Calvary Baptist celebrates 125 years with traditional service, social media

Towson Times
Celebrating its 125th anniversary, Calvary Baptist has been a presence in Towson since 1890

Heather and Kevin Mager were looking for a church they could call their own. The young couple attended services at several in the Towson area. One Sunday, they walked into Calvary Baptist Church and, in a sense, never left.

"There was an immediate connection," Heather Mager said of the setting and service, the music and welcome from members. "Several came up after the service," she said.

In 2009, the Perry Hall residents, now in their early 30s, joined Calvary Baptist. Celebrating its 125th anniversary, the historic church has been a presence in Towson since its founding in 1890.

Even so, when Susan and Bruce Edwards joined Calvary Baptist "eons ago, when our children were small," the Towson resident said of their 30-year membership, "it was considered a country church."

Today, it's hardly that. Located at 120 West Pennsylvania Avenue, Calvary Baptist sits in the heart of downtown Towson, across from the Baltimore County Courthouse. The imposing stone church was built in 1929 on the same lot where an earlier, wooden church had burned down.

The church holds Sunday worship services, three Sunday Schools -- one for children, two for adults -- and other activities like a monthly youth group. But midweek on a warm summer day, all is quiet at Calvary Baptist.

The soaring two-story high sanctuary is empty of worshippers. The 18 stained glass windows glow softly in the sunlight. On a lower level, the social hall opens to a charming walled-in garden where weddings have been held.

Pastor Sarah Lee and her husband, Pastor William Sean Lee, have been co-officiating at the church since 2013, when the previous pastor retired. Harford County residents, Pastor William is the command chaplain of the Maryland National Guard; Pastor Sarah spent 30 years as a clinical chaplain in hospitals and hospices.

"I needed a change of pace," said Pastor Sarah, sitting in her office with Frederick Ray, a Towson resident who joined Calvary Baptist 38 years ago. The retired Baltimore County Public Schools principal is chairman of the Board of Deacons.

Something interesting is going on at Calvary Baptist. While the trend nationally is declining church membership, Calvary Baptist is gaining members, particularly in their 20s and 30s.

Over the past two years, membership has grown 10 to 15 percent, said Pastor Sarah, to its current 125 adult members. There are a number of reasons for the growth and, in her opinion, one of them is the swing back to the traditional worship.

"Our core values are preaching the Gospel and having a personal relationship with Christ," said the pastor. "People want the preaching, the hymns, and the greater spiritual depth."

Ray talks about the family-friendly and inclusive atmosphere. Membership is multi-cultural and multi-racial and includes African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians. "Once people join, they tend to stay," he said. "We have descendants from the early members of the church."

Calvary Baptist has long been active in the Towson community. It donated the building that houses the Assistance Center of Towson Churches, a combined food pantry. Its volunteers work monthly at Our Daily Bread, a hot meal program. At this year's Towsontown Spring Festival, it gave away 50 Bibles. On a broader scale, it supports American Baptist missions.

Still, no one doubts that an entry into social media has played a role. With approval from the church, three years ago the Magers took it upon themselves to update the church's website and to create a Facebook page. They started a 20s-30s fellowship group that meets monthly.

It seemed the natural thing to do, said Heather Mager, especially in a church where members are active participants in everything from the worship service to church policy.

"My husband is an IT manager. I've done an internal website for a company I worked at," she said. Both now serve on the church's Board of Deacons, and she sings in the choir.

The website, www.calvarybaptist-towson.org, has a schedule of activities and events. You can listen to current and past sermons and musical and choir performances with a click. Susan Edwards, for one, believes the social media attracts savvy-media young families.

Not that the activities are necessarily new. Edwards, a deacon who works with children and teenagers in the church, puts on the annual Christmas pageant, Easter celebration and a Youth Day in May when the children lead the worship service.

"I've done nearly 30 Christmas pageants," she said, but exposure on the website and Facebook doesn't hurt.

Frank M. Kaufman agrees. The 85-year old Towson resident, a retired Baltimore County elementary school principal, met his wife, Dorothy, at Calvary Baptist Church. Both his and her families were members and the pair sang in the choir.

Today, Kaufman still sings in the adult choir, which performs twice a month. The children's chorus and handbell choir each perform once a month. If there's a fifth Sunday, "all bets are off," he said. The musical performances can be heard via the website.

"The pastors are doing everything they can to reach out. The result is, we've had a number of new members," Kaufman said of the social media and community-welcome events such as a summertime jazz concert.

"Once they come in the door, they get a good feeling about the church," he said.

Calvary Baptist Church will celebrate its 125th anniversary with a special service and reception at 11 a.m. at the church, 120 West Pennsylvania Avenue. The public is invited to attend.

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