Josh Knierim says if someone lives in Helena, there’s a good chance he or she passes The Church at Old Town — formerly known as the city’s First Baptist Church — twice a day.
It’s right on one of the main roads going into the Birmingham suburb of about 21,000, right in the heart of Helena’s Old Town, a historic district that’s being revitalized.
It’s a great spot for a church.
“But most people have stopped seeing it,” Knierim said. “And we want to turn that around.”
First, Helena, has had a long history — it was organized in 1833 and has been active in the city for a long time. But over the past two decades, it’s experienced what Jeff Champion called a “slow bleed” — two difficult seasons of leadership took a toll on the congregation.
“I came there as pastor about a year and a half ago,” Champion said.
“I knew they were struggling, but I also knew they were in a great location and that we were going to have to embark on a time of revitalization.”
That’s exactly what they did — the small, aging congregation started a new children’s ministry to reach out to the growing community of Helena. It went well, Champion said — the first three weeks, they had 40 children.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and they had to shut down. Some of the older church members were not able to come back. Before the pandemic, the church had been able to make ends meet and even have a surplus, despite a $9,300-per-month payment on their facilities. But during the pandemic, they started draining reserves to pay the bills.
So Champion — who had heard the story of Shades Mountain Baptist Church, Birmingham, adopting McElwain Baptist Church — reached out to Josh Cook, church revitalization specialist for Birmingham Metro Baptist Association, to see what the possibilities were.
“He said he knew of a church looking to come alongside another church and help revitalize it,” Champion said.
That church was Valleydale Church, and Pastor Mac Brunson said he “felt like it was a direction God was leading us.”
“Valleydale has always been involved in international missions, national missions and local missions, but not in our immediate community,” he said. “This is on the edge of our immediate community. I think all of Valleydale is tremendously excited to help a church become a thriving part of a community and a base of evangelistic operations for the days to come.”
The two churches began talking about the possibilities, and in May they both voted to move forward with replanting. That meant Valleydale would provide a fresh vision for the church, a new pastor and staff, and a team of volunteers to help.
They also decided on a new name for the new church — The Church at Old Town.
The congregation — made up of the Valleydale team, members of the original First Baptist Church and guests invited from the community — held its first service June 6.
Knierim, formerly Valleydale’s student pastor, is the new pastor. The effort is being supported by Plant Alabama and the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. Knierim is currently in a church planting training cohort led by Brian Harper, an associate in the SBOM office of associational missions and church planting. This will provide both coaching and resources, Knierim said.
He said for a while now, God has been stirring in his heart to be a pastor for the city — to go to the grocery store for the next 25 years and get stopped in the aisle by people he knows. Though it’s a suburb of Birmingham, Helena has that small-town mindset, he said.
“I want to get to know the town and get invested in the community and share that vision with people here too,” Knierim said. “I want our church to know that everything they do in the community — going to the ballpark, going to the store — is a missions opportunity.”
He’s seeing that small-town personality in action already. Even though the church soft-opened June 6 and doesn’t officially launch until August, word has already spread that something new is starting at the church, and people are excited.
Stewarding the church
So Knierim and volunteers from Valleydale have been working hard on renovations and signage to put their best foot forward from the very beginning, knowing that any Sunday that someone new walks through the door “is launch Sunday for them” even if it isn’t for the church, Knierim said.
“It’s cool to see how God is putting it all together,” he said.
That includes preparing the hearts of the First, Helena, congregation to make this kind of monumental decision on how to steward their church, Brunson said.
Champion “deserves a tremendous amount of credit” for leading the church to this point, he said.
Brunson said he knows it’s not an easy place for a pastor or a church to come to, but Champion’s heart and the heart of the church is this — “they want to reach their community for Christ.”
“I have a great deal of respect for them and a great deal of appreciation for those who will endure and stay with the church,” he said.
Champion said he knew when he started this process “it would probably mean I would lose my job” — because often in a replant situation, a new pastor helps move the new church into a new season.
But Champion said his goal was to see the church thrive. Valleydale “has been a great, great partner — unbelievable,” he said.
And the congregation of First, Helena, is “excited about everything too,” he said. “Most of our people are grandparents and great grandparents. They have been here through some really tough times, and they wanted to see the church be healthy. Valleydale was the perfect fit.”
For more information about how your church can be involved in a revitalization process — either as an adopting church or as a replant — contact Rick Barnhart at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions at 800-264-1225, ext. 2220, or visit plantalabama.org.