Leaders of two Eastern Jackson County churches – Noland Road Baptist in Independence and Plaza Heights Baptist in Blue Springs – have merged in what they call a modern model of ministry.
Lead Pastor Francis O’Donnell draws from Biblical language to call the approach a “kingdom partnership” because of its focus on growing followers -- not just within the walls of the church but in the larger community. Church leaders says this new model more fully meets modern demands.
“Our desire is not to be a mega-church, but to have a big impact on our community,” O’Donnell said. The effort fosters easy collaboration and shared duties in Sunday worship from sermons to music. It also extends to other activities churches increasingly performed away from the pulpit, such as community service, O’Donnell said.
The former Noland Road Baptist and Plaza Heights Baptist, which both boast a more than half century tradition, are now The Gathering Baptist Church. Combined, they have about 700 active members on two campuses, having retained the original locations at 4505 S. Noland Road and 1500 S.W. Clark Road.
The new model means leaders will focus less on a more traditional approach to measuring success, which includes tracking membership, attendance, and donations, which can lead neighborhood congregations to compete for members. Instead, they have joined hands in fostering mutual success. But, O’Donnell said the combined effort calls for a new mindset.
“You have to check your ego at the door,” he said.
Church leaders decided to launch the new approach on Easter, with bold signs at both campuses proclaiming the joint name with a new logo.
The partnership translates to more resources, the pastors said during a recent meeting at the Noland Road campus. By joining together, they believe they can expand the church’s scope of outreach. In addition, it provides an answer to the struggles of many modern churches to provide religious guidance and outreach with often limited resources.
O’Donnell stressed that The Gathering’s partnership is equal.
“We’re not the knight in shining armor,” he said, referring to the Noland Road campus’s larger active membership of more than 500. The Blue Springs church’s approximately 200 members signaled the church may only have been able to keep the doors open for another five years, said Family Pastor Nate Jones.
The approach is a modern-day answer to churches that are struggling to survive in a changing world that can leave little to no room for religion.
“Sunday’s not as sacred as it used to be,” O’Donnell said. “It’s just another day for many.”
He said young families struggle to meet busy schedules that often include sports practices and games on Sunday morning.
“The greatest commodity for family is time,” he said.
Jones listed another reason for a decline in churches.
“We live in a transient society,” he said, where frequent moves make it more difficult to establish long-standing church ties. America’s aging baby-boomer population is yet another hardship. These factors account for the more than 900 Southern Baptist churches which close each year, said The Gathering’s Creative Arts Pastor Conor Scholes, citing statistics from the Southern Baptist Convention, to which the church belongs.
Other main-line denominational churches from Methodists to Presbyterians also are experiencing such closures. While churches shrink and close, they are under more pressure to do more outside of the church’s walls.
“The younger generation wants to be involved more than just sitting in a pew,” O’Donnell said. Many churches partner with area schools, coordinating efforts to send home weekend backpacks of food for children who might otherwise go hungry. School partnerships also take the form of mentorships or reading partners, helping students by providing role models and academic support.
The Gathering’s birth has been brewing for years. In fact, Jones said when he was called to serve as a youth pastor at Plaza Heights several years ago, a Noland Road Baptist pastor extended an offer of welcome and support. Jones, who was the only pastor on staff at Plaza Heights for more than a year, said he gladly accepted and Noland Road began sending volunteers, including vocalists.
From there, the pastors began meeting regularly to collaborate, sharing information and resources. When discussions turned to a potential merger, the pastors reached out to other churches that have adopted similar models to learn about the pitfalls and benefits. While the merger practice is not common, they found a few in the Kansas City area, mostly in Kansas. It is somewhat more common for struggling churches to combine to operate from one facility, Scholes said.
The Gathering hopes other area churches might consider adopting a partnership model, especially churches located within formerly well-populated areas, such as downtown Independence. In such locations, five or six churches, often of different denominations, exist within a few blocks, making partnerships easier. The pastors said they are more than willing to address the process with churches considering similar “kingdom partnerships.”
Once announced, O’Donnell said the two congregations mostly reacted positively.
“This group of people was amazing and very gracious in their handling of the situation,” he said.
Knowing that change is often difficult, leaders put a focus on “holding onto our heritage and individual identity,” O’Donnell said.
However, the leaders were prepared for what O’Donnell called hiccups in the transition and a few members reacted by walking out. Part of ensuring a smooth transition is clear communication.
While church leaders have explained the model extensively from the pulpit and in meetings, more is planned. The Gathering will host a “worship and vision night” at 5:30 p.m. this coming Sunday at Blue Springs South High School, 1200 S.E. Adams Dairy Parkway.
The Gathering’s pastors agreed that this “kingdom partnership” probably is not the last. “This is not a one-time thing,” Scholes said, adding that church leaders are waiting “for the Lord to lead us to the next church.”