Bethany Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Clover SC – Visited on 10/16/12

The Bethany Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church looks far older than the communities around it.  In the semirural South Carolina countryside west of Clover, SC, generally a land of farms, fields, and whitewashed houses on rolling hills, it stands with a sort of atavistic defiance to its setting.

The church rises tall upon a green lawn, framed at its back by forest, flanked on one hand by the elementary school across the road and on the other by its cemetery, rank upon rank of headstones marching to the roadside in every direction.  Its walls were of mortared red brick, darkened by age.  Tall, arched windows of stained glass march down the sides of its central hall.  A tower rises beside the front entrance, its crenelated top more reminiscent of an English parish church than anything typically found in South Carolina.

The floor of the church’s sanctuary sloped down from the front doors towards a raised stage.  Lurid red carpeting covered the floor and red cushions sheathed the three columns of pews that filled most of its space.  A strip of red separated the front row of pews from the stage.  The church altar stood at the stage’s foot, draped in red fabric and laid with a cross and candlesticks wrought from gleaming silver.  A broad wooden pulpit rose directly behind the altar, at the stage’s forward edge; behind it sat three high-backed wooden chairs for the church’s pastor and other prominent speakers, and behind them rose the church choir loft.  Two secondary wings opened onto the main sanctuary at either side of the stage, separated from the hall by panelled wooden doors that could slide up onto their ceilings on runners like suburban garage doors.

All the sanctuary’s walls, from rear to sides to choir loft, were painted in seamless white.   Those stained glass windows seen from outside punctuated the walls, framed by age-darkened wood and set with tiny plaques naming worshippers whose donations helped restore them over the years.  An identical window stood behind the choir loft’s seats, but it was sealed and its glass removed long ago when the church expanded beyond its old sanctuary.  Outside, the church’s walls lighten noticeably where its original brickwork gives way to later additions.

The sanctuary’s ceiling was easily its most striking feature.  Two ventral beams of heavy, dark wood stretched the length of the chamber, crossed at regular intervals by seven matching lateral beams.  Taken together, they arched the ceiling along its middle and resembled nothing so much as the segmented plates of a turtle shell, as seen from inside the putative beast.  Within each segment was a grid of molded, white-washed squares, torn here and there where age took its toll on the paint and plaster-work.  Electric lamps hung from the ceiling on long chains, adding their light to that already pouring in through the many windows.

A formidable congregation gathered beneath that turtle shell ceiling come the start of the day’s worship service.  From a quiet seat in the rear of the sanctuary Churchspotting was able to count over fifty individuals in the sanctuary, not including those seated in the secondary wings and those on stage among the choir.  All told the full number on that Sunday was well over sixty persons, though probably less than a hundred.

The day’s ceremonies began with a reading of announcements, followed by prayer, followed in turn by a hymn sung by the full congregation.  Public prayer was conducted at the Bethany ARP in the following manner.  First the presiding speaker, whether the church’s pastor or an elder, afforded the community a period of silent prayer; worshippers sat with heads bowed, eyes closed, in silence.  In time the speaker began to pray aloud while the congregation remained seated, sometimes at considerable length, until the prayer was closed a last thanks to the deity.  Music at Bethany ARP was highly traditional, composed wholly of the human voice and a simple piano accompaniment.

The congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer together immediately after the day’s first hymn.  Then the church’s pastor, Alan Arthur Morrow, holder of that post since 1992, called the congregation’s children to the front pews for a children’s sermon.  Morrow, a tall, bald, older man, began by asking the children to make a list of bad things they did in their daily lives.  Once they’d compiled a list, which he committed to a whiteboard brought down before the stage, Morrow explained to them that these bad acts were ultimately sins: violations of God’s law.

Morrow taught the children that all people were sinners, including themselves, but that if they asked God’s forgiveness for their transgressions he would “put [their] sins out of sight,” a point he illustrated by wiping the white board clean of text.  Because of this, he said, “let us love Him and worship Him and serve Him all the days of our lives.”

After the children’s sermon deacons walked the aisles bearing trays for the congregation’s donations, backed by accompaniment from the piano.  Once the day’s tithe was gathered the congregation recited from catechism statements printed in that day’s church bulletin.  Among other things they affirmed that they believed there to be one god in the universe, a godhead composed of three personalities (Father, Son and Spirit) which were nonetheless one being.  Morrow read each catechism question from the pulpit; the congregation read out the appropriate response in unison, save for those who knew their catechism well enough to recite it from memory.

A second hymn followed this group recitation, then another period of prayer.  The remainder of the service, about half its overall length, was the pastor’s sermon.  First Morrow read from the Bible, specifically Luke 7:36-50.  His selection told the story of an evening Jesus spent in the house of Simon, a priest of the mainstream Jewish establishment in his day, at which a woman of ill repute in her neighborhood washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and anointed his feet with expensive oil.  To better set the scene for his congregation Morrow described contemporary styles of eating and architecture: specifically, the Roman fashion of eating from low tables while reclining upon couches, and the layout of a Roman-style urban villa with its atrium opening onto the street.

