The problems of First Presbyterian Church (FPC) in Montgomery, Alabama, have manifested themselves in obvious ways in recent years — dwindling membership, an inability to find solutions, trouble connecting with the community.
As pastor of FPC (the first church organized in the city of Montgomery), Reed DePace wanted to understand why the church’s ministries never seemed to gain traction. Throughout its history, godly men and women at FPC had labored for the Lord, but, according to DePace, “Nothing seemed to be blessed by God.”
Under DePace’s leadership, the church began the process of revitalization with the Embers to a Flame program. One step in the process is for churches to repent of past sins, so a pair of FPC members delved into the church’s history.
In 2009, the two members reported to the session that the church had no unconfessed sins in its past. FPC moved on with the revitalization process, but the church leadership couldn’t agree on how to move the congregation forward.
In 2012, a fellow Montgomery pastor told DePace about his conversation with a Montgomery man who described FPC as “the church that would not let black people in.” DePace was stunned, so he delved into the church archives himself. In a history of the church written for FPC’s 150th anniversary in 1974, DePace read the exact language of the session’s 1956 resolution: “No member of the Negro race shall be seated in the sanctuary for worship.”
Remember and Repent
DePace and his session studied the issues further. According to DePace, they decided, “There is something to God’s remembering a corporate, generational sin that will affect a congregation in the future.” Though they didn’t understand exactly how it worked, they came to believe it was biblical. The session decided it needed “a plan for repentance.”
DePace spent nearly two years leading FPC through a process of learning about its past and why repentance was needed.
In February 2017, supported in prayer by an African-American church in downtown Montgomery, the congregation adopted and signed a resolution of repentance. The church sought to publicize the event with a small ad in the city’s newspaper. When the newspaper secretary wrote down the information for the church’s ad, she passed it on to a religion reporter.
On Easter Sunday 2017, the Montgomery Advertiser featured a story on FPC’s painful history and resolution of repentance. DePace received cards from former members and African-Americans in the community, thanking him for the church’s statement.
And FPC did not stop there. It has a plan to welcome other points of view into its congregation, for as long as the church remains a presence. The church is offering its building to a Korean PCA church plant in Pike Road. And DePace hopes that one day the church can hire an African-American associate pastor.
DePace understands that a declaration of repentance and plan to move forward are not magic bullets, but he wants his church to practice obedience to honor the Lord.
“We give the Gospel away, but not so the church will grow. We pursue the manifestation of the glory of God and the joy of His people saved,” he said. “When we pursue that, God will take care of the rest.”