Congregation's sacrifice sparks ministry 'rebirth'
"It has been a time of tears and a time of rejoicing," said Peggy Sharer, an Andrew Baptist member for more than half a century.
A handful of remaining Andrew Baptist members voted last September to disband and give their church facilities to Christ Fellowship Church, a Southern Baptist church with a heart for the city's low-income and refugee population. Andrew Baptist's final service was held March 1.
Brian Curtis, pastor at Christ Fellowship, called the decision a "tremendous blessing."
"How many times does another church offer you a building for free?" Curtis asked.
Andrew Baptist is located within the very neighborhood Christ Fellowship seeks to minister to and shares a parking lot with an elementary school.
Since forming in 2009, Christ Fellowship has leased space in a strip mall alongside a grocery store, a pharmacy and a fast-food restaurant located near the city's low-income housing project.
Sixty-six years ago, Andrew Baptist had similarly humble beginnings, holding its first prayer meeting in a store. Worshippers brought their own chairs and song books.
A mission of First Baptist Church of Bowling Green, Andrew Baptist would later meet in a tobacco warehouse for a time before moving in the early 1950s to its present-day location.
"We have a beautiful church," Sharer said, as she reminisced about hayrides, revivals and being baptized into the church at age 10.
Membership at Andrew Baptist grew to more than 300 at the turn of the century then began to decline, according to Annual Church Profile reports.
"We had been losing members since about 2003," Sharer said. "I did well to have six kids in Sunday school class."
As Andrew Baptist shrunk in size, Christ Fellowship was growing. Membership increased by 61 percent from 2011 to 2013, resulting in the need to rent additional space at the strip mall.
Andrew Baptist reached out for help from Jeff Crabtree, a church regional consultant at the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
As one of six consultants statewide, Crabtree's job is to work with Kentucky Baptist churches and associations in the south region by helping them develop plans to grow and fulfill their God-given ministries.
Crabtree offered Andrew Baptist several paths for revitalization, including a complete relaunch. Members, many of whom are elderly, however, chose to let their legacy of serving God live on through Christ Fellowship.
"It's not the end of a ministry; it's the rebirth of a ministry," Crabtree said. "We're all standing on someone else's shoulders, and Christ Fellowship is just going to build off the shoulders of Andrew Baptist."
Christ Fellowship has big plans for the Andrew Baptist facilities. To accommodate the church's growing children's ministry, Curtis said the sanctuary will be turned into classrooms. A new sanctuary will be added to the back of the church, with the majority of the construction completed in July thanks to help from an Alabama-based construction ministry.
Curtis said Christ Fellowship will move into the building within a year.
"This has been a hard transition for them," Curtis said of Andrew Baptist's members. "A lot of these people have been there from the beginning, but clearly the Kingdom means more to them than their building."
Sharer agreed the decision was a difficult one for the handful of remaining members.
"God's house needs to be full again," Sharer said. "Andrew's not really closing her doors because they will be open again and the Lord's work will be fulfilled. The church is the people, not the building. And that building is to be used for God's people."