Morrow focused on the contrition and passion of the woman in her tending to Jesus, and the self-righteousness of Simon when he rebuked Jesus for associating with a woman of such poor reputation.  He asked his congregation how they would treat a drunk, a prostitute or an open homosexual who entered their church and called them to be “a friend to sinners,” as he repeatedly described Jesus.

A final hymn followed the sermon’s close, after which the congregation of Bethany ARP made for the sanctuary’s front doors.  The land outside was cool under a gray sky, and leafy boughs stretched over the church’s cemetery hung yellowed and inflamed by the changing seasons.


Brief Delay

Today’s Churchspotting has run long, and will be available tomorrow.

Back Up The Bridge, Part II: The Bridge at Clover High School – Visited on 9/25/12


There is one eminently visible sign in Clover, SC that The Bridge, the Baptist church that meets each week at the town’s high school, is moving up in the world.  At a modest strip mall on Bethel Street in the eastern stretches of Clover proper, in a rental space usually occupied by hair salons and movie rental stores, stands The Bridge’s office.  A blue sign with white lettering announces the office’s presence to passing motorists, while writing painted onto its windows lays out the location and times of the church’s meetings.

Inside, the church office is a wide and empty space.  Chairs, couches and a coffee table stand in one corner, but otherwise the main room of the office is bare carpeting, pale walls and a flatscreen television hung high on the wall opposite the furniture.  A far smaller room opens onto the first, within which Pastor Kevin Witt keeps a desk and sees to the administration of his flock.  Mr. Witt sat his interview with Churchspotting in the main room of The Bridge’s office.  He had not changed noticeably from the young, heavyset man visited in our first coverage of The Bridge in August of 2011.

Kevin Allen Witt was born in January of 1975 in Birmingham, AL.  He spent his youth in and around Birmingham, where his middle class family lived and worked: his mother as an accountant, his father in finance management.  Growing up, Mr. Witt was active in his church youth group and school football teams.  His grades were sufficient, but he now feels he did not fully apply himself in those years.  As a teenager he hoped to study computer science or chemistry.

Mr. Witt attended college at the University of Alabama, where he began studying computer science.  he soon switched educational paths and began studying accounting, with the goal of entering federal law enforcement.  He earned his degree in accounting and continued to study at the University of Alabama School of Law, where he earned his Juris Doctorate.  He went on to spend the next three years as a practicing lawyer in Alabama.

During the second year of his law practice Witt felt called to do something different with his life.  He believed his relationship with God had declined during his studies, and sought to repair that connection.  He came to believe that God wished him to take up ministry and he started looking at seminaries with his then-girlfriend, now his wife.

Rather than act on impulse, he spent the next year researching and preparing for seminary school. After the third year of his practice he enrolled in the next semester of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at Fort Worth, TX. During seminary he joined a group called Team Church, a church composed primarily of seminary students with the goal of planting new churches.  In the 3-4 years of his involvement with Team Church the group founded twelve new congregations.

In his final semester at seminary Mr. Witt met a missionary from Clover, SC–specifically, from the First Baptist Church of that town.  Witt gained a job through that chance meeting as a minister of education at Clover’s First Baptist Church.  His role at First Baptist was Witt’s first full-time ministry position.

Mr. Witt remains fond of that institution, but he was not there long before he grew convinced that the church was unable to reach large numbers of Clover residents, especially new arrivals to the area.  His plans to ameliorate this weakness culminated in the The Bridge’s founding, first as a satellite service of First Baptist, later as a church in its own right.  The Bridge is currently composed of about 110 members, up from between 80 and 90 last year.  It is a member church of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Though Mr. Witt has never personally experienced visions or the supernaturally miraculous, he has encountered people who believe they were miraculously healed.  He holds that we currently live in the End Times described in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, with the caveat that these times began with the coming of Christ some two thousand years ago.  He said that “every generation has thought they were the last and was wrong,” and believes that one should prepare for the end of days while accepting that one cannot know precisely when that end will come.

When asked about the proper relationship between Church and State, Mr. Witt said that he believes most Americans do not understand the US Constitution’s historical context.  He described how in the 18th Century the sovereigns of Europe determined the religion of their subjects.  He ascribed the Establishment Clause of the Bill of Rights to a fear, at the time of the nation’s founding, that the federal government might attempt to impose a national religion on the states.  He believes that the US should not attempt to impose any one religion or denomination on its citizens.

Church of the True Worship, Clover SC – Visited on 9/24/12

In the northern reaches of Clover, SC, on the eastern shoulder of Highway 321, there lies a strip mall.  Among its modest tenants are a tanning salon, an empty video rental store, and a church: the Church of the True Worship, a Ministries Holiness Church.  The church’s plate glass front is backed by heavy curtains during the week.  A sign in the window lists its times for worship and names its pastor, Paul Mackins.

