When Alan Grisham reached out to Texas Baptists almost two years ago, he understood changes were necessary. First Baptist Church of Buffalo had slid past plateau and was toward decline. Nevertheless, he was reluctant. After a long conversation, he asked Jonathan Smith, Texas Baptists director of church health strategy, to provide both encouragement and “a kick in the pants.”
“We understood we had some issues,” Grisham said, who has been the church’s pastor since 2010. “And COVID didn’t cause the problems we had - it just exposed them.”
First Baptist Church of Buffalo was founded in 1877. The congregation built a “new” sanctuary in 1948, and about a dozen members remain from when they laid the cornerstone. Through the years, the church grew old in more than facilities.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, the church’s average weekly attendance dropped almost by half. Grisham wondered: “Could the church do better if a new face came in?”Amid that context, he called Smith and talked for a couple of hours. For Smith, who leads Texas Baptists’ revitalization efforts, it wasn’t an unusual conversation.
“He wanted to lead his church to change,” Smith said. “They were facing some big issues. I think he was at a point of discouragement, really. And I sensed some hesitancy, but he said something I’ll never forget: ‘If you’ll hold my hand and push me along at the same time, then I’ll do it.’”
Fast forward to the present. After dipping into the 60s in weekly attendance, First Baptist Buffalo rebounded to its pre-COVID weekly attendance numbers of 125-135.
“We’re back to pre-COVID or beyond,” Grisham said.
These numbers are even more encouraging: In 2022, First Baptist Buffalo baptized one person. Through July 2023, they baptized 14.
Following suggestions from Smith and the PAVE program, the church now plays a video with the new believer’s testimony before the baptism. The following Sunday, the new believer signs his or her name to a cross, dates it and hangs it on a wall.
“It gives everybody a visual reminder of lives that have been changed,” Grisham said. “Whenever I was able to communicate, ‘Look, we had one person (baptized) all of last year, and then we have two, and four, and six – and moving on down – it’s a visual reminder of what God’s doing in our church.”
After that initial conversation, Smith visited First Baptist Buffalo and conducted a demographic study which showed that, while Buffalo has a significant older population including many retirees from both the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas, there are plenty of younger families, as well. The stark reality was the church wasn’t reaching them.
“The most important thing,” Grisham said, “was just communicating to the church where we were, and where we could be. And I think we’ve been excited.”
Grisham likened Smith’s suggestions to that of a realtor offering advice on necessary changes to a longtime homeowner who wants to sell a house. Most weren’t radical, but sometimes, any shift can seem huge.
“The realtor comes and points out all the things you need to do: paint this, fix that, replace the carpet,” Grisham said. “And you might not want to do it, but you realize what needs to be done. That’s kind of where we were.”
Among the most difficult things for a church to do, Smith said, is “simply to look in the mirror and really ask, ‘Why are we here? How did we get here?’ Few churches and pastors are willing to actually take that look and say, ‘We’ve got to figure out what it’s gonna take for us to grow again.’
“But the Lord has given (Grisham) that courage.”
And the Lord has given First Baptist Buffalo a fresh wind. Along with the baptisms and weekly attendance, Sunday school classes have filled up again.They’ve changed the structure and by happy necessity, even added some classes. They changed the format of the children’s church. A couple of evenings a week, they opened the gym to the community for pickleball.
“We’ve just been able to look and see some things we needed to change,” Grisham said. “We knew it would be hard on our church to make changes, but our church was willing because our church has a heart for the Lord.”
With renewed momentum, the church has undertaken a long-planned construction project. An older building between the sanctuary and the family life center was demolished in April 2023; a new building will connect the two buildings. Upgrades to the sanctuary are also part of the project.
Those changes and more are visible evidence of a vision, “Called to Care,” to reach the community for Christ. While Grisham is quick to say the results are from God, he also points to the initial impetus and ongoing help Texas Baptists and Smith have provided.
“For me personally, Jonathan has been such an encouragement for me,” Grisham said. “He’s stretched me. Whenever I say, ‘I don’t think I can do that,’ he’s encouraged me to do it. That helps. Sometimes you need a kick in the pants and sometimes you need a pat on the back.”
Smith said Grisham is “an encouragement” to him, as well.
“I feel like he’s such a changed pastor over the last two years,” Smith said. “To see a pastor embrace new ideas and concepts, he just feels like a whole new pastor.”
What comes next? Grisham isn’t sure. He echoes another of Smith’s sayings – “Don’t microwave the brisket” – which is to say, revitalization takes time. But he’s certain he has already seen God’s hand at work at First Baptist Buffalo.
“We’re in a building project,” he said. “Younger people have started to come. Our Sunday school is starting to get back to pre-COVID numbers. … When you start to see growth, whether it’s in attendance or in spiritual growth through baptism or growth in seeing your Sunday school classes being filled, I think that always sparks excitement. And excitement breeds excitement.”