Bethany Baptist Church: Growth through Planning and Social Action
Dr. James A. Scott
Bethany Baptist Church, in the heart of Newark, New Jersey, has a predominantly African American membership. Today Bethany is thriving, but in 1963, the year I arrived, a mere 200 worshippers attended Easter services and far fewer participated on the average Sunday. Our congregation today numbers about 2,700 resident members, who come from the entire metropolitan area. On a typical Sunday, between 1,100 and 1,300 attend our two worship services. Bethany has grown because it engaged in a strategic planning process, seriously involved its membership in community action, and deliberately promoted discussion about critical issues affecting the community.
Bethany is the oldest black Baptist church in Newark. It originally considered itself a "silk stocking" church, a place of worship for high-class blacks. It has always had a trained pastoral leadership, and until World War II, it was a strong, vibrant church boasting some 3,000 members. The church was both successful and effective because it was connected to a "natural affinity community." Segregation forced blacks to live in the ghetto, and the church served as a general purpose institution, providing identity and status as well as social control and advocacy for greater opportunity.
After World War II, blacks moved from the ghetto and membership dwindled. Only the old or least economically viable persons remained in Newark. All of the churches in the ghetto--an Episcopal church, a Roman Catholic church that served blacks, and another within three blocks that served Irish--were withering on the vine.