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Churches stand strong as pillars of community in the lower Northern Neck, but not without challenges

Pastor Jim Jackson speaks to his congregation after baptizing more than a dozen members of all ages. Photo by Gabriel Zakaib
White Stone Church of the Nazarene members to be baptized descend upon pastor Jim Jackson in the Rappahannock River. Photo by Gabriel Zakaib
Pastor John Farmer at Irvington Baptist Church. Photo by Gabriel Zakaib

Editor’s note: This sampling of churches was selected for their dynamic leadership and community engagement, as well as the shared challenges across all three congregations.

by Gabriel Zakaib

A lively scene unfolded on a recent Sunday morning when members of the White Stone Church of the Nazarene descended into waist-deep river water to proclaim and symbolize their commitment to God.

Church members of all ages, dressed in casual beach wear, clapped and enjoyed the celebration along the Willaby’s Cafe beach.

Rev. Dr. Tyron Williams at Mount Olive Baptist Church. Photo by Gabriel Zakaib

However, the most unusual aspect of the baptism service wasn’t the river—a rarity for baptisms—but the striking number of children. Playing, catching crabs, being baptized, these children brought a youthful energy to an extremely important religious service—a notable rarity when only 16% of Americans attend a religious service weekly, according to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).

That number stands in stark contrast to churches’ popularity in the 20th century, when membership remained at 70% from 1940-1990, as reported by a Gallup poll.

As interest in religion among younger generations wanes across America, how did a small, homegrown church in rural Virginia manage to blast everyone else out of the water?

White Stone Church of the Nazarene

Steeple or playground? That was the $40,000-dollar question senior pastor Jim Jackson faced when constructing the church’s meeting space. For Jackson, who had stressed the importance of curating a church for youth as much for adults, the answer was clear.

Twenty-nine years ago, he founded White Stone Church of the Nazarene (WSCON) with 11 family members in his house. The goal: to create a church where kids would not just be tolerated but would be the central focus.

In other churches, Jackson explains, kids might have to adhere to a formal dress code or hear condemnations like “quiet down,” “sit up straight” or “don’t touch that.” Jackson set out to create an atmosphere where kids feel they belong.

“That sense of belonging, people are searching for it, whether they’re clubbing, partying, or just trying to find people, we (humans) are created for community. If young people can feel that with God at the center, then we are coming back to some of the original design of the way God made us,” said Jackson.

WSCON’s Family Center sets out specific areas for children including a teen center with foosball, a play center and a cafe. The church also holds a teen service on Sunday nights, which regularly attracts around 19 teens. WSCON’s unorthodox casual environment, permitting flip flops and shorts, attracts young people and helps them feel comfortable.

“If we can eliminate some of the angst of stepping in the church in the first place, the chances of you coming back are increased exponentially,” Jackson says of his efforts to make the church inviting and accessible. Currently, Sunday morning attendance averages around 140 people.

Jackson doesn’t deny that “church as a priority has slipped down the list of important activities” in the past few years; however, the story of his church tells a very different tale. His pastoral focus on the next generation, relevance to daily life with each sermon and community engagement evoke increasing similarities to American churches’ mid-20th-century golden age—when the institutions were more than purely religious, but cultural centers and social hubs of community.

Irvington Baptist Church

Meet Rev. John Farmer one time—or better yet, hear him preach—and folks are reminded of the power of God. Farmer is a former Harvard-adjunct professor and pastor of Irvington Baptist Church (IBC).

“Before World War II, churches were the religious, cultural and entertainment center of every community, everywhere,” Farmer said. Today, churches across the nation have lost that role as new sources of entertainment and activities have taken precedence.

Dream Fields, the baseball facility on Irvington Road, typically holds games on Wednesday and Sunday nights—the same times as Farmer’s more informal services. While Farmer and other members of the church supported the construction of Dream Fields, the pastor says it’s hard to pull kids away from baseball and other sports. With the proliferation of phones and televisions in the last 30 years, sources of alternate entertainment have skyrocketed. IBC’s challenge is consistent with national trends—attracting youth remains a key issue for churches across the country.

