White Oak Baptist Church was on the brink of closing before a revival kept its doors open.
The doors closed anyway, but by choice and only to rebrand the congregation, which is now set to reopen under a new name.
New Day Church will include the same regular attendees and teach the same doctrine, but the direction of the church and how it reaches out to the community has changed. Because of this change, or what lead pastor John Wethington calls a new vision, the church felt that the “season” for White Oak had ended and it was time for a “new day.”
New Day Church officially debuts Sunday at 3615 Mangum Rd., where no services were held during the first two Sundays of September.
“God has drawn some new people and we’ve become a new church,” Wethington said. “We wanted to invite people into that and that’s why we decided to restart it.”
During the six years since Wethington took over as pastor of the church, it has implemented a contemporary-only slate of Christian music into its worship service and started a preschool. Wethington said there are about 80 people on a waiting list for the preschool. The church also has started doing community groups at home.
Community groups are small groups of church members who meet during the week, sharing a meal and fellowship with each other.
Before becoming a community group leader for New Day Church, Rico Rodriguez had been a resident in the neighborhood for 22 years. He said he had driven by the church countless times but was never inspired to look within.
When Rodriguez got married three years ago, he and his wife looked for a church they could call home.
“White Oak made sense as a natural place to start because of its proximity to our home,” Rodriguez said. “I quickly saw and felt that something special was going on here. Pastor John’s conviction for this church and this community is so contagious that we basically jumped on board this mission as soon as possible.”
While it’s been hard to accept changes, Wethington said those changes have allowed the church to come back to life.
“I think that whenever you have not grown in 40 years, you get set in some of your ways,” Wethington said. “I think people really want the church to grow and they want to reach new people in their mind, but the changes that it takes to make that happen can be difficult.”
What has also helped the church is its method of outreach.
Wethington said he realized it’s hard to get the church to believe it can still reach people in a secular, unchurched culture.
“You have to really put yourself out there. That’s number one,” Wethington said. “People are just so disconnected with church and anything spiritual, I think more than ever you have to get the word out there.”
The way the church does that is marketing and outreach through social media, mailers, keeping its website up to date and providing invite cards for its members to pass out.
“You just have to create some noise out there, otherwise people will just drive by you and ignore you,” Wethington said.
From dying to revived
Wethington, 30, grew up attending White Oak and after college found his way back to the church, which he described as being in poor condition at the time. The sanctuary had even been shut down, and services were held in the gymnasium.
“I became the pastor by default, because I was actually serving as the associate pastor,” Wethington said. “The previous pastor, he moved on. It was actually really good. I was 24 years old when I become the pastor and, honestly, it was kind of cool because it was in such rough shape that it was kind of like, ‘Let’s just see what we can do and try our best.’”
Under his leadership, one of the first things the church did to take a step forward was remodel the sanctuary.
During the first two years Wethington served as pastor, attendance on Sunday was running around 80 people, with members being primarily older. The church has since seen yearly growth, which Wethington attributed to prayer, preaching and caring for people in the community.
“Basically what happened was the church kind of began to grow, and then a year ago the only way I can describe it is that God began to reveal to us almost like something new had been birthed, like we didn’t bring the old things back,” Wethington said. “And so it just felt like we were this new church that happened to inherit this building and we had some of the same people, myself included.”
The name change is part of that new identity, along with telling people familiar with White Oak that New Day isn’t the same church.
Wethington proposed his vision for New Day to the church last October. He said it was nerve-wracking to go up on stage and tell the congregation that White Oak should close and a new church with a new name should take its place. That included taking “Baptist” out of the name, which he said was done to get away from the stigma some Baptist churches have.
“People were so caught off guard because it was going really well. I think we had almost tripled attendance in five years,” Wethington said. “Usually you do that when it’s not going well, but it’s just what God called us to do and it was undeniable.”
Wethington said the idea passed with around 92 percent in favor. Still, he said the change has been difficult for some church members.
Ultimately, New Day is embracing the idea of letting go of its past in order to step into its future.
“The restart is important to us to bring in new ideas to reach the community around us that is itself going through a restart,” said Alecia Yandell, who has attended church at the building for 38 years. “The people around us are searching and the best way to love them is where you know them.”
While the church has maintained its older crowd, they are no longer the primary attendees. Now, Wethington said the congregation is diverse both in age and ethnicity.
“I believe our church represents what’s happening in Oak Forest in general,” Wethington said. “A lot of new people are moving in. A majority of the new people that are a part of the church, almost all are new to the neighborhood.”