‘You don’t come to church to worship a building’: Churches across southwest Virginia continue to deal with challenges from COVID-19

Published: Nov. 24, 2020 at 7:54 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - There are some sights, and some sounds, that will always feel like home.

”This church, I started here when I was 5 years old and it’s such a special place in my heart, I’ve never felt the need to go anywhere else,” said Robert McKinney. McKinney is the music and worship committee leader, and a faithful member.

124 years ago, the roots of Calvary Baptist Church were planted. This building has stood on the corner of 6th and Campbell in downtown Roanoke since 1925. It’s Roanoke’s second oldest Baptist church.

The lot and the building were purchased for just under $350,000. It was considered one of the most modern churches in the South.

”This church will hold between 400 and 500 people, and back in its heydays of the ’60s and ’70s it was busting at the seams. We needed every bit of the space. But over the years, membership has declined,” said McKinney.

The average Sunday service now sees around 30 people, all spread out. According to McKinney, the congregation is older. The expenses have been adding up.

“When you only have about 70 members contributing to the finances of the church, that’s taken about all our money just to maintain this church,” said McKinney.

With over 50,000 square feet of space, it costs between $150,000 and $200,000 dollars each year to maintain Calvary Baptist. The idea of selling has been toyed with for many years, but it has taken until this year to make the final call.

“We realized it was not only necessary but needed. Necessary because we can just no longer afford to maintain this beautiful building, but needed because sometimes you need to let go to move forward,” said McKinney.

The church body is looking ahead, turning for the first time to social media for services.

We’ve seen many churches throughout Virginia and the country adopt different practices.

50 miles down 220, another church body has experienced similar challenges, but has seen a different outcome.

“As far as our operating expenses, as far as people who give their tithes and offerings, we have actually received more in givings this year, than we did last year,” said Reverend Kenneth Davis.

Davis oversees Mt. Olive East Christian Church in Martinsville. Service for his congregation is still done in the parking lot, or through technology.

“People are wanting to get closer to get to the real meaning of being connected with God,” said Davis.

Back in Roanoke, the moving process begins.

”This church is 95 years old, and I don’t think anything has been thrown away in 95 years,” said Mckinney, laughing.

The church was put on the market in early October for $1.9 million. There’s hope the building is sold and used as another church, or that at least part of the building is preserved.

Regardless of how long the sale takes, Calvary Baptist will hold service at another nearby church beginning in 2021, while they look for a new, smaller space.

”The way I look at it is that you don’t come to church to worship a building. You come to church to worship God,” said McKinney.

Keeping the faith, no matter the location.

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