First Baptist Church in the 21st Century
(September, 2012)

Our congregation has a wonderful history. All we have to do to remember this is to set foot in our gorgeous 1894 sanctuary. For generations FBC has been home to public servants, business leaders and notable citizens of greater Portland. And we have looked beyond our own well being as we have fed hungry neighbors, sponsored missionaries around the globe and welcomed strangers.

I was reminded of this last weekend as I officiated at the wedding of a young woman who is the granddaughter of one of the first Cambodian families who found refuge in Portland from the Killing Fields through the sponsorship of FBC, beginning in 1975. Many from her generation have scattered far and wide across the salad bowl that is contemporary America, but many are still active members of our congregation, and children of the third and fourth generations participate in our Sunday School and Youth Group.

Nevertheless, longtime members of FBC often feel discouraged when they see fewer people gathered at our weekly worship services than they vividly reminder. I have addressed these feelings with responses both theological and practical. Theologically, I have reminded our members (and myself!) of the promise of Christ, that “the gates of hell” shall never prevail against his church (Matthew 16:18), and that Christ himself “is the same, yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Practically, I have encouraged an expansion of our network of partner ministries, such Solid Rock, Transitional Youth and Shared Housing, who contribute resources to our shared service of Christ and his people, and carry out specific ministries with different target groups and competencies than our own.

Today’s FBC is up and running 24/7. Nevertheless, from a practical and strategic standpoint, we need to take an unflinching look at the demographics of our present congregation and the community around us today, and dream and plan and make choices about how we will maintain a faithful and effective witness for Christ in the first third of the twenty-first century.

All churches have social, cultural and class identities, core competencies and cherished, defining convictions. What have ours been historically? What are they in the present moment? Today we include several generations and multiple social classes. Are there common matching convictions and desires across this panorama of participants? Do our historic ways of organizing our congregational life, conducting public worship and discipling believers mesh well with the challenges and opportunities presently before us?

Also, we must ask ourselves tough questions about funding our congregational life going forward. Each year the portion of our budget underwritten by partner ministries and facilities usage grows, and the portion underwritten by congregational giving diminishes. And like many mainline congregations across our nation, we receive the majority of our tithes and offerings from older, retired members. How do we best engage younger members in faithful stewardship? What kinds of decisions will we make about professional leadership and the ministry of the laity going forward – not just from financial exigency, but for strategic purposes? In the New Testament Church there is no distinction between “professional Christians” and recipients of Christian services; we are all ministers.

In the midst of my sixth year as your senior pastor, I feel a deep urgency that we confront these questions together. FBC staff and a vibrant, diverse group of FBC members had preliminary conversations about these issues this spring. Summaries of those conversations are available at the Welcome Center or, upon request, electronically or through the mail. The next step is coming. If we have your e-mail on file, you will soon be receiving a list of specific questions about present and possible ministries and directions for FBC. Or, you make look for hard copies at the Welcome Center, or request a copy through the mail. We covet your responses. Then, on Saturday, October 6, from 9 ’til noon, there will be an open meeting to discuss the responses to these questions, and to plot a way forward. You are invited. And your prayers are vital. This is Christ’s Church. But we are all Christ’s servants.

–Dr. David L. Wheeler