Woodlawn Baptist Church recently celebrated their 94th anniversary. Mitch Tapson, pastor of 10 years, has seen church attendance drop by half as members have died over the last five years. He acknowledges that they had become an older congregation struggling to find ways to minister to a community of young professionals and young families.
“The community had transitioned, but the church had not.”
Tapson realized that after 94 years in the same location, the church had become invisible to those living in the Hillcrest community. People passed by the church without giving it a second thought. No one from the community had entered the doors of the church in a long time. Tapson spent the last few years thinking, praying and wondering what might be done to breathe life back into the church and to help them be effective in reaching the community.
God answered his prayers when He brought Tapson and Jordan Bowen together at a meeting for the Pulaski Baptist Association. Don Chancellor, the association’s director of missions, had invited Bowen to share about the new church plant, Oasis Little Rock. Bowen’s vision for reaching the nations in the Hillcrest area immediately piqued Tapson’s interest.
Tapson learned that the church plant was located only a block from Woodlawn. He talked to Bowen as everyone was leaving and asked if he would be willing to meet with him again.
“I wasn’t really looking for this (the partnership with Oasis Little Rock), but I felt a spark as if there might be something to come out of this in the future,” Tapson said. “Jordan and I had an instant connection. Still, I had no idea that what’s happened today would take place when we held our first meeting.”
Tapson went back and told his church members about a group of young Baptists who had a vision for ministry but lacked money and a space of their own. Led by their pastor, the members of Woodlawn Baptist church voted to invite Oasis Little Rock to share their space. The two churches began to meet at different times in the same building. The motto for both groups became “two churches in one space.”
The two churches came together the first time for a joint service at Christmas last year. The atmosphere changed that night as everyone got a glimpse of what could be. Young and old alike from several different people groups gathered together to celebrate the birth of Jesus and enjoy the Christmas program provided by the Oasis children’s choir.
They continued to meet separately until the pandemic hit and changed everything.
Like everyone else, the two churches were forced to shut down for several weeks. The pastors struggled to figure out what to do. They ultimately decided to record a service together. They didn’t have the necessary equipment to make this happen, but God provided.
Bowen reached out to Chris Rhea, pastor of communications and media at Park Hill Baptist Church, who recorded, edited and posted the services online every week. Bowen said the services looked like what leaders of the two churches hoped they would become. Everyone on staff at both churches had a role in each service. They would switch off preaching, sharing announcements, praying etc.
When the time came to open back up, they were not sure what to do. Ultimately, they decided to have just one service. Tapson said they moved from being “two churches in one space” to “two churches in one service.” This model made it easier to start communicating the vision and the mission.
“There was no intention originally to become one church,” Tapson said. “We were glad to be a benefit to them, and they were glad to be a benefit to us. We both gave each other something.” At the same time, he said there was among the pastors “a oneness idea burning inside of us.”
The pandemic forced their hand. Tapson said he believes it would have happened eventually but would have taken a lot longer without the crisis.
“We would still not be having church at Woodlawn if we didn’t do this joint service,” he said. “COVID is and was terrible, but it was a significant piece of the puzzle.”
The pastors met in June to begin the process of becoming one church. They took the month of July to determine what issues needed to be addressed. They credit Dan Jordan of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention for his countless hours advising them.
In July, the church sent out information outlining the vision. This included a plan to rename the church Hillcrest Community Church. The goal of changing the name was driven by a desire to be a new church in the community and to help them become visible again to those living around them. The vision showed a willingness to lay it all down, even the name, in an effort to reach the community.
Although the process was not always easy and they faced some opposition to the vision, the two churches voted in August to become one. Tapson said he wasn’t sure what would happen with the vote, but he was determined that he wouldn’t stop at one vote if that’s what it took. He knew that they couldn’t go back if they wanted to grow and reach the community.
They have seen immediate results since they became Hillcrest Community Church. Every service includes a variety of ethnicities in attendance as well as a good mix of couples, singles and people of all ages. “This is a complete 180 from a year and a half ago,” Tapson said.
Bowen said even the name change has had an impact. A lot of people walk their kids and dogs around the church on Sunday mornings. They see the sign or the people setting up for Sunday morning and stop to ask what’s going on.
“People see the new sign, even though it’s just a banner over the old sign,” Bowen said.
Tapson added, “The first Sunday we had 40 cars instead of three, we had people asking what was going on.”
They have found that ministry in the Hillcrest area is not easy. Hillcrest is unique as they have the highest concentration of ethnicities in the city. It is hard soil, but Tapson and Bowen know that God has given them the perfect vision for this area. They realize that they must be patient and creative as they work hard to build relationships and share the gospel.
Led by Bowen’s wife Sarah, the church has identified a circle of 100 homes around the church. Church members have adopted these homes. They mail personal cards once a month, pray for the homes each day and provide a gift every quarter. For Halloween, they dropped off bags at each home with codes for the Jesus Film, Redbox codes, popcorn and more.
Bowen said that one of the small groups adopted 13 homes. One night while visiting some of the homes, they met three homeowners – each from a different country. He said this just proves that the nations are living in the area. The question is, “What can we do to reach them?”
One way they are reaching the nations is through the launch of international home churches. One member helped launch a group in his home last week that is already in the process of fostering a second group.
Tapson believes this is an answer for other older declining population churches who may find themselves unable to effectively reach their community. They are good people with buildings that are paid for, but they are in need of some young blood.
“Why not bring a bunch of young blood in?” he asked. “We were two groups who needed each other, we just had to make a connection. They didn’t have any property available and no money to buy it if they did. And here we were, ready to go.”
Tapson said he believes such a move must begin with the pastor because the biggest obstacle is the pastor giving up his position of leadership.
“No one else is going to do this,” he said, adding that pastors must have the attitude “we are doing this for the kingdom of God, no matter what it takes.”
Bowen stressed that Tapson was the piece that made the puzzle work.
“It was his voice, his mission heart and his belief in the vision that we could do this together,” Bowen said. “None of this would have happened without Mitch. He saw what could be.”
Tapson said the journey, though difficult at times, has been worth it.
“I am 70 years old, and I’ve been a pastor for 40 years. I now see myself with purpose again. So much so that I’m going to keep on keeping on rather than retiring. It’s a resurrection of the old Mitch.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Travis McCormack is the men and boy’s missions strategist for the Arkansas Baptists State Convention.)