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Declining Birmingham-area church finds ‘New Beginnings’ and rejuvenates ministrycomment (0)

May 25, 2006

By Sondra Washington

Once among the largest Southern Baptist churches in Alabama, Ridgecrest Baptist Church, Birmingham, had declined considerably in membership over the past 27 years, according to Pastor Brian Branam. Although many members had moved away from the Center Point area, the remaining congregation, which is part of Birmingham Baptist Association (BBA), still had a strong desire to reach its changing community.

“We visited homes, talked to over 6,000 people in this area and got to know a lot of people in this community,” Branam said. “We saw 240 people come to know Christ in their homes, not including people getting saved in our worship services.”

According to him, the church noticed a large singles population in the surrounding area and hired a singles minister to reach out to its neighbors. Although they saw some success, the members of Ridgecrest Baptist knew there was much more to be done.

“We started a huge research project on the history of this church and community, why the church grew in the past and projections from what we had learned,” Branam said. “We prayed about what God would have us to do. Instead of seeing the decline in a negative light, we tried to see it in a positive light.”

In order to recapture a community feel in a regional area, the church planned to move to a location that would help it reach more people for Christ. Last fall, the church purchased 6 acres of property in unincorporated Jefferson County on Edwards Lake Road but is still waiting on God to reveal when and how the move will take place.

“Our vision for that land is that we want to build debt-free,” Branam said. “Our long-term vision is that we want to be a blessing to that community. We found that in order for significant change to happen in Birmingham, two things have to happen: streets and schools. Our long-term vision is that when we get in that location and our church is debt-free, that we pour a significant amount of our tithes and offerings into the community.”

He said the church wants to put streetlights and sidewalks on the streets, restore people’s homes and invest a large amount of funding into the schools. “That piece of property is a strategic location to be a regional influence, but really to us, it’s more about what we want to do than where we want to be.”

To continue ministering in the Center Point community, Ridgecrest members had a vision of starting a black church with a pastor who was “conservative in his theology, evangelistic in his approach and affiliated denominationally the same way we were,” Branam said.

“There are a lot of Southern Baptist churches in this community that are either closing or moving, and we felt it was important to bring one back into this community that is going to grow and thrive,” he said.

When the church start idea did not materialize, Ridgecrest members had another idea, which proved quite successful for all involved.

In August 2005, a partnership was formed between Ridgecrest and New Beginnings Family Church, a small, 3-year-old BBA congregation meeting in a banquet hall in downtown Birmingham. The church was led by Angulus Wilson, who had been a pastor in Chicago and associate pastor at Sardis Baptist Church, Birmingham, in Birmingham Association.

Two years ago, he moved from Illinois to Birmingham to become associate director of community outreach for the Samford In Mission program of Samford University in Birmingham, a position he still holds.

“When I came to the church (New Beginnings), they were looking for a place in a community to be a part of,” Wilson said. “When we came over to Center Point, Ridgecrest was looking for a sister church in the association that would be interested in a lifelong partnership of evangelism and missions in the Center Point area. They had a vision to go over to Trussville and start a new church there while the sister church would take over the property where they are currently located.”

From the beginning, both pastors agree that there was a strong connection between them. “We just became great friends,” Branam said. “We found that our hearts beat the same and that we had the same mission and drive in our lives — ministry for the Lord through evangelism.”

Ridgecrest invited New Beginnings to partner with it and move into its facility to hold Sunday School and services at the same time. “It was two completely autonomous churches, and it offered two totally different styles of church,” Branam said.

On the second Sunday in August, the two churches began sharing Ridgecrest’s property and combining children’s programs and men’s Sunday School.

Periodically the churches hosted joint services, training classes and evangelism projects, and it was not uncommon for the pastors to share the pulpit.

Both churches have grown in membership with each reaching both black and white neighbors. New Beginnings has more than doubled in attendance, and Ridgecrest has consistently met its budget, which hadn’t happened in years, according to Branam.

“We found out that when people focus on relationships, they quit focusing on race,” he said. “If you know somebody’s name and their life, people quit thinking in terms of white and black. They start thinking in terms of friends.”

Wilson said the spirit of the agreement is most important because it depicts the spirit of the New Testament.

“I think here, in the South, people are afraid to cross the color barrier even though we serve the same God,” he said. “Often what is unfamiliar to us is fearful to us. So the spirit of this agreement has elevated both churches’ services and given us a greater picture of what the Kingdom of heaven is like on earth.”

Wilson noted, “I think this partnership can be a model for churches throughout the state and country that are interested in partnership in missions and evangelism and changing communities. That’s our prayer.”

Because of its growth, New Beginnings has begun sharing facilities with Carson Road Baptist Church, Center Point — a smaller congregation also in BBA located only 1.2 miles away — to help them in missions and evangelism.
“We have both grown and we (New Beginnings) now need more space,” Wilson said. “We will still be partners with Ridgecrest and will also partner with this new church.”

Although Ridgecrest is still waiting for God to provide and reveal His timing for its planned relocation, the church has started Bible studies across north Jefferson County to reinvigorate its members.

“When God gets ready for us to be on that place, we’ll go but there are so many things happening here that are so exciting,” Branam said.

And while Wilson is still uncertain where New Beginnings will permanently settle, he hopes to see a collaborative partnership of sister churches in the association reaching Center Point’s 22,784 people.

“It is my prayer that the Center Point churches of the BBA will be able to work together to win that local community for Christ. Then from there to the rest of Jefferson County and then the state and the country.”

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