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Like most liberal to progressive mainline Protestant Churches in the beginning of the twenty-first century, Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Harvard Square has had its issues with membership growth and sustainment in the last few years. OCBC, a Partner Congregation with BPFNA, has a history of being one of the most progressive churches in the area for several decades. The church participated actively in the anti-war movement in the sixties and seventies, and became a sanctuary church in the eighties. It paved the way for women’s ordination in the American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts, and has, as well, for the social and ecclesiastical rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. It was the first congregation to become a full member of the Religious Coalition for the Right to Marry, a Massachusetts lobbying group which pushed for full marriage rights for all of the citizens of the Commonwealth and the church held one of the first legal gay wedding services in the state. Very recently, the church passed a resolution against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which is closely modeled after BPFNA’s own anti-war resolution. The church is also currently working with immigrant groups toward making more just immigration policy locally and nationwide.
Old Cambridge was never a huge membership church, but, with the rising tide of a less socially aware and active general population, and more attrition from mainline churches in general, the church has recognized that in order to continue its traditions and its work, as well as just to keep its building up as an active community center and resource, a larger constituency of church members must be found. To this end, last fall, Old Cambridge began utilizing a methodology borrowed from the “mega-church” model described in Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests Into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church by Nelson Searcy and Jennifer Dykes Henson.
The authors clearly describe a process of evaluating how a church should measure its effectiveness at attracting and inculcating new members into its midst, as well as well-thought-out process of welcoming which includes suggestions of emails and letters which should go out at prescribed intervals following an individual’s first visit to a church. This is called by the authors, “the assimilation process.” A schedule of gift-giving at prescribed intervals is also recommended. OCBC modified some of the “gifts” (such as a gift card to Au Bon Pain) which continue to the point of giving of a book and that’s where BPFNA, and George William’s book, Radicals! Anabaptists and the Current World Crisis, came in. At the conclusion of the second visit, a visitor is given a copy of this book and encouraged to read it with a statement like, “Some people don’t realize that Baptists come in many shapes and sizes. This book characterizes much of the stream of history and direction of Old Cambridge Baptist, and owing to your interest, we thought you might enjoy looking at it.”
Another crucial part of the assimilation process is to involve people in what are called “sticky” situations. This amounts to the creation of small groups which encourage people to get to know each other at deeper levels around common interests. A couple of OCBC’s, for instance, are “The Stargazing Group” and “The Refugee Assistance Team”.
Old Cambridge has had, for a number of years, a New-Member/Outreach Team whose task it has been to dream up new ways of attracting people to the congregation. The first task was to present the material in Fusion and then to the church’s governing body, its Deacons. Once buy-in at that level was achieved, the congregation was also apprised of the process and, as a group, decided to go ahead with the process for the period of September through January 2011. On account of the process, we can claim that we have three solid new congregants. There is, now, perhaps, a new understanding among the congregation generally of the church’s own history, and a new consciousness of the need to grow and how to go about it.
—Rev. Irv Cummings is pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist Church, Cambridge, Mass., a BPFNA Partner Congregation.