In a day and age when church attendance appears to be dwindling, First Presbyterian Church in Opelika, Ala., seems to be an exception to the rule. So much so, that construction of a new sanctuary was needed to meet the demands of a growth in attendance for Sunday services.
Founded in 1866 FPC-Opelika, an Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) congregation located in Lee County near the Georgia border along Interstate 85, dedicated its new sanctuary Aug. 18 prior to holding its first worship service in the facility.
“It was a great day, overwhelming in a lot of ways,” Pastor Scott Bowen said. “It was very emotional for a lot of people who have been through some rough patches. It was an overwhelming experience but in a positive way.”
And the turnout for the new sanctuary dedication?
“It was full,” Bowen said of the approximately 375 people who filled the pews.
The average Sunday worship service attendance when Bowen arrived at First Presbyterian Church in 2007 was about 50. That average has reached 350 and prompted the need for more space to accommodate a crowd that wouldn’t even fit in the old sanctuary in two services. The fellowship hall had to be used to show services on screen, and even that was pushing the limits.
Even though the church appears to be bucking the trend with a growing worship attendance, Bowen refuses to think his congregation is an anomaly. He said people often expect growth to be seen in sheer numbers, but he was quick to point that God is at work even when numbers may not reflect such growth.
“He’s always building and strengthening despite what we may or may not see in a statistical category,” Bowen explained. “Even 10 years ago when attendance was dwindling and close to nothing, He was working. He’s still working, and it’s visible now.”
The old sanctuary, adjacent to the new facility, had 130 seats. The new one holds about three times that many.
“There was no space for new people, no space for our people,” Bowen said. “It was not a question of whether there was a need to do it but what we were going to do.”
Bowen, who became the church’s pastor just prior to its departure from the Presbyterian Church (USA), said there still are space concerns with the education and nursery portions of the old facility, but those will be addressed a little later.
“Worship is at the heart of our life together, so we decided to build the sanctuary first. We’ll get to the next phase when we can,” he said.
The old sanctuary continues to be used for classroom and chapel purposes and is going through a renovation process to continue “honoring the history” of the church.
Construction of the new sanctuary started in December, and the cumulative project cost – including renovations on other areas – was approximately $1.8 million.
The growth issue has been labeled a “good problem to have” by many, but Bowen acknowledged it still was a problem that had to be addressed.
“That’s true, but it’s ultimately a problem that we had to deal with. We had to take appropriate steps, and that is what we’ve done,” he said.
A major component of the growth is an influx of college students from nearby Auburn University. Bowen estimates that about 200 college students attend worship at FPC-Opelika, located just 10 minutes from the Auburn campus.
Bowen pointed out there is no college ministry in place at the church, only numerous small groups that blend the younger generations with older ones.
“We make the Word clear, and our people are clear. I think these kids are drawn to that. The intergenerational component seems to draw the students to us,” he added.
That being said, Bowen can’t put a finger on one specific reason for the growth in attendance other than this: God is at work.
“We’re doing exactly the same things we have been doing,” he said. “It’s almost like a switch was flipped. I can’t put my finger on anything except for the fact that the Lord works by His Spirit through His Word with power to build His Church. We are doing the things we are called to do, which centers on providing the Word. It’s not us or our programming, but a testimony that this is the Lord’s work. He has proven faithful.”
Bowen indicated that the new sanctuary is pretty consistent in look and design with the old facility. He said the architectural design is similar, the stained glass windows are the same, pews have been replicated and there is not a lot of modern technology. It includes a narthex on two sides as well as more restrooms.
“It’s meant to reflect the core values and convictions we have,” he said of the similarities between the old and new sanctuaries. “There is an absence of frills and gimmicks.”
Bowen said the realization of a new sanctuary to accommodate such rapid growth in the church makes for an exciting time in the life of FPC-Opelika. And it’s a rewarding experience for those long-time members who stayed true to the call even when attendance waned.
“It’s an incredible picture of the Lord’s faithfulness to do what He said He will do,” Bowen explained. “To look in the eyes of the folks who were here when there were not many people and see the tears in their eyes – that was overwhelming. There has been a lot of change and challenges, but those people have been open to what the Lord is doing. They understand this hasn’t been about them but where the Lord is taking us, and this has been fulfilling for them.”