Thursday, October 09, 2014

A Church Adapting to a Community in Transition

Baptist Temple circa 1955, before construction of I-10.
In 1964 highway planners made a decision that had a profound impact on the history of Baptist Temple. The proposed route for Interstate 10 changed so that it would pass along Baptist Temple. The original route, planned in 1959, would have connected it further north to I-35 at S. New Braunfels.

More than 800 houses were demolished to clear a way for construction of the highway. The character of the neighborhood started to change as larger homes were converted to apartments and property values declined. The sixties and seventies saw Baptist Temple transition from a traditional suburban church to an inner-city community church witnessing to a neighborhood undergoing economic and social change.

The highway was completed in 1968 in time for HemisFair 68, San Antonio's world's fair. Venue construction on the 92 acre site of the fair also eliminated many houses including the house and street where Baptist Temple was born. Although the fair only lasted six months, it, along with highway construction, permanently changed the landscape and demographics of southeast San Antonio. It accelerated the growth in the north side of the city and white flight in the south.

Baptist Temple's response to neighborhood transition was outreach through a variety of conventional (bus ministry, food pantry, clothes closet) and unconventional (medical clinic, methadone program) ministries. The result was a more economically and ethnically diverse congregation and a sustainable church.

In 1972, Baptist Temple was selected as a model church for the transitional church conference at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The Baptist Standard wrote, “No church in Texas has done a more beautiful job of reaching people in a transitional community than has Baptist Temple.”

This drew interest from numerous groups throughout the state including Bill Pinson's Christian ethics class at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Texas area missionaries and Women’s Missionary Union leaders.

The highway's impact on Baptist Temple is usually viewed as negative because many of the homes that were destroyed housed church members and it changed the neighborhood. On the other hand, the interstate's construction reflected the America's growing automobile culture. Fewer people walked to church. Many would drive further and further to attend the church of their choice.

The interstate system allowed folks who moved away from the neighborhood to return to Baptist Temple for worship. It also enabled people who were willing to travel a few miles to make Baptist Temple their church home. Baptist Temple's rate of decline was much slower than that of other large Baptist churches in the Southside. This is primarily attributed to its ability to connect with the community but the access provided by the I-10 (as well as nearby Interstates 410, 35, 37) put in position for success.

Megachurches often seek to build along a highway, knowing that folks will drive a bit to attend a church they like. So, as it turns out, I-10 was more of a blessing than a curse for Baptist Temple's gospel mission.

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