Bob Lowman, director of missions for the Metrolina Baptist Association (MBA), said the closing of one of Charlotte’s historic churches, while disappointing, turned out to infuse a “fresh burst of energy and a renewed vision of what we’re supposed to be about as an association.”
These Montagnard believers from Vietnam are faithful to attend the School of International Leaders one Saturday each month in the Metrolina Baptist Association’s Great Commission Center. Ralph Garay teaches these future leaders to pray for one another to glorify God by making disciples based on their SHAPE (Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality and Experiences).
Green Memorial Baptist Church was established in 1939 in the growing Plaza neighborhood with 217 members out of Ninth Avenue Baptist Church. The church grew into an effective congregation and built facilities that were consistent with the prestige of its community.
But for almost 20 years the church has seen a steady decline in attendance and giving. Attempts at revitalization have not been productive. “They had a young pastor who did his best for seven years to work with the church and reach the community, but nothing seemed to take,” Lowman said. The church leaned on Lowman’s counsel as they considered options and prayed about their future.
Then in January of 2015 Lowman said the church leaders asked for another meeting saying, “We’re not sure how much longer we can keep going.” The facility’s main boiler failed so there was no heat in the sanctuary. It was not feasible to repair or replace the unit.
“So they started talking about their direction,” Lowman continued. “A legacy church plant was considered but the church wanted to just give the Metrolina Baptist Association the property and let the churches decide how to use it.”
At the same time, MBA had been discussing the idea of selling their 14,000 square feet office building in downtown Charlotte for several years, but they were unsure where they would relocate.
Lowman said, “Looking at a map in my office we asked, ‘What would be the most central location for a new MBA office?’ More than once I said, ‘If anything ever happened to Green Memorial, that would be an ideal location for us.’ A few years later that possibility became reality.”
Green Memorial already had written in their bylaws to give the property to MBA if the church ever ceased to exist. The church voted to affirm that. The last Sunday in April 2015 the church held their last service. The property was legally transferred to MBA by June 1.
Renovations began immediately to convert the 24,000 square feet church facility into the newly titled Great Commission Center (GCC), launching a series of new ministries, church plants and vision.
The association’s 30 year-old downtown building was sold this past April for more than $2.7 million. In May, MBA moved to the old Green Memorial property with resources in hand to renovate the buildings and invest in church revitalization projects, church planting, training and new outreach ministries. “We’re trying to be deliberate and wise in the use of those resources and … do the kind of ministry God’s called us to do here,” said Lowman.
At the busy intersection of The Plaza and Central Avenue just east of downtown Charlotte, the GCC includes the church’s educational space, a gymnasium, sanctuary and a house across the street.
The gym is already being used for a sports outreach. Last fall, Asian church planter Ben Bautista asked to use the gym for a basketball clinic to reach children and their families. The intent was to target the city’s growing Asian population.
Now every Monday some 20 to 30 children attend the clinic. But they are not all Asian. African American, Hispanic and Anglo children along with their parents are coming. A church planter teaches basketball skills, they have a Bible study and they pray together. Bautista’s goal is for the Monday night attendees to become a church plant in the GCC.
Fruitland Baptist Bible College has a weekly class for Hispanics in the GCC.
Lowman said MBA is partnering with Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary to offer classes through the seminary’s EQUIP Network. It begins this fall with Lowman teaching biblical interpretation.
In partnership with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC), Ralph Garay leads a group they call the School of International Leaders for Church Multiplication. One Saturday each month a group of 77 ethnic pastors and leaders gather in the GCC to hear Garay teach pastoral ministries, church leadership, missions, disciple-making and Biblical theology. He is an Asian church planting consultant with BSC.
Garay said the first year of training emphasizes the foundations of ministry, and the second year will focus on practical ministry. “At the end of the second year we want to see if they have started sharing the gospel, making disciples, forming small groups and starting a new congregation somewhere.”
He encourages them to start a school of multiplication among their own language groups. Attendees represent 28 language groups from 21 Charlotte area churches. They come from Vietnam, Burma, Nepal, the Philippines, Eritrea, Laos, Thailand and Korea.
The GCC is also a meeting place for four congregations every Sunday. A Montagnard group meets at 8:30 am. A Filipino congregation gathers at 10:30. An established Korean church that lost their previous meeting location worships at 2 p.m. and a new Korean church plant meets at 4:30.
“Our plan is to make this place a home for 10 or 12 ethnic churches,” Lowman said. “Every Sunday we have 31 languages spoken in the 140 churches and church plants that are part of the Metrolina Association, in addition to English.”
Another use for the GCC is to provide housing for mission teams and volunteers who come to serve in the area, Lowman added. Former Sunday School classrooms are being turned into bedrooms. One room will become a pastor’s retreat room.
Another large room will accommodate a team of about 20 volunteers with adjoining shower facilities. The house across the street can be converted to a missionary residence or a place of refuge for pastors.
“The sky is the limit with the space we have,” he said.
Lowman said associational ministry is challenging, but the teamwork reminds Baptists that we are not “individual contractors who are doing our own thing. There’s a vision here to join together to serve the city and the area where God has planted us. So, I’m very hopeful for the future here. At the same time, there are still challenges and we’re not always sure what’s going to happen next.
He cited the growing number of churches like Green Memorial that are reaching that critical point of asking, “Can we keep going? What are we going to do with this facility? Can we merge with another church?”
Associational leaders like Lowman have the opportunity to walk with those congregations to encourage them toward biblical, loving, great commission-centered results that will help them look to the future, be missional in their vision and help them make the right decisions, he said.
After 10 years of service at MBA, Lowman said he believes relationships are the key to effective associational ministry. “How actively and how closely can we be related to one another as pastors and leaders? The stronger those relationships are, the stronger the work of the association will be.”
He strongly states his case for the centrality of the local church. “Jesus said He would build His church. That’s one thing we’ve gotta keep clear. Jesus did not say He would build His association or convention. “But in terms of connectedness, availability and the ability to serve churches, the local association is the closest Baptist entity to that local church,” Lowman added. “If we as associational leaders are serious about connecting with our churches and staying connected with our churches, we can be the kind of resource, partner and friend that our pastors need.”
North Carolina Missions Offering
Ten percent of gifts to the North Carolina Missions Offering is returned to local associations. For MBA that amount is almost $10,000. The funds have been used to support neighborhood mission workers, summer workers and specific mission projects. “We’re really thankful for our churches that give to the state missions offering so that those blessings can come back to us, and we’re thankful for North Carolina Baptists and the way we are blessed through that joint missions giving effort.”