AKRON, Ohio — There is something new — and unusual — going on at Mount Olive Baptist Church.
It’s called a Kingdom Partnership. It is focused on what the church needs to do to remain relevant in today’s society and its goal is to help the struggling community around it.
“The majority of churches that were full 20 years ago are half full or less today. Most are having church to do two things — pay the bills and pay the pastor’s salary,” said the Rev. Kenneth Paramore, pastor of Christ Centered Church. “Some pastors would rather preach to 20 people and have their names on the (church) sign rather than do real ministry. We can either come together or die a slow death.”
In the African-American community, the church has historically been a staple. It served as a community hub, where people could find sanctuary from a hostile world, and an arena for spurring communal action to make life better.
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Over the years, the church’s central role in the black community has diminished.
Paramore and the Rev. William Bunton, pastor of Mount Olive, are hoping to reverse the trend. Their congregations (one Baptist, the other nondenominational) have been worshipping together since June 12.
“It is so evident in the worship that what we’re doing is really a ‘God thing.’ It is divinely mystical. It is exciting to go from having the church half-full to overflowing,” Bunton said. “Pastor Paramore and I are partners. We’re in this together. That is something that some people have difficulty understanding because pastors tend to be competitors or adversaries. And we tend to have strong egos and we are territorial.”
The characteristics that Bunton describes are not unique to pastors of black churches. But what is different is the historical role of the black church as central to the lives of African-Americans and as the entity that has provided guidance, via individuals that it helped shape, to the nation on issues like race relations, fairness, peace and justice.
Although both Bunton and Paramore said God gave them the vision to form partnerships with other churches a decade or more ago, the opportunity didn’t present itself until recently.
In February, Paramore invited about 30 African-American pastors to discuss the concept of coming together. A dozen showed up and one, the Rev. William “Bill” Jones, expressed an interest in teaming up with him.
Jones was then pastor of Akron’s St. Luke Baptist Church. As talks progressed, it appeared that Christ Centered Church and St. Luke’s were headed for a partnership. Christ Centered Church (formerly the Christian Revival and Discipleship Center) was attracting about 175 people to its services at Buchtel High School. St. Luke’s had about 34 active members.
Then, in April, several leaders at St. Luke sued Jones, Paramore and Christ Centered Church, which also has a campus in Youngstown. That ended talks and Jones was asked to leave by the group of about a dozen people who opposed the proposed partnership.
Jones founded Victory and Peace Baptist Church with the remaining 22 members. His church now worships at noon at Best Western Inn & Suites in the Montrose area. He is affiliated with the Kingdom Partnership and his congregation is working toward full participation.
“Black churches are too proud to admit it when they’re struggling. We need to learn to swallow our pride and do what’s best for God’s kingdom,” Jones said. “We’ve taken too much of an owner ship role, thinking that this is my church, these are my pews. The truth is we are all one family. It is absolutely a biblical standard to come together.”
Soon after the partnership proposal collapsed between St. Luke and Christ Centered Church, Paramore and Bunton ran into each other at Cleveland Hopkins Airport. Bunton had heard about Paramore’s meeting with other pastors and inquired about his vision.
As the two talked, both began to feel that God had brought them together. They continued to talk and pray together before bringing their spouses, leadership teams and congregations together for dialogue.
In May, both congregations voted to move forward. Plans for the Kingdom Partnership, which draws about 400 people to the 10 a.m. Sunday service, include a day care, tutoring programs, a computer lab, Bible classes, and nutrition and financial literacy programs.
Paramore and Bunton agree that joining churches together for ministry is not a new concept. They point to other faith groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church and the Lutheran Church, as examples of entities that have formed mergers and collaborations to address declining enrollment and finances in a way that ensures a vibrant ministry.
They said it is important for pastors to be prayerful throughout the process of coming together and to keep their egos in check.
“I know that God matched us up because we had never done ministry together. Our churches had never fellowshipped together. And in the beginning, neither of us even knew if we liked each other,” Bunton said. “But it was so clear to everybody in both of our circles that we needed to come together. And in the process, Pastor Paramore and I discovered that we actually complement each other.”
Bunton and Paramore said they hope their partnership will encourage others.
“I counted 139 black churches in Akron. The statistics show that about 4,000 inner-city churches in America close each year and that most don’t attract four new converts annually,” Paramore said. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing sitting in these churches that are half full?’ and ‘Why are we trying to build our own little kingdoms instead of building the kingdom of God?’
“We’re too busy trying to maintain these buildings and keep the lights on, when we should be focusing on meeting the needs of our communities. We’re stuck in a paradigm that doesn’t work but we keep doing it because we don’t know how to do anything else.
“We’re trying to show that there is another way. All we have to do is come together, like the Bible tells us in the fourth chapter of the book of Acts.”