As with many Shelton churches, the First Baptist Church had its beginnings elsewhere in the Valley, and the first church building was in downtown Shelton.
The groundwork for the church was laid when a group of Shelton residents broke away from the Ansonia Baptist Church in 1879, later worshipping in private homes in Derby and joining other Protestants at the Scattergood Mission building on Perry Avenue in Shelton.
The Baptists’ first church building was erected on Coram Avenue, and the second at Howe Avenue and White Street, according to a church history document provided by Janice Curtiss, who’s been a First Baptist Church member since 1938, the year she was baptized as a teenager.
Her grandparents were members of the White Hills Baptist Church, a chapel that First Baptist used for summer services in the 1950s.
It wasn’t until 1972 that the land on Leavenworth Road (Route 110) was purchased as the site for the current church building, which was dedicated in 1973.
According to 2014 tallies, the church had 69 active members and 178 inactive members, said Ken Smith, who celebrates his 10th year as pastor on May 1.
Attendance on the increase
“We took in seven members by baptism in 2014 and another seven in 2015,” said Smith, who works part-time as pastor and part-time as a chaplain at Bristol Hospital. “We’ve seen a 50% increase in attendance since September.”
Church members range in age from 22 to 93, said Curtiss, who celebrates her 90th birthday this year. Most members are in their 40s, 50s and older.
“The 20-somethings are missing from church,” Smith said.
Teenagers take baptism class, and the rite of baptism allows them to join the church, although First Baptist is flexible enough to accept members who have been baptized in other churches as infants.
“We encourage immersion,” Smith said, referring to baptism in the large tank or baptistery, but members can choose whether to be immersed or not.
A blue-collar tradition
The freedom to decide is central to the tenets of the American Baptist Churches of Connecticut, where “the churches run the denominations,” Smith said.
Business is conducted by congregational vote, and women may be ministers, deacons and members of the executive ministry.
Baptist churches are traditionally blue-collar churches, Smith said, as opposed to traditional New England churches that grace town greens.
“We’re not the church on the common,” he said. “We’re the church people feel comfortable to attend from different segments of society. There’s a family feel to Baptist churches.
“I was intrigued with this church,” Smith said, during his interview process a decade ago. The previous pastor, George “Skip” Rowe, had been popular.
“I didn’t want to see his efforts fall away,” said Smith, who brought his own skills to the church.
Primarily, Smith helped “redevelop strengths within the people. I believe the people have their gifts to do their ministry. We do a spiritual gifts inventory. We try to plug people into opportunities to serve.”
The First Baptist Church has had a strong focus on mission work and has sent members to the Dominican Republic and to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.
But Smith said he wanted to do more in the Shelton community. Rather than just renting out space to Alcoholics Anonymous and Higher Ground, a Christian-centered recovery and support group for the addicted, First Baptist sends a few church members to attend and lead the meetings.
“We want to be invested in it,” Smith said. “We need to serve in the community. We need to go out and serve in the name of Christ.”
And he has reached out in other ways.
“I’ve appointed myself as unofficial chaplain in White Hills,” he said, frequenting a few coffee shops “to share coffee with people who are struggling. I’ve tried to be a pastor to those who aren’t ready to come [to church].
Smith also runs discussion groups at the Written Word Bookstore on River Road (lower Route 110). The bookstore used to be in the White Hills, near First Baptist.
They include a biography group, a Civil War group, a business group, and a literature group. “I see it as an extension of my ministry,” he said.
Sunday School and Bible classes
At First Baptist, Sunday School and adult Bible classes meet at 9:15 a.m. on Sundays, before the worship service at 10:30.
The church is developing a worship media ministry, said Elisabeth Smith, Pastor Smith’s wife. She volunteers at the church, focusing on social media and communications. She started a Facebook page for the church and is working on a new website.
The worship service uses worship videos that blend with the hymns, she said, and the church has a newly formed choir.
There’s a combined youth group with members from First Baptist and Trinity Lutheran church, and Pastor Smith has introduced “Max on Life,” a series of books by minister and best-selling author Max Lucado, and a video Bible studies series from RightNow Media in his church.
The series includes a video followed by a discussion, fellowship and prayer.
Curtiss remains active in many groups and activities at First Baptist. When it comes down to it, she attributes her lengthy church tenure and her enthusiasm to one thing.
“I love the people that are here,” Curtiss said.