Southerners who moved to Michigan in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s tolerated the cold weather because of good-paying jobs in the auto industry, but they couldn’t endure what to them were cold, non-evangelistic churches. So they started their own.
First Baptist Church of South Lyon, about forty miles west of Detroit, was among them. Started by Southern Baptists in 1955 in the upstairs of a Kroger grocery store, the church quickly became a magnet for Southerners eager to find a church that reminded them of “back home.” Even until the mid-1980s, as many as 250 people participated in Sunday morning worship and eagerly contributed to missions at First Baptist South Lyon. They gave nearly 13 percent of undesignated offerings through the Cooperative Program in 1986.
But then the decline began.
“They were very evangelistic over the years, but whether intentional or not—and I think it was not as intentional as it was sub-conscious—their evangelistic fervor and practice was most effective with other Southerners,” said Rob Freshour, pastor for seven years of the church where, now, about 130 people gather each Sunday.
After their teen years, many children of the founding generation lost interest in the church, Freshour explained, because they became more comfortable being with other Michiganders than remaining in the Southern culture of their parents’ church. As a result, “a lot of churches like ours have a generation missing—people between 30 and 45—and that’s sad. A lot of those families grew up in churches like ours,” he said.
It’s the same conflict many ethnic churches face, with first-generation immigrants experiencing a cultural divide with their second- and third-generation offspring who don’t find the same joy in a homeland-style church, the pastor continued.
“On any given Sunday we’ll have three groups in church: 30 percent have been here thirty to fifty years—wonderful, faithful people who were the founders of the church; a third, here ten to thirty years, who for the most part have been here on Sundays—they’re friendly but not engaged; and another 30 percent who have been here two to three years—they come with different energy, different passion, different questions than the faithful,” Freshour said. “The newcomers say, ‘Hey, try this!’ and the oldtimers say, ‘We’ve never done that.’
“Ours is a church that needs to think about transition. The church has a great history and has done great things over the years, but they have become gray-haired and blue-haired and no-haired. . . . It’s going to take seven to nine years, I told them when they called me; and it’s still going to take seven to nine [more] years.”
That being said, one thing that’s non-negotiable is First South Lyons’ commitment to missions. The church currently gives 15 percent through the Cooperative Program for Michigan Baptist and Southern Baptist missions and ministries, plus an additional 6 percent total to the local association, church planting, and local outreach.
“I’m Southern Baptist by conviction,” Freshour said. “Southern Baptists value Scripture; we value missions; we value people the same way God values people—that makes us missional. And, Southern Baptists value cooperation: we’re a family on mission together. We understand we can do so much more together than we can alone, and the Cooperative Program is a great vehicle for that.”
First South Lyon members take the Acts 1:8 challenge seriously. Each Sunday, in a three-to-five minute “Missions Moment,” they hear about the needs and opportunities in one of the local-to-global facets of Southern Baptist cooperation. The first Sunday of each month relates to local missions and ministries. The fourth and fifth Sundays focus on the uttermost parts of the world.
“The most important thing we’re doing for transition to happen is to try to see the world the way God sees the world,” Freshour said. “We try to help our folks see our neighborhood and the nations through the Acts 1:8 grid. . . . God has the nations on His heart. If we’re going to be vitally connected with what Jesus is doing, we need to have that same kind of heart.”
First South Lyon helped start Active Faith, a community-wide benevolent ministry, and is a part of the South Lyon Churches Health Initiative, a coalition of churches working together to provide free healthcare to needy families in the community. The church also reaches out across the state and the nation in various mission endeavors. And that’s not all.
“We’ve embraced a people group in Southeast Asia,” Freshour said. “The more we put Acts 1:8 before people, the more excited they get—folks who never before thought of themselves as part of the mission force suddenly saying, ‘Hey, I’m a missionary!’”
Families with children live in more than one out of every three homes in South Lyon, with 5,500 children and teens in the public school system. Fifteen percent of households are senior adults living alone. And yet, in Michigan, most people don’t go to a church anywhere, the pastor said.
“We need to transition to be the kind of people—the kind of believers—who know everybody needs Jesus,” Freshour said. “We’re there to be bridges to God for people. . . . We’ll never be a megachurch; we need to be the kind of church God wants us to be.”
Karen L. Willoughby, managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message and Michigan Baptist Beacon, is a member of Kingsville Baptist Church in Ball, Louisiana.