of South Avondale in the 1960s, encouraged members to focus on those possibilities, saying he knows those associated with the church believe “this is the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Cobble said the Holy Spirit was at work at South Avondale, both in its birth and in its future. Making an analogy between Christ’s resurrection and the church, he said God can blow life into death.
“Today he has blown her (South Avondale) into a new life,” Cobble said.
The ministry of South Avondale, along with decisions made there, weddings and other church functions will have an impact long after what is now South Avondale has ceased to exist, he noted. “The good of this church is never going to die.”
Church members were also told by former pastor Buddy McGohon that South Avondale is “passing on the essence of who it is.”
McGohon said the church has sewn seeds of ministry that are being germinated throughout Alabama and the nation.
“I think about how this church shaped my life with its commitment to ministry,” said McGohon, pastor of South Avondale 1977–1985.
Seeds are growing in Montgomery because of South Avondale’s impact, said McGohon, who is now director of missions of Montgomery Baptist Association.
“The DNA of this church is influencing hundreds and thousands of others,” he said.
Ray Foreman, pastor of South Avondale for the past three years, said he was encouraged by members’ response to the service and the decision to merge with another church.
“It was really a successful program,” Foreman said. “And a success that our people realized we needed to do something.”
Creech said BBA hopes to have a black minister at the church early in 2001. He added the association is working with the State Board of Missions and North American Mission Board in a nationwide search for someone who is experienced and has a track record in church planting.
“We’re going for the best that we can find,” Creech said.
Stressing the church property is not for sale or intended for relocation by an existing black congregation, Creech said the association wants to see a new church that will serve the community where it is located.
“South Avondale — that field is just ripe unto harvest,” he said.
While the building will house a new congregation, Creech anticipates the words South Avondale will remain in some form in the name of the new church — citing “South Avondale Community Church” or “The Church at South Avondale” as possible names.
“It (the name South Avondale) connects them with the community and a heritage that is 113 years old,” Creech said.