Friday, February 19, 2010

A Church Without A Congregation

Day 3 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Show and Tell


You’ve got three guesses to name the region of North America where this stately church can be found, and the first two don’t count!

Yes, this iconic New England church is located along the coast of Maine, in the village of Sedgwick. The congregation of First Baptist Church was formed in 1804, and this structure constructed in 1837. But while the building remains, the 209-year-old congregation does not.

That’s right. After 209 years, the last two members of the congregation, the pastor and his wife, decided to fold the church after a summer which saw themselves as the only people attending services. Several times, they had offered to step aside if other members thought another preacher could stoke the fires, but even after membership dipped below 20, then 10, the congregation knew the problem wasn't with the pastor.

Indeed, those members who were unhappy had already left years earlier to form a more fundamentalist church. Other local villagers in the town of 500 politely rejected the culture of church. While nobody’s surprised the end has come to the 209-year-old congregation, a more disturbing realization is that only a handful of people are even disappointed.

The Challenges of Rural New England

Coastal Maine stretches from the highly-trafficked southeastern corner of the state to its sparsely populated northeastern tip. In between lies Sedgwick, which even in its heyday decades ago wasn’t much more than a local fishing and lumber community. A couple of stately sea captain houses grace the town’s short Main Street, and the old country store now caters to the refined and pricey tastes of wealthy summer people. Some middle-income families remain, but have to commute miles to schools, grocery stores, and whatever work they can find that pays a living wage.

Indeed, the only economy left in town is what revolves around summer people – the properties they buy and sell, and all of their renovation, maintenance, and construction projects. Not enough day-trippers or tourists come through town because it’s too far from Boston and too close to famous Bar Harbor. Even popular Deer Isle, with its world-famous Haystack art school and picturesque Stonington Harbor, makes Sedgwick a wallflower along the rocky shore.

Not that First Baptist Church Sedgwick could survive on tourists anyway. Without the interest of local residents, and as long-time members simply passed away, the church marched headlong into what some people would call oblivion. Remaining true to his calling, the Rev. George Springer refused to compromise the Gospel message to put people in the pews, even after years of meeting with ambivalence from townspeople when it came to spiritual matters.

Who Cares?

Nobody in town was unaware of the church or its ministry – indeed, the Springers were well-known for their care of elderly residents in Sedgwick and Deer Isle. And virtually all of Sedgwick’s life-long residents had, at some point during their childhood, been to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School there.

Plus, you can't miss it: the church building proudly commands the highest point in town – with a gold-leaf steeple that used to glisten in Maine’s all-to-infrequent sun. When the 4-level steeple began to collapse into the sanctuary, wealthy summer residents and visitors who valued the look of the church took up a collection to repair it. Indeed, having such an iconic structure in an otherwise undistinguishable village was good for real estate values. So it was that year the steeple’s supports failed, the church received over $250,000 from people who’d never even been inside – including a vacationing Walter Cronkite – so it could be fixed and the structural integrity of the church restored. Not for worshipping in, mind you – but for the quintessential aesthetic that the building provided the community.

And speaking of aesthetics, consider the windows. In 1904, to commemorate the congregation’s centennial, six towering stained-glass windows in the sanctuary and three portal windows in the vestibule were commissioned from the studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany. An unsolicited appraisal by an independent stained glass expert in the mid-1990’s placed the value of the collection at between $4 to $6 million – and even more, if as rumored, one of the vestibule windows was by Tiffany himself.

Gone, But Not Entirely

Not that its closing means First Baptist Church has completely died. During its 209 years, Sedgwick's First Baptist spawned several other congregations in nearby hamlets, as well as smaller, seasonal chapels, although today they’re mostly private homes or used for community events. Two nearby churches remain in North Sedgwick and nearby Brooklin, and they, along with the dispersed progeny from First Baptist's 209 years of ministry, will be its legacy.

As far as the building itself is concerned, the Springers turned over the sanctuary, a smaller chapel building, and a traditional Colonial-style parsonage over to the town's preservation trust a few months ago. The church was independent, not belonging to any denomination, and without any debts or lienholders. Currently, it is unknown if the new caretakers of the property even have the funds to maintain the level of upkeep the Springers struggled to perform. The windows from Tiffany’s studios have been in need of professional – and prohibitively expensive – attention for years. How long they – and the church they adorn – will remain standing in coastal Maine's unforgiving climate is anybody’s guess.

First Baptist Church of Sedgwick is where my mother’s parents came to Christ. Indeed, a number of my mother’s relatives were faithful members of the church for decades. But as my mother, and others of her generation, moved away, they were never replaced. This has been due partly because of economic transition dynamics familiar to many New England villages, but mostly because of an increasing embrace by New England residents of the post-religion ethos sweeping across the Atlantic from Europe.

Coming Soon?

Indeed, what’s happened in Sedgwick has become de rigueur for churches across the oldest parts of our nation, which have been dwindling to nothing and either torn down or converted into homes, restaurants, and even nightclubs.

But just as the United States couldn’t be contained in the original 13 colonies, it has been surmised that neither will the march of post-religion society. What has been happening for years in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts is sweeping through places like New York City and the coastal Southern states.

Heading west, just like the fabled pioneers. And just like the last migration, the natives may not survive this time either.

1 comment:

  1. I think Tim Keller proves you wrong. Don't have the energy to go get the quotes. I'll just be negative and move on to some trivial website where I give them my social security number seeing as how it is necessary to get the $5,000,000 prize I have already won.

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