Downtown church, membership stable, seeks to grow in vitality
March 9, 2010
Unlike many other Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations over the years, First Presbyterian Church in Texarkana, Ark., has not suffered major losses in membership.
In fact, according to co-pastors Susan and John Arnold, the congregation — in the Presbytery of the Pines — has had the same number on the worship rolls for 60 years.
“They have not declined,” said John Arnold, noting that they have about 120 people in worship each week. “It’s very stable.”
What has happened, however, is that while downtown Texarkana has declined as the population has moved outward, the traditional Presbyterian church has developed ministries helpful to the whole community, regardless of location.
“Cottage ministries” emerged, such as Angel Quilts which makes and distributes quilts to cancer patients, John Arnold said. Two other local churches also take part, and among the three congregations more than 800 quilts have been completed since 2001.
First Presbyterian also operates a Prescription Assistance Program, which helps people apply for free or low-cost prescription medications offered by pharmaceutical companies.
The Arnolds, who were called to the church in October 2008, said the “proactive” nature of the membership was what attracted them to First Presbyterian, which is the same church Susan Arnold interned in 20 years ago.
“I felt they were more progressive in their willingness to reach out than the average downtown First Presbyterian Church,” John Arnold said. “It seemed to be a fairly healthy congregation,” Susan Arnold added.
Prior to First Church Texarkana the Arnolds served as co-pastors of First Presbyterian Church in Hot Springs, Ark.
John Arnold said the vitality of the Texarkana congregation can be witnessed at the church’s weekly family night supper and Bible study, which sees 50 or 60 people easily. “That, to me, is amazing,” he said.
And, “we have an extremely active youth group,” about 12 to 20 youth coming each week, John Arnold said.
With its foundation firmly in place, the Arnolds said the challenge for the church now is to continue to build on that solid base with an eye toward growth in the future. “It’s how can we supplement that so that it can bear more fruit,” John Arnold said.
The need is to “begin visioning forward,” Susan Arnold said. “My desire is for folks to be so excited about their own personal calls to mission and ministry … that they can go and fully invest themselves.”
Visioning forward at First Presbyterian will include work to reach young children and families and discipleship efforts aimed at youth who leave home for college and other pursuits.
The session recently voted to develop a next generation strategy team to figure out how to minster to young children and families, John Arnold said.
The church also has a new choir director, and among his efforts is to start a community choir for fourth and fifth grade students, which will be a “connect for us for families,” Arnold said.
John Arnold, who already maintains a blog as a part of his ministry, said he is working on an online discipleship program for youth. There is no reason why the church can’t be a “vibrant presence” for youth who move away, he said.
“A lot of our emphasis has been on discipleship,” growing up spiritually, out in mission, inward and numerically, Arnold said.
The Rev. Joe Hill, general presbyter of the Presbytery of the Pines, said what excites him most about the work being done by the Arnolds and First Presbyterian is their “tremendous heightened awareness of their personal spirituality.”
John and Susan “have just really made the church … more aware of the possibilities to do mission and ministry in their community and in the world,” he said. “They have been challenged by the Arnold’s leadership. … They are unafraid to try something new.”