Easter is a time for celebration, and on Sunday, members of Salem’s CommUNITY Church will be doing just that, but at a new location.
As of last Sunday, Salem’s Tabernacle Baptist Church has officially closed its doors. Now, CommUNITY Church is ready to open the building’s doors back up.
Tabernacle Baptist Church, located on East Main Street, first opened in 1927 when Salem was still considered part of Roanoke County. The Rev. Chris Mitchell said when the church originally opened, the American mindset regarding church was completely different. Then, he said it was a means of networking.
“Ultimately, churches are shrinking today, because it’s not culturally the norm to need to be seen in church,” Mitchell said. “Back then, if you were a businessman and you needed contacts, you didn’t have Facebook to do it. You went to church. Culture doesn’t look at the people who go to church differently anymore.”
However, Mitchell said members who attended Tabernacle Baptist until the end were there for the right reasons.
“It led to the church being purified, as the only people there were people who want to grow and understand the gospel,” Mitchell said. “They’re there, but we’re left with these giant facilities that fewer and fewer can afford anymore.”
Mitchell said over the years, the church has made several attempts to revitalize its congregation. Mitchell began as pastor in September of 2012, following Rick Elmore, a well-known pastor who also spent time at Cave Spring Baptist Church. Mitchell said he had hoped that being a younger pastor with a growing family would attract a younger generation of members.
Tabernacle, which at its time of closure had around 110 members, experienced a dramatic decline in membership over the past few years, which Mitchell attributes to aging members and a community that doesn’t hold church in the same regard as it once did.
Though some ardent members remained, Mitchell felt compelled to make a change. That’s when he and the congregation were confronted with a major decision. Rather than sell the building or keep the church running for as long as possible, potentially running into debt issues, Mitchell said he wanted to make a statement in the community and leave with grace.
“We couldn’t keep up for very much longer the way things were going, but we wanted to close the church with dignity,” Mitchell said. “We wanted to close in a way that honored the Lord and that paid our debts.”
The church contacted a regional missionary from Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, which is a church network they were a part of, and began the search for a church in need that shared a similar vision and ideology. Mitchell said once they found CommUNITY Church, the choice was obvious. A majority vote conducted on March 13 finalized the decision. Last Sunday, Mitchell and his congregation celebrated Tabernacle’s final service.
“I have heard from others how much they appreciated that it was a time of celebration,” Mitchell said. “It was a time of looking ahead instead of mourning the past.”
Mitchell, who also works as a bus driver for Salem City Schools, said he believes everything happens for a reason. Though bittersweet, Mitchell said the greatest blessing will be watching his congregation disperse and plant seeds of hope throughout the valley as they find their new church homes.
The Rev. Tom McCracken, who is a member of the Roanoke County School Board, has led CommUNITY Church for 10 years. The church, which he founded, now has around 300 members. Most recently located at Russell Drive in Salem, it was a warehouse-style church that had underwent many renovations after moving around from six locations over the years.
This time, the move feels more permanent. Still, McCracken said he knows some members are weary of another change. However, for the most part, McCracken said the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
McCracken said the prospect of the church being debt-free is an incredible blessing, which will allow more money towards missions and ministries. Once the church’s Russell Drive location is sold, McCracken said it will free the congregation of a $1.6 million debt.
“For me, the greatest gift is the people that we’ve been exposed to because of Tabernacle,” he said. “We’re sort of inheriting their shut-in members and their nursing home residents, and we’re going to take care of those folks. We’re going adopt them and love them.”
McCracken said he will welcome former Tabernacle members to CommUNITY, but understands the need for a fresh start.
“I think what they did was probably the most generous, most visionary decision that I’ve ever seen in church,” McCracken said. “For them to close and gift with no strings attached everything they have, that was just a tremendously generous gift.”
“With that kind of vision and that kind of heart… Yes, I want those folks to stay,” he added.
Both Mitchell and McCracken remain optimistic, and as one chapter closes, another is set to begin. McCracken said he is optimistic that on Easter, CommUNITY Church can pack the sanctuary.
“The sanctuary, from what I understand, has not been filled for 40-plus years,” McCracken said. “This Sunday, I intend to fill it up.”