Click here for General Assembly coverage

Church reimagined: Same location, new life

A $20,000 award from the Walton Foundation is being used to renovate the sanctuary, to replace the old carpet and to swap the old pews for chairs to give it a more informal feel.

This is what often happens. Over the years, a Presbyterian congregation gets smaller and smaller, its remaining core of members get older and older, and eventually the church runs out of energy or money or both. The church closes. The presbytery sells the building. A long season of faithfulness ends.

Here’s what happened instead in a neighborhood in southeast Atlanta. Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church dwindled and died, the church closing in 2016 after more than a century of ministry. And now a new worshipping community, Ormewood Church, is spreading its wings in the same place — a community that recently won a $20,000 Walton Award, given to creative new church developments, and now is using that money to renovate the sanctuary and make the space more flexible and less traditional.

This might seem counterintuitive: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) starting a new worshipping community in the same spot where a church just shut down.

But increasingly, there’s space in the PC(USA) and in other denominations for churches that center more on relationship-building and community than on a traditional way of being church.

That’s what began germinating when the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta held conversations with people in the Ormewood Park neighborhood in 2016 — when Lindsay Armstrong, executive director of the presbytery’s New Church Development Commission, convened a series of potluck dinner gatherings with a dozen or so people from the neighborhood, asking them what they would like the presbytery to do with the property. What did the neighborhood want from the church?

The strong answer: Don’t sell the property to a developer. Don’t turn it into another condo or apartment high-rise. In this neighborhood filled with bungalows and young families – called Ormewood Park but without any actual park – we need room for community gatherings and green space with a big magnolia tree. We love having the dog yard where people let their pups run. We teach our children to ride their bikes in the church parking lot. We vote in this building; neighborhood groups hold meetings here. Our children attend the preschool. Let this be a place of community and connection. That’s what we need.

So the presbytery didn’t sell the property. Instead, in 2017, Jenelle Holmes was called as organizing pastor of Ormewood Church, a new worshipping community.

“We’re a totally different church — there’s no resurrection story in that way,” Holmes said.

“For me, it is a parish, in the old sense of the word. I care for people who don’t go to the church. We create community for the neighborhood.” Part of her call was to actually live in the neighborhood, so it’s where she walks her dogs, where her children play.

The building and the property “had really become a sacred space for the community, whether people attended the church or not,” Holmes said in a video about the church.

Ormewood Church has had to figure out what to do with its physical space — with an old-style traditional sanctuary that didn’t match the more informal spirit of the community worshipping there now.

Jenelle Holmes was called in 2017 as organizing pastor of Ormewood Church.

“My first month, we replaced the roof, two HVAC units and a myriad other things,” Holmes said. “It was definitely a church that was held together by eight elderly people without a lot of money.”

The carpet was decades old. The inside was painted pale pink. Ormewood Church is using the Walton grant to renovate the space — pulling out the old carpet and pews and an awkward stage at the front of the chancel, moving in chairs that can be set up with coffee tables to give a living-room feel.

The transformation also involves new ways of thinking about what exactly is a church.

In recent months, Ormewood Church has been inviting people to meet in small groups at the church and on people’s porches to talk about the meaning of the word “membership.”

There’s a broader way of thinking here about what it means to be part of a church community.

For some, it’s being part of the leadership team or showing up regularly for Sunday worship. Some clearly identify as Christian. Others want no part of attending church, but they join with the congregation for service work or community events — helping with the neighborhood children’s parade, handing out more than a thousand hot dogs on Halloween, showing up to enjoy nacho bar night with a local band playing (although the pandemic put a dent in all that).

Holmes speaks of a series of concentric circles — with a small leadership team at the center; the church worshipping community surrounding that; and the Ormewood Park neighborhood the largest circle around the edge. “We try to make sure we’re putting energy into all of those circles,” Holmes said.

The conversations about membership have involved a storytelling time “about a moment when you felt you belonged” at the church, Holmes said. People have spoken of being greeted by name, of someone handing them a cup of coffee, of friends from church “being there in hard times. Feeling like they’re welcomed, whatever version of themselves shows up on a Sunday.”

She’s been in conversation with a United Church of Christ congregation that has two types of membership: one a faith covenant, one a community covenant. “That means you don’t feel comfortable taking communion, being baptized. That’s not who you are. But these are still your people. You show up on Sunday, give money. … A lot of people had a negative church experience, and come back to us because we’re affirming or we’re casual. We are a better fit for them than the churches they have gone to in the past.”