Against these odds, Farmer continues to lead an active congregation at IBC. Youth group attendance averages in the twenties and Sunday morning services attract a full house. “I have always felt my role was leader, not boss, not preacher. If you’ve had a good relationship with your father, you can probably have a good relationship with your Lord. If you don’t, somebody’s got to get that bridge built so you can have a good relationship with God and your father,” Farmer said, viewing himself as a team leader in building those critical bridges.

Farmer views his church as a gathering space and resource for his community, akin to the perspective of Jackson at WSCON, a church with similar success.

When considering the future of his church, Farmer stressed the importance of love and acceptance, especially for the younger generation. Farmer feels that issues like same-sex marriage or women in the ministry only divide congregations. Across the country, more and more young people feel they don’t need God in their lives, seen in declining church attendance and a segment of the population that claims no religion at all—21%, according to The Hill.

“We don’t have to be the critique of our community and our friends,” said Farmer, noting IBC has four families with children who are in same-sex relationships. He expresses concern about churches passing judgment on their own congregations, saying “we are terribly prejudiced in all that. Remember that prejudice means ‘not like me.’ It’s just different.”

To follow God’s teachings, Farmer thinks it’s crucial to enable everyone who wants to connect with God and their community through the church to do so: “They come to us to be happy, sing and mature in the faith and we can’t beat them up.”

Mount Olive Baptist Church

To Mount Olive Baptist Church pastor, Rev. Dr. Tyron Williams, “the church is the conscience of a nation.” Williams just celebrated his ninth year as pastor at Mount Olive in Wicomico Church, a primarily Black church at the forefront of its community.

Whether it’s “hunger, diseases, healthcare, death, or education of our children,” Williams says, many come to him with issues and concerns. Williams notes it’s the church’s duty to help people, whether or not they go to Mount Olive. “If we can’t do things to help make life better for others, then what’s the sense of our existence?”

The church represents more than Sunday morning services. Mount Olive acts as a crossroads for information, whether it be on voting, current events, or the need to help a neighbor in the community. Lack of information is an ongoing challenge for Williams, who uses the church’s fellowship hall for interracial conversations and for dialogue and education.

The church also tracked chronic illnesses of people of color in the Northern Neck in partnership with a group called N2 Health. Obtaining this information—a dedicated effort that took several years—addressed the American Medical Association’s complete lack of records on chronic illnesses for people of color in the area.

During COVID-19, Mount Olive was “the lead” in providing vaccinations for the community, working with the Virginia Department of Health to hold events and facilitate the “protection of life for those people in our community,” Williams said.

In addition to providing community help, churches across the country have historically acted as a voice for the disenfranchised and powerless. Growing up during the days of Jim Crow, where racial discrimination was flagrant, Williams makes it clear churches were the only place where his community found hope and support.

“The reason things changed in America to benefit all of mankind was the result of the church’s activity with the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act.” If it wasn’t for the collaboration and influence of Black and White congregations, Williams says, that kind of progress could have never succeeded.

The voice, authority and influence of the church has proved critical for the advancement of people everywhere. For many underserved communities in the Northern Neck, churches remain the major driving force for support and change.

With an aging population and few kids, Williams worries about Mount Olive’s future. The church typically sees about 65 people on Sunday mornings, and most are between 60 and 70 years old.

“A larger percent of our population, 50 and younger, tend to feel like they don’t need God in their lives. If they don’t feel a need, they won’t encourage their children to come,” Williams said. It’s an increasingly common phenomenon seen not just at Mount Olive, but in churches across America. With its current lack of young people, Williams believes his church “will get to a point that it will be so diminished that many people will wonder if it still exists.” The loss of the church would be detrimental to the area, he said.

“There needs to be a resurgence because the freedom we once had is starting to dwindle,” citing a rise in White supremacy. “If we don’t continue to fight for the freedoms we currently have, it stands to reason we could potentially lose those freedoms,” said Williams. He believes in a resurgence, but makes it clear that in the Black community, the church is the most important agent for change, and without it, his community loses its loudest voice. 

Rappahannock Record Staff
Rappahannock Record Staff
From the Rappahannock Record news team

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