There's a lot to untangle in the connection with FBC Jacksonville and FBC Fairview Heights. For starters, both Heath and I are from Louisville KY. We attended the same middle school. We were at rival high schools (duPont Manual and Louisville Male). We both attended Southern for our masters and doctoral degrees. We both out kicked our coverage in marriage. We both love our families. Heath has the lead in brain surgeries though, and I'm not interested in competing with him on that!
FBC Fairview Heights has a lengthy history as well. It's not nearly as star-studded or influential within the Convention as FBC Jax, but it's been a constant in the Southern Illinois area since before Lincoln was born, and in its current identity for almost 175 years. Its history and influence has been more local and regional than national, but it's a church with a worthy heritage. We were blessed during the season before our arrival with an incredible amount of assistance and support from the Illinois Baptist State Association, in no small part because they also recognized the strategic importance of FBC Fairview Heights moving forward and the historic importance the church has served in the state.
One of the areas where FBC Jax and FBC Fairview Heights overlap is a long period of decline. Most churches will experience periods of decline at some point. Even during their heyday, it's hard for a church to sustain year over year growth for long periods of time. That's why so few churches sustain multigenerational growth trends. They come. They go. They ebb. They flow. They reflect economic trends of jobs in the community, they're often tied to a visionary leader (Homer Lindsay at FBC Jax and Charley Westbrook at FBC Fairview Heights), and they come through a blend of conversion and transfer growth. People are coming to Christ and joining, and people are moving to the area and joining to share and participate in the church's mission. Much like a movement of revival or a really special point in history, it's rarely sustained.
Those names requesting to leave their membership, who moved away, who left because of decisions or conflict or discouragement or who never gave a reason, all of them were friends with people who stayed. And those who stayed through all of the hardship have stories of heartbreak, sometimes even within their own family. That discouragement wasn't abstract, it was real and personal. My heart sank a few weeks ago when a teenager in our church shrugged and said "Who cares? It's not like anyone stays." FBC Jax, a stalwart in Florida and a miracle in downtown Jacksonville, experienced much of the same. And their decline started during a season where everyone felt like things were going well. Heath talks about a picture that arrested him because he realized the church was already several years into its decline and people still thought of it as the heyday. FBC Fairview Heights likely has a similar picture from 2006 when its decline was picking up steam but wasn't noticed.
I've been blessed to come into a situation where the sense was more optimistic to the future of what could happen at our church. We still have a larger facility and deferred maintenance we're catching up on, but thankfully we don't own 12 blocks with parking garages. That optimism didn't come because of us or the search team, it came because the church finally had enough of decline and had enough of the way things had always been. They got serious about it and put together a Re-Focus Team, working with the state convention and key leaders to work through where we'd been and what could happen in the future. They identified 5 key findings:
1. A broken culture and structure that needed to be overhauled
2. Communication had been lacking which stirred questions and information vacuums
3. A lack of engagement across generations and seasons of life
4. A lost sense of purpose
5. A need for leadership to show the way towards church health, spiritual maturity, and growth
We have our struggles ahead of us. In fact, as I'm writing this, I'm mapping out what it will look like in a few weeks when our Re-Focus team shares its work with the whole church and I'll lay out a vision for what 2030 could look like if we'll commit ourselves towards a renewed sense of purpose, health, and structure. Difficult decisions will undoubtedly come. You don't get change without pain, and you don't get growth without change. That's why the aches a teenager experiences are called "growing pains," they're an inevitable companion. Much like FBC Jax, we at FBC Fairview Heights will have to look long and hard in the mirror and be willing to put aside "the way we'd always done it" to recognize the necessity of change, not for change's sake or to offer a quick fix, but because if we're going to course correct our past we have to embrace a future that looks different than the way we've been doing things.
FBC Jax had to make difficult decisions to pull back its footprint in downtown Jacksonville. They had to right-size a staffing structure that was unsustainable. They had to recapture an outward focus to take the Gospel to their neighbors and communities rather than act like it was Field of Dreams (if they built it, the people would come), and they had to be willing to put aside their own personal preferences and personal perspectives for the sake of the Body and for the cause of the Gospel. Heath modeled that by yielding preferences for wisdom. It's an example worth following.
I'm listening intently to the FBC Jax podcast because there's much to parallel with my own situation. We're a church who wants to be healthy, who wants to reach people, who wants to make an eternal impact. And step-by-step, Sunday by Sunday, we'll get there. I have full confidence in that because it's much easier to steer a ship when the engine is running than it is to steer one sitting still. FBC Jax is several years ahead of where we are in the process and in the turnaround. We're still navigating what a pared down normal looks like in terms of volunteer expectations/capacity, giving/budgeting projections, and ministry restarting. Through those, I'm seeing glimpses of where God is at work and what good will come from this season of difficulty and hardship. It's a small blip. But I've zoomed in many times to the 2022 & 2023 increase in people as a testimony to God's faithfulness. If you're reading this and you're a long-time FBC Fairview Heights member, I want you to be encouraged that things are slowly starting to turn around. We're seeing good things. We're seeing signs of life. We're seeing an attitudinal shift towards optimism and joy. It's there. We're getting there.
Most of all, I'm listening to the podcast because it's a reminder that if a church will commit itself and not give up its mission, the lamp will stay lit and the best days can be ahead. Here's hoping what God has done on Ashley Street can happen on Lincoln Trail.
This is a cool video put together by IBSA to highlight the work happening at FBC Fairview Heights and what it's been like since we arrived. They did a great job!
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.