Members of Wake Forest Baptist Church have voted to dissolve following years of declining and aging membership, limited financial resources, and a new rental policy by the school. The move comes after 66 years of ministry on the campus of Wake Forest University.
The church met in Wait Chapel which dates back to 1953 following the school's relocation from Wake Forest, North Carolina, to Winston-Salem. Services through the 50s and 60s were often attended by several hundred students, faculty, and staff. Then came a slow decline: fewer Baptist students began attending Wake; others were drawn to new churches in the area. In 1986 North Carolina Baptists voted to sever formal ties to the university.
Founding Dean and Professor of Divinity Emeritus Bill Leonard says that decision ended decades of dispute over a host of moral issues at the church-related school: women in ministry, LGBTQ rights, and racial justice.
"The Wake Forest Baptist Church developed a rather formal relationship for many years with First Baptist Church Highland Avenue which is the oldest African American Baptist Church in Winston-Salem having been founded in 1879," says Leonard.
He says they shared meals together in their homes and held integrated Bible study groups.
Today, the number of regular congregants at Wake Forest Baptist Church have dwindled to a few dozen. Rev. Rayce Lamb sees this playing out in congregational life across the theological spectrum.
He says the church and university have held each other accountable over the years though opportunities presented to the church to bolster its community work, and the church has served as a moral compass for the university on a host of social issues. Lamb says his experience on campus gives him hope for the future.
"I still see God at work through our students, and our students are still going to be those voices of justice and equity and hope on this campus and continuing to push the university along in its progressive thought and in its work around creating a more affirming and welcoming space for all people," says Lamb.
The University says it regularly evaluates lease agreements. In November of 2021, the school informed Wake Forest Baptist Church of a changing fee structure for independent groups and organizations. The exact closing date has yet to be announced. Congregants will continue to worship together in Davis Chapel located adjacent to Wait Chapel until further notice.