In the PC(USA), as people consider what it means to be a “vital congregation,” that often means reaching out intentionally to the community in which a church is located to ask what the needs of that community are, said Rix Threadgill, who is pastor of Buford Presbyterian Church and moderator of the presbytery’s New Church Development Commission.

It goes beyond numbers. As far as membership, “I hear that even among colleagues in the ministry — what does it mean to be a member of this church? Does that mean attendance? Does that mean giving? Fellowship?” Threadgill asked. “Do we really long for members, or to live into the calling that Jesus said to make disciples of all nations?”

Many young adults and families with children from the neighborhood are involved with Ormewood Church, as this pre-pandemic photo shows.

Becca Butcher, 31, started attending Ormewood Church within the first six months of its opening, and now serves on its leadership team. “My family had been looking for a church home for a while that was progressive and welcoming, and were having trouble finding it.”

A friend told her of this new church that was starting. “We popped in, and we just kept going,” Butcher said — drawn to return by Ormewood’s progressive theology, sense of welcome and female leadership. “It’s really a supportive and caring place, in a distinctly feminine way,” unlike a more hierarchal experience of church. “For me, it has been a transformative experience,” she said. “This is what I want forever.”

In the discussions at Ormewood about what membership means, she’s heard a range of views. Some are “people seeking God and the faith aspect. Others are engaging with the neighborhood, independent of religion,” Butcher said. “They want to be part of the work the church does in the community.

Nicholas Saffel, a 43-year-old father of twins, met Holmes at the Ormewood Park Makers Festival, held on the church property, a few years ago and decided to give the congregation a shot. He stuck around because of the sense of community. “You walk into some of these big stuffy churches and no one says hi to you,” Saffel said. “You don’t get greeted. … People want a sense of belonging.”

Saffel has lived in the Ormewood Park neighborhood for 16 years and had no connection with any church before this one. “No kids back then. We both had big careers,” working Saturday nights and sleeping in on Sundays. “Church wasn’t for us then.”

But now, his life has changed, and Saffel sees Ormewood Church as a place to invite others “to explore a living God” in a place of welcome and community.

In her book “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening,” the author Diana Butler Bass has written that “Christianity did not begin with a confession. It began with an invitation into friendship, into creating a new community, into forming relationships based on love and service.” Belonging is a step into community, a journey that can lead to spiritual awakening and exploration, she writes. The idea, Holmes said, is that “you belong before you believe.”

CJ McBeth Clark was a member of the old Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church, where she served for a time on the session, and now attends Ormewood Church. She has lived in the neighborhood for three decades, saying “there were a lot of gay and lesbian people who were moving into the neighborhood” in the early 1990s and renovating houses — herself among them.

Clark knows a lot of the church history. She first started attending around 1991, drawn by the progressive leadership and persistent invitations of a former pastor, Peter Denlea, who was “trying new and different things.” Over time she moved from being unchurched to being someone who “finds my way to God through Jesus.” She knows the church’s stories — its successes and tensions, the ways the former congregation was welcoming and the ways it was not.

“Those that hung on to the very end were really dedicated,” Clark said. “I hate to say it — most of them were dedicated to that building … they wouldn’t let go,” until they essentially had no choice. “The church needed to die to be reborn. And the church needed to love its neighborhood, accept all of them.”

The presbytery could have made a lot of money by selling the building — a Baptist church down the street was turned into apartments, Clark said. Her hope is that Ormewood Church now, in its new incarnation, can invite in people who aren’t sure what they think about membership or Christianity or even Jesus.

For many young adults, “they don’t know what it means to be church, but that doesn’t mean they’re not interested,” said Clark, 59, who works for a nonprofit. “What does it mean to invite them and talk to them? There are many young families that are attending the church. They don’t know all the Bible stories. They don’t know what it means to be a member of the church. But they want to be there. They want to learn.”

When she drives by Ormewood Church, Clark sees “all kinds of different people using the parking lot. Kids riding their bikes in the parking lot. Picnic tables in the corner. People I’ve never seen in the church, but so what?” There’s a Little Free Public Library box where people donate books and a pantry box that neighborhood families fill with food. The dog yard is like a congregation of its own, Clark said.

“All this is getting used. It just does my heart good.”