The City of Albany proclaimed a Church on the Corner Day earlier this month to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the local baptist church. But many local residents might have never been to the church, or to any of the other few churches in town, as Christian worship has largely faded out of people’s daily life at Albany.
The Church on the Corner, formerly known as First Baptist Church of Albany, used to play a prominent role in the town for decades. Now the 100-year-old is undergoing radical changes in order to regain its relevance to the community.
The church was started in the living room at a believer’s house in 1908. It grew into a large congregation of more than 300 worshipers in late 1950s, bustling with families and activities. Nearly 200 kids attended its Sunday School at that time.
Its influence began to decline in the 1960s as a major cultural shift swept the country. Its devout members got older and older. Some passed away. Some moved out of town. Few new members joined in.
By the turn of the 20th century, the church was left with a handful of seniors, whose average age was around 65. Few young families were present at its Sunday worship. It was in want of fund. The plants in its patio were dying.
“The church was aging to death, ” said Pastor Tom Cullen of the church. “It was losing energy, losing life, and losing numbers. “
Cullen used to be a business executive of a large telecommunication company. He became the pastor of the church in late 2002.
He overhauled the church in recent years, with not only what he learned at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, but also ideas he practiced during his 25 years in the business world.
Cullen changed the name of the church from First Baptist Church of Albany to Church on the Corner, in order to avoid rousing negative feelings among some in the public by eliminating the word “baptist” from its name.
Under his leadership the church replaced traditional hymns with contemporary Christian songs for worshiping, and installed three video screens in the sanctuary. The screens would display ebullient images and lyrics of songs such as Shout to the Lord, while two members play guitar to lead the singing.
He had the church’s window frame painted from brown to bright blue, the building lit up at night, and booth set up at Solano Stroll to attract new believers.
“We want to send a clear message to the community that the church has changed, that we are welcoming, friendly, and inviting, ” Cullen said.
The church’s constitution was also rewritten and younger members were invited into the church leadership.
Not all members of the church like the changes. Several senior ones resisted, and finally left the church after failing to prevail over Cullen.
“Probably because I am old-fashioned, ” said Betti Garrett, a senior who has been attending the church for more than twenty years. “I have a hard time to believe that what we need is always change, change, and change. “
Garrett said she misses singing traditional hymns, such as the Old Rugged Cross.
“It makes me sad that some of our children will grow up not knowing the hymns at all, ” she said.
She still goes to the church, for it is close to home, and for she has cultivated an emotional bond with people there.
About two dozen new members have been attracted to the church in recent years. Many of them are young people from diverse racial backgrounds.
26-year-old Shauna Gibson was one of them. She felt assured by Cullen’s spiritual guidance and sought help from him when her father passed away.
“When you are faced with big problems, it’s good to have someone who is spiritually grounded to help you through it, ” Gibson said.
She said she now regards people at the church as her second family. She wishes there were more people, however. Her son has few companions at the Sunday School, for only four kids attend it.
Cullen believes that the church is going to grow, after he has made all the radical changes and cast a new image of it to the community.
He has set a ” Big Hairy Audacious God-sized Goal” (BHAGG) for the church, aiming to expand its membership by 30 times in five to ten years. It means that church is to grow from the current 50 or so members to 1,500.
A splashy Dreaming Statement is posted on the door of Cullen’s office. It contains 12 dreams the church aspires to realize, ranging from big ambitions of sponsoring foreign missions to smaller wishes, such as getting a parking lot.
The opening sentence on the statement is not quoted from the Bible, but from Charles Kettering, a pioneering engineer and business founder.
“Our imagination is the only limit to what we can hope to have in the future, ” it says.
Article and photos by Linda (Linjun) Fan