Ever since Bobby Manning became pastor at the First Baptist Church of District Heights, he has wanted to be an integral spiritual part of his working-class Prince George’s County community. But he knew that if he wanted to achieve his goal, he would have to get out from within the four walls of his church and touch people where they lived, worked and played.
So, for the past four years, Manning has taken his church’s ministry to senior citizen recreation centers, homeless shelters and local festivals, sharing the gospel with local residents through individual and group conversations.
But on a recent Saturday, Manning, 32, may have organized his most down-to-earth street ministry yet: He and a platoon of volunteers from his church walked into First Laundromat on Marlboro Pike and passed around free detergent and cash so that customers could wash their clothes and hear the words of the gospel.
For five hours, more than 200 people participated in “The Laundromat Takeover,” an effort by the church to let its neighbors know they could get spiritual nourishment even in the most mundane of places.
Manning’s ministering in unexpected places appears to be having an impact. When he took over the church in 2010, its membership stood at fewer than 50. Now, Sunday morning attendance at the 62-year-old church is more than 350.
Manning said his efforts have pumped vitality into what was once a modest ministry in an old-fashioned way: one soul at a time. He talked with The Washington Post’s Hamil Harris about his ministry, which he began after being the young adult minister at First Baptist Church of Glenarden, a megachurch.
Q. You recently went to a laundromat to perform your brand of community ministry. At a time when we have megachurches, praise ministries and massive high-tech ministries, why do you think this strategy is important?
A. We wanted to make a tangible and relevant impact in the community around us. Jesus just didn’t meet spiritual needs. He met physical needs as well. We feel like this is a Jesus model of touching the community. Our mission statement is connecting with communities to cultivate strong Christians.
The District Heights community has had its issues from poverty to crime and blight. Talk about what you see there and how you try to tackle this problem.
In that area of the community, you are right. There is poverty. There are folks with low income, struggling with how they are going to feed their families with very little residual income. Our church has been known as a community resource for the area. We have done that by several means: grocery giveaways; we do homeless feeding; we give away book bags and school supplies to the elementary schools nearby. We are looking for different and creative ways to meet tangible needs to the people outside our walls.
Do you think it is a trend for ministers like yourself to leave larger churches to start new ministries?
I honestly don’t know. There are several different churches for several different people. There are some people who love the megachurch atmosphere and the megachurch feel, and then there are those who prefer a smaller, more closer-knit church community. I believe that every person needs a community of faith where they can connect. Some will connect with [megachurch] First Baptist of Glenarden, and some will connect at a smaller church, like mine.
What’s ahead for the church now? What can we expect from First Baptist Church of District Heights as we move into the Thanksgiving and Christmas season?
You can expect us to continue to do what we do — connecting with our community and meeting tangible needs. We will have certain events around Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, just looking for ways to be a blessing to the people in our community who may need a helping hand up.