The End Is Near For First Baptist Dwindling Flock Can’t Sustain Downtown Church
On most days, even Sundays, the cavernous sanctuary at First Baptist Church is cold and quiet, like a tomb.
The huge nursery is also silent. The cribs are empty, the rocking chairs still.
Once a vibrant church where people spilled into the corridors from Sunday school rooms and worship halls, the congregation now occupies a corner of the downtown building that takes up one-fourth of a city block.
“We’re barely hanging on,” said maintenance worker Mike Nicholl, who calls himself “the last janitor.”
About 25 people regularly show up for worship, usually held in a small room to spare the expense of heating the sanctuary.
“We’re going through the motions,” Nicholl said. “We go home on Sunday and feel like something’s missing, like we’ve never had a chance to really worship.
“It’s more being milk-fed instead of getting the real meat of the Word.”
Last month, the congregation voted to put the building up for sale. The upkeep, monthly utility bills and modest salaries of a secretary and a janitor are too much for the small group to manage. They haven’t had a paid pastor for six months.
The “For sale” sign is up. The asking price is $500,000.
The death of the church has been slow and painful. But the remaining members have chosen to see it through with a classic Baptist spirit: God has a plan and He will provide.
“We know as Bible believers there will come a time when Satan will use this building for his own purposes,” Paul Bridge said. “We also believe that we won’t be here to see that time. That we’ll be home with the Lord.”
Founded by missionaries
Since its inception, First Baptist Church has been an independent, self-sustaining congregation. The church was founded by missionaries on Dec. 8, 1881, with seven charter members - six white couples and a black woman.
The first building was built in 1888 on the northwest corner of Sprague and Monroe. The land was owned by Northern Pacific Railroad. A Baptist missionary, the Rev. Samuel Stearnes, sold his Cayuse pony, which had carried him over the Continental Divide, for $25 to buy the land.
In 1890, half of the congregation left the church in disgust after church elders hired the Rev. Mary C. Jones as the first and only female pastor. She stayed on for three years. The dissenting faction started their own church, Northside Baptist, which later became Grace Baptist.
On July 8, 1900, a church was erected at the current location, Second and Lincoln. Newspaper reports proclaimed it the “finest Baptist meeting house in the state.” It had Sunday school rooms for more than 1,000 children and seating for 1,500 in the main hall.
A quarter-century later, the congregation erected a second building next door. In 1929, the current sanctuary was dedicated. Builders sealed into the cornerstone a variety of church documents and publications, including the names and a picture of all the current members.
Membership grew throughout the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Church was an all-day affair for more than 1,000 adults and even more children who arrived at 9:30 a.m. for Sunday school.
Worship started at 11 a.m. and could take up to two hours if the preacher was particularly inspired. Afterward, people went down to the Union Gospel Mission to serve lunch to homeless men. Others visited the sick in the hospital or walked from house to house evangelizing.
At 6 p.m., teenagers and young adults returned for the Baptist Training Union - an extension of Sunday school with a focus on missionary work. At 7, the gospel hour began.
“The whole day was devoted to church,” said Val Cedarblom, who joined in 1946 and still belongs. “Sunday was the Lord’s day and that’s how we spent it.”
Membership peaked in the late 1950s. Even then, church leaders feared declining numbers. Bridge’s father was the head pastor at the church during the height of membership. He recalls his father telling church leaders, “Gentlemen, there’s going to be a need at First Baptist. A need for calluses - on your knees from praying, on your knuckles from knocking on doors and on your fingers from ringing doorbells.”
“When daddy was hired he was led to believe the attendance was greater than what it really was,” Bridge said. “He wanted to shore it up.”
Freeway began decline
Hundreds of urban churches in America have suffered the same fate as First Baptist. They are victims of the flight of families to the suburbs, rising crime, scarce parking, deteriorating facilities.
Interstate 90 represents all of that for the members of First Baptist. In 1954, hundreds of homes along Fourth Avenue were vacated and razed to make way for the freeway.
“It made a natural barrier between the church and the area where most of the people lived,” Bridge said.
Bernice Netland and her sister joined the young people’s group in 1944. As a result of her affiliation with the church she went on to serve as a Christian missionary in Japan for 30 years. She counts at least 20 of her peers who also went on to missionary careers or full-time Christian service.
“This was a wonderful place to be as a teenager,” she said. “It was very inspiring.”
She returned to Spokane in 1982 and was shocked by what she saw. By then, fewer than 100 people came to weekly services.
The evening service had been canceled because many members feared coming downtown in the dark. There were few families with children. The tiny chairs in the Sunday school rooms gathered dust. Pianos that used to play “Jesus Loves Me” were out of tune.
“Should I stick it out, or should I go somewhere else?” she asked herself. “I felt I should stick it out until the end, until we have some sort of conclusion.”
Building’s future uncertain
As they look back, members say the church’s fate could have been different.
“When downtown changed, during the hippie generation, we had a very hard time reaching out to those people,” Cedarblom said. “And now that most of the people living in the hotels around here are poor, or single mothers, we can’t reach out to them either.”
Wayne Janzen, a member since 1940, sensed the end and joined New Hope Bible church two years ago. At first it was a shock to see babies and young children at church. He still can’t get used to the modern music. But he likes the vibrancy of the congregation.
“The church of 20 or 30 years ago is a lot different than the church of today,” he said. “First Baptist was not able to adapt to the changes that have taken place.”
The debate at the church is whether to sell the building to the highest bidder, or give it away to another congregation for less.
Several members want the building to continue being used as a church. Others argue that a new congregation may simply turn around and sell it for a profit, once they see how much maintenance it needs.
Any money left over from the sale will be used to establish Bible school scholarships and support missionaries still in the field.
Once the building is sold, the remaining members will find other churches to join.
“The good Lord said that because Adam and Eve loused things up, as an indicator life would be painful,” Bridge said. “And that’s exactly the way it’s turned out.”
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