Steve Wingfield serves as senior pastor with First Christian Church in Florissant, Missouri. With an average attendance of 1,200, this church in the largest suburb of St. Louis faces challenges endemic to churches in changing suburban communities.
Give us a brief summary of your history with First Christian.
My dad, Charles Wingfield, was called to preach here in 1972 when I was 10 years old. The church was running about 150 to 170. I grew up in this church, went away to Bible college, and then ministered four years in another place. In 1987 the church called me to be the first person titled “associate minister”—working with young adults and preaching occasionally. I was in my mid-20s at that time. Twenty-six years later I am still here.
How did your present role develop?
About 13 years ago my dad had a massive heart attack. After a full recovery, he and the elders began to think about developing a healthy leadership transition plan for the future. In 2007 I became senior pastor after a three-year supervised transition. My dad stepped away from that primary leadership role, took a sabbatical in residence at Johnson University, and then returned as an associate minister in pastoral care until his death last year.
Your lifetime with a single church is rare.
This really is my home church—I have been blessed to “stay put” while most people in suburbia do not. In this high-mobility area, very little locks people into the community. The suburban church has turnover, with few people expecting to put down roots. However, the recession has challenged this dynamic. Loss of home values and being upside down in a mortgage locks people into homes longer than before. This is true of most suburban communities.
What patterns do you observe relating to people’s choice to live in your community?
People move into our area because it provides proximity to their work, and they are seeking the best housing and community they can afford. Florissant is favorably viewed because it’s a very safe city with highly rated schools. These assets attract people from less blessed areas of the city.
I am not a demographer, and I can’t explain what some call “white flight” and “suburban sprawl,” but in large cities many people are regularly moving to the newest developments on the developing edge of suburbia. In the past two decades our community complexion has shifted. For example, when I attended the local high school nearest the church, about 90 percent of the students were white. That same public high school now is closer to 90 percent black. Our community has a majority of homes occupied by older white families, but the majority of younger families are black.
How have these demographics impacted churches?
Every local church has been challenged by this shift. Most have failed to make adjustments, and declined, disappeared, or moved away. Many are in survival mode, with small congregations in buildings that once served hundreds of people.
What about First Christian? Are any of your transitions deliberate responses to demographic changes?
We have not changed in our determination to reach people, all people, for Christ. That means our congregation invested in our current location with new facilities. In 2006 we completed a fourth phase of building that included a $9 million worship facility with expansion possibilities to seat 1,600. Then three years ago we did a national search for a new worship minister. The person who most clearly met our expectations happened to be an African-American from California. Our partnership in leading worship services has helped to make it clear that our church is open to everyone.
Would you say you are deliberately “integrating”?
No. We are evangelizing without bias. People coming into the community see that our church has the kind of worship, youth programs, and service opportunities they are looking for. When they check us out, they find we preach Christ. We’ve seen more than 300 baptisms in the past two years, and I can’t help but celebrate that close to half of those individuals are black. That’s a testament to our congregation’s welcome of all people.
Have you lost members in the transition?
Yes. We accept that some are more comfortable elsewhere. But on the front row there sits a woman in her 80s. The church began 55 years ago as a small group meeting in her basement. Think of all the changes she has seen! Three locations, five building programs, different worship styles, thousands of new people. She still says proudly, “I love my church!” In the same service are 100 to 150 teenagers who have only known a church that is remarkably diverse. It speaks well of our future.
We would like to break the 1,200 attendance plateau. While we are baptizing more people than ever, we haven’t seen the overall growth we’d like to see. It is not so much people falling away as moving away, but we have got to do a better job at helping new people connect quickly and significantly.
Meanwhile, we have to celebrate that God is using us as a “sending” church. In recent years we have had as many as 25 of our members in Bible college. And in the next month we are sending off two more married couples to mission fields in Haiti and Africa. We have to trust that members who come to Christ here will go on to serve him in the next place they live.
We are also opening the door to a more regional ministry. Instead of describing ourselves as First Christian–Florissant (suburban area), we are becoming First Christian–St. Louis. This is not because we are abandoning our primary context, but we have a larger city we are committed to reaching.
What’s next for you personally?
When I came back to my home church and joined the ministry staff, I thought it would be for three years to help the church through transition. Twenty-six years later it seems we are always in transition, and so are our people. God has put me in a context that is often uncomfortable and always challenging. That describes our church and our community. I’m honored to be involved in God’s answer to the big questions we face. God never promised “easy,” but I can say, “I love my church.”
Paul Boatman serves as chaplain with Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.