On May 9, the celebration of the 140th anniversary of Lafayette Park Baptist Church in St. Louis will culminate with a reunion of former members and current members. That may not sound like such an unusual thing, but I would venture to guess that there are not a lot of Southern Baptist churches that will have a similar anniversary celebration.
About five years ago, the remnants of what was once one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in St. Louis determined that it was not feasible for the small, mostly elderly group of remaining members to try to continue to maintain a facility far larger than their needs required, and expensive to operate because of its age. The neighborhood in which they were located, a historic district with a past going back more than 150 years, had undergone recent transformation from a diverse, transient, mostly poor population living in old mansions divided into rental units, to a highly affluent area where most houses had been restored at a high expense, with trendy businesses, condos, and a diverse, but more permanent and more prosperous population. The church had struggled for more than 50 years with a declining membership, and with various aspects of outreach to the surrounding area, some of which succeeded temporarily. But the general effects of the culture of the day, over a long period of time, took its toll. As a last act of ministry before disbanding, they handed the keys over to a small, new African American congregation in need of a facility.
The decline which eventually led to the original church’s disbanding was caused by a variety of factors. The church’s long history and heritage determined the culture of the congregation and as the inner city of St. Louis transitioned, and the population growth stopped, the cultural, social and racial differences between the church membership and the population moving in around the church building often spanned a gap that was too wide to bridge. As the racial turmoil of the 60’s affected the inner city of St. Louis, the fabric of the congregation was torn apart. Inner conflict in the church, caused by differences of opinion over various outreach ministries, and by those who could see that their own prestige and power would be diminished if there were changes, caused many people to leave. The busing issue of the 60’s caused an exodus of members from the neighborhoods around the church and many found church homes in the suburbs where they moved, while others discovered it was difficult to keep their children connected to activities and ministries from miles away. The church’s vision became geared toward self preservation and this was frustrating to a series of pastors, most of whom didn’t stay for a long time when their vision for outreach clashed with that of the church leadership.
But there were some bright spots. This was my wife’s home church, where she was taken to nursery the Sunday after she was born, and the youth group of her generation produced about a half dozen young men and women who committed to vocational ministry. When I arrived on the scene as a summer missionary from the then Home Mission Board in the late 1970’s, the church had a well established “cartoon bus” ministry, a form of ministry to the hundreds of children in the neighborhoods and around the housing projects near the church that eventually evolved into “Backyard Bible Clubs.” Many of the children reached through this ministry made professions of faith and were baptized, and several of them are serving as pastors and church leaders in various places today. This particular church holds a special place in my own heart, because there were many things related to serving in ministry that the Lord used my experience there to teach me, and I consider Lafayette Park my “second home.”
I do not know all of the circumstances leading up to the church’s decision regarding their building. The area around Lafayette Square, the Soulard Market and to the west and south of the church property has become hot property in the real estate market, because of its proximity to downtown and because of the historic appearance of the homes. Developers had their eye on the church property at a prime location right on the Southeast corner of Lafayette Park itself. The remnant of the old church, however, desired that the facilities continue to be used as a church and found a congregation that needed a blessing, and had a vision that would incorporate the use of the church facility. The new church agreed to carry on the name, continuing as Lafayette Park Baptist Church, becoming the custodian of the church’s records and membership, and maintain a connection to the past.
The new congregation comes from a completely different cultural picture than the old one did, but they are linked together by their faith in Christ. The new church is predominantly African American, and made up mostly of people under 50, including some families with young children and preschoolers. Their energetic, Spirit-filled worship is a much different approach to having an encounter with God through corporate worship than their predecessors. But there is one thing that has not changed. God is still lifted up, Jesus is preached and people are called to repentance and new life in Christ. From these humble beginnings, the church has experienced growth, and is looking forward to more. There is still a church which meets at 1710 Mississippi Avenue in St. Louis.
On May 9th, Lafayette Park Baptist Church, new and old, will come together to mark 140 years of ministry. The new church has taken on part of the responsibility for hosting those from the previous congregation, but together, as one, they will mark the milestone. And then, Lafayette Park Baptist Church will move forward to a promising future, a body that could only have been created and empowered by God himself. May His blessings rest on them.