BY MICHAEL WINTERMUTE
Wyoming County Press Examiner
On Jan. 5, following a Sunday morning service, the Tunkhannock Baptist Church closed its doors for the final time.
When the lights turned off for good, it sent a stark reminder to churches across the region that nothing is set in stone.
The problems that plagued Tunkhannock Baptist Church into closure weren’t a big surprise, either.
Attendance was down since the passing of Pastor Tony Ogden, who is credited with the community outreach that made the church strong.
Furthermore, the youth crowd wasn’t quite what it used to be.
After a point, there was no feasible way for the establishment to go on.
In light of the church’s closing, area churches are reflecting on what it is that helps them to weather the tides of adversity that consistently challenge any institution.
Pastor Joe Billingsley, who serves the Mehoopany Baptist Church, said his 10 and a half years at the location haven’t been a cakewalk, despite steady attendance.
“Every church has its own particular set of challenges and difficulties; no church is the same,” Billingsley said. “What we’ve done is try to do a number of different kinds of outreach over the years.”
He added, “I think you have to keep a certain level of excitement and anticipation in your church.”
In that regard, the church has remained contemporary and current in the eyes of its loyal congregation.
Whereas the services and groups within the church adhere to a consistent structure, planned events strive to keep members vested in returning.
Rev. Jim Howell, who served the Northmoreland Baptist Church for years, shared similar opinions.
“Balance in the ministry is important – balancing methods of reaching out to people,” Howell said.
At Eaton Baptist Church, Pastor Kurt Bricker approaches outreach from a traditional standpoint.
“We try not to focus too heavily on what our methods are apart from fellowship with one another and what the early churches did,” Bricker said. “Within that context, we look for activities that meet the spiritual needs of all of our people, whether they’re young or old.”
Attendance which ranges from 50 to 80 or so people each Sunday, trusts that preaching the gospel will allow for growth and sustenance.
Billingsley also points to a group structure that seeks to facilitate folks from all stages of life with diversified sets of groups that appeal to all audiences.
Nearing the age of 60, Billingsley recognizes that an adult group lesson he would want to teach may not apply to younger adults or younger families. The ‘Cornerstone Classes’ at the church were therefore created to appeal to that demographic.
As with any church or religious establishment, the Mehoopany Baptist Church also has a strong youth following, setting the stage for continued steadfastness in the future.
“We have a youth pastor who takes care of teen ministry with new events planned every quarter,” Billingsley said. “It offers a lot of different opportunities to teenagers besides just meeting.”
At any given Wednesday night meeting, roughly 20 youths gather at the church with the youth pastor.
Eaton Baptist also has a wide array of ministries appealing to different age groups.
“We have a good cross-section of ages from very young all the way up through folks in their 70s or 80s,” Bricker said. “We try to meet all their needs, in terms of teaching and planning fun activities.”
Even still, when it comes down to it, the decision lies in the community’s hands – each worship service is merely another chance to convince people to come back.
“Every Sunday when I look out at the congregation, I have to remind myself that nobody forced them to come. They come on their own free will and there’s no guarantee they’ll be back,” Billingsley said. “But they’re here now and I’ve got to make the most of it.”
Pastor Bricker points to the hectic times as a further point of conflict for keeping congregation numbers growing.
“Churches are competing for people’s time. People, between work, kids’ activities and other things they’re involved in, tend to be committed to a lot of different things,” Bricker said. “People live with very busy schedules and demanding work and family life.”
Rev. Howell fondly recalls days where he filled in at Tunkhannock Baptist, noting the kind-heartedness of the congregation there.
He observes, however, that sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to the success of a church.
“Sometimes certain things will work. I’ve done certain things that worked so wonderfully in one place and not at all in another,” Howell said. “God can open doors and shut doors; it doesn’t make us better or brighter.”
But it should point one to prayerful consideration about how God can best be served in a community, Howell believes.
Pastor Bricker, although not personally connected to the Tunkhannock institution, said his congregation certainly feels for the church.
“I’m sure it was very difficult for them, but it was just that the logistics and economics of it didn’t afford them the opportunity to stay open,” Bricker said. “I know a number of folks here have connections with those in Tunkhannock and we really appreciate the service of that church in the community – we are praying for those that now have to find a new church home.”
“They were kind people, spiritual people, concerned people – not just about themselves, but about Tunkhannock as a community,” Howell said.