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First Baptist pastor recognizes church crisis, tries new ideas

Interim Pastor Jean-Fritz Guerrier of First Baptist Church in Norwich offers a fresh approach to draw more people to church.

“The point is what do you do to get more people to come to the fold?” Guerrier asked. “Because at the end of the day, that’s what the church wants to do, bring people to Christ.”

The Haitian native said traditional, mainline Protestant churches in the United States are museums. “Those are places you go and see how people used to sing 200 years ago,” he said. “If you don’t have younger people, you’re gonna close one day, because at some point, everybody will die or get sick.”

Even though the church can hold close to 300 people, about 60 attended before the pandemic began. Currently, 25 attend Sunday services in person (masks are required) and others view it via Facebook.

Examples of churches’ non-changing approach include the hierarchy and the hymnals many use that include songs from the 17th through the 19th centuries, Guerrier said, which are playing “the same music, same structure,” as they did years ago.

“So we’re talking about a place that doesn’t change and wants people to still come. It’s not gonna happen. This is why we’re losing people.”

He said the Catholic church, as well as all the Protestant churches (including Baptist churches), are all in “crisis,” but they’re not treating it that way.

Guerrier’s new strategy – with the board of trustees’ approval – is to feature a modified service once monthly. The first 25 minutes will include the worship assistant leading the congregation in prayer, song and announcements, followed by Guerrier’s shorter-than-normal sermon, which he joked congregants “might be happy about.”

After that, people will break down into “clusters of activities based on their wants and needs,” which he said could include a variety of activities for adults and children such as listening to a speaker, praying for 30 minutes, viewing a short documentary and discussing God and creation.

“I’m going to be showing that not every Christian believes that God created everything in seven days or 24 hours. It’s not that I’m gonna say I agree with this group or not.”

After 30 minutes, Guerrier said “everyone will come back to the sanctuary” for about 15 minutes for a pastoral prayer, collection and benediction. “So you create a service that is not one size fits all.”

Debriefing ahead

When speakers are planned, Guerrier said he will invite the media and encourage church members to bring friends and family.

After three or four months of “cluster” services, he said they will “debrief” to learn what people think, what is and isn’t working and then “tweak it.”

Especially since First Baptist Church is a traditional congregation and “you don’t want to offend people,” Guerrier said change cannot happen too slowly or quickly. “If I have a small victory, I can go bigger next time.”

Guerrier is also proposing that he and other Protestant/Catholic church leaders, business people and lay individuals meet on global, national, regional and local levels to talk about the low-attendance crisis and make a “corporate denominational decision, and say, ‘Hey, we are losing members. Churches are being closed. What should we do?’ No one has a ‘silver bullet.’”

He said, “Beyond that, it has to be a decision-making body.” He also suggested that churches could pool resources to help open or “plant” new churches and keep others from closing.

Getting together again

Curt Brockway, a deacon and chairman of the board of trustees, said during a telephone interview that as people come “out of COVID,” they want to get back to doing things and being together again.

“I think there are opportunities for churches that are willing to go out and maybe try some new things and try some different kinds of ministries,” Brockway said.

The Norwich native, who now lives in Stonington, added, “I think that our congregation is historically up to trying new things. But also, just like society in general, there are some people that really question it, because it’s different from what we’ve always done.”

Guerrier’s “out of the box” approach to bringing people back to church stems from his varied professional background as a United Nations consultant and full-time college finance professor at the University of Notre Dame in Haiti, as well as a J.P. Morgan banker and board member of several charter schools in Florida.

He was also a pastor at First Baptist Church of West Haven and an associate minister at Community Baptist Church in New Haven.

Business background

Additionally, as part of his attaining his Master of Business Administration degree from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, he studied marketing and brand management. “I can see things through different eyes as somebody who has experience here and overseas, and then who has an MBA and worked for different fields. So there are things I can see that the average pastor is not able to see, because they are not trained to manage complex stuff.”

Guerrier, 45, received a Master of Arts degree in theological studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Florida and a Master of Divinity Degree from Yale University.

“So I like the fact that I can compare two approaches, two theological views and traditions (conservative and more liberal) because that allows me to talk to everyone.”

Family background

The son of a pastor, Guerrier said he was encouraged to follow the same path, especially since his parents vowed to God that they would urge him toward this vocation, because doctors told his parents they didn’t believe he would be born healthy and alive. Still for a while he went off into the business world, while continuing to serve as a worship leader and singer in churches.

“So every time I do it, I feel like this sort of joy flowing in my soul.”

Over time, he said he came to realize that he did not like being a banker. “I guess God wanted me to do something else. You know sometimes people are not satisfied because God doesn’t want you to be satisfied about something, because God wants to lead you to something else.”

Services ahead

The First Baptist Church at 239 West Main St. in Norwich is holding in-person Sunday services at 10:30 a.m.

The Sept. 26 service featured clusters, including 30 minutes of blended contemporary and traditional hymns accompanied by an organist, guitarist, trumpeter and singer in the sanctuary. During this same time period, There also was a Christian movie for children in the nursery.

For more information, call 860-889-0369 or go to www.fbcnorwich.com. Also, you can view “The Overcomer Hour,” an online, nonprofit ministry on Facebook, with hosts the Rev. Jean-Fritz Guerrier, the Rev. Daniel Cohen and vocalist Vicky Mariconde.

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