October 13, 2020
Former music minister Chris Kihn leads the congregation in worship during the 125th anniversary celebration at McElwain Baptist Church, Birmingham, on Sept. 27. (Photo by Travis Frontz)
McElwain Baptist Church, Birmingham, has had a vibrant past — just ask its members and former members.
At McElwain’s 125th anniversary celebration Sept. 27, person after person shared testimonies of how they had heard the gospel, learned to grow in their faith, started a new ministry to the community or felt a call to the missions field at the Birmingham Metro Baptist Association church.
But in recent years, the church has felt a shift as membership has declined, and Mark Clifton, interim pastor, said they’ve felt a call to explore new options God might have for them.
“They just want to make the gospel known in that neighborhood and community,” said Clifton, who is also senior director of replanting for the North American Mission Board.
McElwain Baptist reached out to Clifton earlier this year after reading his book, “Reclaiming Glory: Revitalizing Dying Churches.” He met with their vision team, and they talked about their options.
“They didn’t know if they were going to call a pastor to replant, be adopted or fostered by another church,” Clifton explained.
With a replant from within the church, they would call a pastor who would lead them in a restart in the community — a fresh vision, fresh ministries and fresh outreach.
If they chose fostering, another church or churches would come alongside them and support them with resources until they got back to the point where they were growing again. And if they went with adoption, they would release all leadership of the church and in most cases all property and assets to another church and essentially become an integral part of that congregation.
“We worked through a process over several months,” said Clifton, who became their interim pastor during COVID-19 and preached for their online services from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. “I didn’t want them to think about what they wanted to do but where Jesus was leading them.”
And over time, the McElwain congregation felt God was leading them toward adoption, Clifton said.
“Someone said, ‘Even if we called a pastor right now, we don’t have the margin and bandwidth to reach the neighborhood like we want to.’”
At the same time, Shades Mountain Baptist Church, Vestavia Hills, was in the middle of a vision plan that included a commitment to “actively pursue churches in need of revitalization” and “lead an existing church to start a new chapter of vibrant ministry.” They had been praying about exactly where and which church that would be, and in June, Clifton reached out to them, said Shades Pastor Danny Wood.
“We met with their vision team a couple of different times and began to look over it and pray over it,” Wood said.
And as they met and prayed, Clifton said God knit the hearts of the two churches together in a healthy, productive way.
“Jesus was at the center of this,” he said. “The people of McElwain want to reach that neighborhood, but they need help to do that. Shades has the leadership and vision and resources to reach the neighborhood and people who want to see it done.”
Clifton also noted that Birmingham Metro Association, under the leadership of Chris Crain, had played a “huge part” in facilitating the adoption process.
“That’s so important in these adoptions — the local association and state convention, both of those play a critical role in mediating this,” he said. “It helps to have a third party involved.”
Wood said Shades Mountain Baptist’s hope is that McElwain “can be a multiethnic, multigenerational church on the east side of Birmingham.”
In the coming days, they will select a pastor for that campus and a core team of volunteers will join the existing McElwain congregation to worship there. They will also decide what to call the campus.
“McElwain Baptist is a great church, a legacy church — so many have been touched because of McElwain,” Wood said. “We are glad we get to be a part of it. There is a lot of excitement over here.”
God is going to do a new thing at 4445 Montevallo Road, he said. “This will be an amazing time of refreshment and renewal for all of us. Our great desire is to see God do something that can only be explained by ‘God did it.’”