By John Armistead

Daily Journal

Visitors to Northeast Mississippi often express amazement at the number and variety of churches they see. Virtually every rural community, no matter how small, has at least one church, and frequently two or three, and every town boasts several, most quite well-appointed with well-maintained green landscaping wrapping around their foundations.

To the casual observer, each church appears to possess everything it needs by way of facilities. However, of the making of churches, as Ecclesiastes says of books, there seems to be no end. Congregations of every size, stripe and denominational preference find themselves physically uncomfortable and are taking steps to ease the strain.

Why change?

Given the fact that churches represent stability and that most congregations develop strong emotional ties to their older buildings where they saw their children married, buried their parents, and where they themselves underwent meaningful spiritual experiences, why, then, would they seek something new and different?

In a word, growth. By their very nature, churches grow. Healthy churches in fertile circumstances (such as being located in communities with growing populations) or with vigorous outreach programs grow. In time, more people attending a facility constructed for fewer people crimps the spirit of the church, and something must be done.

“Our present church was built in 1943 by a few Catholic families who moved in with the railroad,” said Sister Marie Gilligan, resident pastoral minister of Amory’s St. Helen Catholic Church. “But now we have 60 families. We’re crowded on Sunday.”

Harrisburg Baptist Church of Tupelo, the largest church in Northeast Mississippi, has also outgrown its facilities. “The church was built to hold 800-825 people and right now we’re averaging over 1,000,” said the Rev. David Langerfeld, minister of education and administrator.

Harrisburg plans to build not only enough space to accommodate the church’s present membership but to allow for future growth. Langerfeld said they will provide for 3,000 in Sunday School.

Besides building to give more room for attendance, some churches build to make room for more ministries. Such is the case with Tupelo’s First Baptist Church, currently constructing a $3.34 million new building.

“We needed the space for education and we didn’t have a fellowship hall,” said the Rev. Gayle Alexander, pastor. Besides a fellowship hall, the new building will house preschool, children, and youth divisions of Sunday School.

Relocate or not?

Some churches, like St. Helen, are removing the old building and constructing a new one on the same site. The general rule, however, is to relocate. This is particularly true of town churches.

Often there simply isn’t enough property available at the old location. “We needed more land, but the people on either side of the church didn’t want to sell,” said the Rev. Larry Shannon, pastor of White Hill Missionary Baptist Church of Tupelo. “We just didn’t have enough land for parking and for the building.”

Harrisburg is relocating to a 42-acre site on Cliff Gookin Boulevard near the campus of Tupelo High School. Originally, the church planned to build in stages. But that idea may be altered.

“We’re now talking about doing it all at once, doing the whole ball of wax,” said the Rev. Forrest Sheffield, pastor. “We’ll know more June 2 when the pledges are all in.” The estimated cost for the project is $13.5 million.

Tupelo Free Will Baptist Church also felt the land crunch. “We were very limited as far as any future expansion, and we wanted a new facility,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Wayne Bass.

The church purchased 12 acres of land near the Highway 78-Veterans Boulevard intersection in northeast Tupelo, and first built a family life center in which to worship and conduct Sunday School while they finish the new sanctuary and education building.

What did they do with their former facility on East Main Street? They sold it lock, stock and barrel to White Hill M.B. Church, who moved a couple months ago.

What to do with the old?

The Free Will congregation was grateful the White Hill congregation wanted to buy its old facility, and White Hill was grateful for the opportunity. “We wouldn’t have been able to afford to build a building like that,” said Shannon.

Selling property and buildings to another church is usually a relocating church’s first preference. Harrisburg, whose existing properties have been appraised at $3.5 million, hopes to sell to another church. “That would be our first goal,” Langerfeld said. “We’d love to sell it to a seminary or some kind of ministry.”


How do these churches finance their new projects? For the most part, they use a mixture of approaches. Most churches ask members to pledge sacrificially above their regular giving. Then they borrow the balance from financial institutions.

Harrisburg already has pledges to cover the price of the property. “We are about to enter a capital stewardship campaign to raise the money for the cost of the buildings, parking lots, and furnishings,” said Langerfeld. The goal $10 million.

Harrisburg averages 60 more people in Sunday School week than the corresponding Sunday a year ago. Pastor Sheffield is a keen student of the ways and means of reaching new people.

“The basic idea,” he said, “is that if you don’t have adequate facilities and the necessary room, the growth is going to level off and then start going backwards. Space is absolutely necessary for growth.” For this reason, Harrisburg is building for twice as many people as are now attending the church.

An uplifted spirit

Churches that enter building programs often find the overall mood of their people heightened. Building “makes its demands on a congregation,” said Alexander, “but something else happens, too. It is often one of the greatest times in the life of the church.”

Building a new facility also says something about the church to people outside, according to Gilligan. “In designing the church, we asked ourselves what we wanted to say to the community,” she said. “We knew we wanted the edifice to be seen as permanent and welcoming to all.”

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