First Baptist folds due to declining membership and hands over its building to Sonrise Forest Grove

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Forest Grove First Baptist elders Steve Dehner (left) and Mike Totman feel like God tapped them on the shoulder and told them to give their church away.Every Sunday morning, 40 people dot the 400-seat sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Forest Grove.

Across town 500 people try to pack into the 300-seat strip-mall space rented by Sonrise Forest Grove.

That's why First Baptist leaders recently decided to give their church away to Sonrise — asking nothing in return. It's an action that mirrors their Christian faith in a God they say loves and gives the same way: no strings attached.

"It was like God was tapping us on the shoulder and pointing out the obvious," said Steve Dehner, a First Baptist leader who's been part of the congregation since 1992. "Sonrise needs the space and we've got it."

Located at 2224 15th Avenue, First Baptist "has us dreaming about all the possibilities that we just don't have the space for right now," said Sonrise Forest Grove Pastor Rudy Tinoco. "Walking through that building, I was like a kid on Christmas morning."

In addition to the sanctuary, the building includes a full kitchen, gymnasium and classrooms.

Real Estate Agent Chris Garfield of John L. Scott in Forest Grove roughly estimated the whole site would be worth at least $1 million, ballparking the land alone at $500,000, given that it's zoned for multiple lots.

The two congregations signed an agreement late last month and First Baptist leaders will be handing over the keys Sunday, Dec. 18, when there will be special combined services at First Baptist for both congregations.

After that, the property belongs to Sonrise.

Declining membership

About 20 years ago, First Baptist had roughly 400 members, Dehner said, but attendance began to decline a decade ago.

Church leaders aren't exactly sure why membership has dropped off but suspect it's because their congregation has been aging and their small size means a lack of resources for helping out the church's families and children, said First Baptist Pastor Mark Rubio.

Many long-established churches from mainline denominations — Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian — are closing up shop across the country. According to a 2014 Huffington Post article, between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close their doors each year. 

Sonrise's attendance, on the other hand, has been booming, Tinoco said.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: TANNER BOYLE - 'We believe what the Bible says and we use it as a moral compass,' says Sonrise Forest Grove Pastor Rudy Tinoco. 'That includes the books judgments on whats right and wrong, but it also includes its message of loving all people.'

Started in Hillsboro in 1980, Sonrise opened a Forest Grove branch five years ago in borrowed space on Main Street with a congregation of 100 or so Forest Grove residents who had been commuting to the Hillsboro site.

Since then, Forest Grove leaders have been baptizing people left and right. Tinoco credits the church's success to a message that addresses daily, real-world issues and hands-on community service.

Sonrise Forest Grove members volunteer with the Forest Grove School District's summer food program, for example, and work with Theatre in the Grove and the Forest Grove Senior & Community Center, helping the organizations with maintenance and special projects. They also run a once-weekly overnight severe-weather shelter through the winter.

While First Baptist parishioners help Sonrise with service projects — Dehner volunteers with Sonrise's grief-support group, for example — they just don't have the manpower to spearhead a lot of their own community efforts.

They do volunteer regularly with Portland organizations that serve the homeless, and have an emergency fund to help people pay bills they fall short on. But Dehner said First Baptist members have had to give up some of their former projects, such as bringing food and clothes to local migrant-worker camps, as they've aged and as membership has decreased.

Tinoco is hoping to make the most of the resources First Baptist is leaving behind. He hopes the gym will serve as a community gathering space and the large building will help Sonrise expand their homeless ministry. He also has dreams of donating an office to a domestic violence organization that needs a hub farther west.

"The sky is the limit," he said.

God isn't angry

Doctrinally, the official beliefs of both Sonrise and First Baptist are nearly identical, Dehner and Tinoco said.

First Baptist's doctrinal statement cites the Bible as the final authority for "all belief and behavior," and considers the book without error. Despite that official statement, congregation members have a diversity of views on many hot-button issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, Dehner said. "It would vary depending on who you asked."NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: TANNER BOYLE - Sonrise Forest Grove has to hold three services each Sunday to fit its booming congregation inside its space on 19th Avenue behind Safeway.

Similarly, Sonrise holds that the Bible teaches what's right and wrong, but Tinoco said that while he does preach about what is or isn't a sin, he is committed to communicating the message that God is not holding sins against anyone anyway.

While the Bible puts homosexuality on its list of sins along with lying and adultery, for example, "we have to be very careful when we go out and judge someone else's sins," Tinoco said. "The Bible says that we'll be judged by the same measure that we use to judge others. So if you condemn those who are homosexual, just realize that your sins are on the list, too."

Tinoco, for example, divorced and then remarried, which is technically adultery under the Bible's literal teachings. But because of Sonrise's message of redemption, he's forgiven, he said.

He cites the parable of the adulterous woman who is about to be stoned by an angry, judgmental mob when Jesus says, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," and one by one, people drop their stones and walk away.

While Sonrise staff would not perform a ceremony for a same-sex couple, the Forest Grove branch does have gay and transgendered members who are welcomed with open arms, Tinoco said.

Sonrise is a "safe place," said one transgender woman who attends Sonrise in Hillsboro and then drives west to attend the Forest Grove services. "They aren't going to try to make you change."

She used to attend services at a Beaverton church but the members "didn't accept me. They said it was a sin and I needed to change."

Having shared her story with Sonrise attendees, she's always surprised how open they are toward her, always coming over and offering hugs.

Tinoco said he preaches about a God who offers reconciliation, not punishment, for times when people fall short of Biblical standards.

"Unfortunately, many churches communicate that God is actually mad at the world and that he's most definitely 'making a list and checking it twice,' with severe consequences for those who don't measure up," Tinoco said. "The problem is that none of us measure up and deep down we know it. Because of that, many people keep God at arm's length.

"I mean, who wants to run into the arms of an angry God?"

'It belongs to God'

It's tough for many First Baptist members to give up the church building they've had since the 1940s, Dehner said, especially for those who've been in the church their whole lives. NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: TANNER BOYLE - First Baptist Church had 400 members 20 years ago but has gradually declined as members age.

But nearly the whole congregation agrees it's the right decision and many plan to continue attending under the new owners, he said.

"There's sadness but there's also excitement," Rubio said. "Our congregation knew for a while we needed to make some changes and many see the blessing in this."

It's a good time to hand over the keys, Dehner said. "Right now, we're still in a good place and there's no conflict. We don't want to get to a place where we can't pay bills and salaries."

"The humility demonstrated by First Baptist is like nothing I have ever seen," said Tinoco. "Many churches are possessive of their resources and people but First Baptist has always been a partner for us and now they're giving us a building. Who does that?"

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: TANNER BOYLE - First Baptist elder Steve Dehner said it's not hard for hime to give away his longtime church home 'because its not ours -- it belongs to God. Its not built for a specific group. It's built for God's purposes.'

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