The church has two rooms, the bathroom and the main room.  Its floors are white linoleum tile, and fluorescent lights beam in its ceiling.  Single chairs stand in close-set rows, laid to encircle a broad square of red carpet against one wall.  The carpet holds a pulpit, draped in red cloth on the Sunday of the 23rd, side-tables laid with plastic flowers, and a row of three modest wooden chairs for ministers.

Behind the chairs, in the back of the main room, stands a solitary filing cabinet.  To its left is a wooden desk and small, low table set with chairs.  To its left are a drum set and an electric keyboard.  Beside the bathroom door is a sign, red text on a white background: “HOLY SPIRIT YOU ARE WELCOME IN THIS PLACE”.

Dozens of chairs were set out on the morning Churchspotting visited, but only a few of them were put to use.  Eleven people attended the Church of the True Worship that day, including children.  Its members tended towards formal dress with men in polo shirts and slacks, women in dresses.

The morning’s service began at 11:30 AM, preceded by Bible study.  Two men from the congregation sat the church’s instruments, while two women–Paula and Nancy Mackins–took to the chairs upon the red carpet.  The music began almost immediately.  Drummer and keyboardist provided a rhythm while the whole group, impelled by the two Mackins’ strident voices, progressed through a cycle of gospel hymns.

Almost every group visited by Churchspotting uses music during worship in some way, but few make it so constant a feature of the service as the Church of the True Worship.  From the start of worship music only ceased to permit the reading of some scripture from the Book of Psalms.  The songs were simple, expressive affairs, with refrains including “Everybody ought to know who Jesus is,” and “Lord I just want to thank You.”  The singing of them was not just entertainment, or a form of communal expression.  Moreso than is common in the groups visited by Churchspotting, these were explicitly praise songs–they mere singing of them was meant as a glorification of their primary subjects, Jesus and God.

Even when hymns gave way to the morning’s sermon, the drums and keyboard never ended entirely.  Thumps of percussion and skirls of electric piano emphasized each phrase as Nancy Mackins, the younger of the two, took the pulpit and began to preach.  Members of the congregation underscored her words with shouts of “Yes God!” and “Amen!”  Her style was boisterous, even aggressive.  At times she was fairly shouting into the pulpit’s microphone, which redoubled her voice’s strength in the church’s confined space.

Ms. Mackins’s subject was change, in the seasons and in human life.  She said that change was a necessary, natural part of life.  “All change is not bad, some change is good.”  She encouraged the congregation to accept the wicked ways of others, to focus on doing good in their own lives and leave the punishment of evil to God.  It was God, she said, who allowed one to wake in the morning, who gives men and women their power in life.  There was no life, she said, and no peace, without Jesus.

After the sermon, Paula and Nancy Mackins invited members of the congregation to approach and be blessed.  One man neared the podium.  Nancy stood before him and took his hand, while Paula stood at his side.  Another man, the church’s youth pastor, stood behind him.  The Mackins anointed the man’s forehead with oil, set their hands on his shoulders and chest, and prayed.  The man stood with his eyes closed, his features shifting between furious emotion and relieved calm.  The drums and keyboard continued throughout.

Afterward, the floor was opened for anyone to stand and speak.  The man who was prayed over thanked God for bringing his wife through surgery.  His voice thickened with emotion as he said that God took care of him when he couldn’t take care of himself, and watched over his children when he couldn’t provide for them.

After his speech the church took up offerings and sang one last song together.  Then, after some announcements and a final prayer, the group was dismissed.

Back Up The Bridge: A Return to The Bridge at Clover High School – Visited on 9/16/12

In August 2011 Churchspotting visited The Bridge, one of a number of York County churches that convene in rented spaces at area schools.  That year, The Bridge met in the cafeteria of Clover High School.  Its congregation was a few dozen middle-income Clover locals pastored by Kevin Witt of Fort Worth, Texas.

When Churchspotting first attended The Bridge it had existed as a body less than two years.  Founded as a colony of Clover’s First Baptist Church, The Bridge spent its first year supported by that older organization before becoming an independent church in October 2011, just months after Churchspotting’s visit.  As the group nears its second anniversary, we thought it opportune to stop by again to see how the The Bridge had developed in a year’s time.

The church’s blue banners flank the entrance to Clover High School’s student parking lot on Sundays.  A volunteer from the congregation stands between them, beckoning towards passing motorists and directing the curious inward.  Though The Bridge met in Clover High School’s cafeteria in 2011, more pairs of banners guide visitors to a different site: a strip of brand-new construction across the parking lot from the school’s main building, behind its Applied Technology Center.

Inside, there is a different air to The Bridge from a year before, not least from its change in surroundings–only opened to students in the fall of 2012, the Bridge’s current location is sparkling new by local standards.  The congregation met in what appeared to be a combination cafeteria/auditorium, very similar to that rented by Relevant Church at nearby Oakridge Middle School.  The Bridge’s membership expanded in the year since Churchspotting’s first visit, with more than fifty men, women and children milling between three marching columns of cafeteria tables positioned as pews and a hall immediately behind the cafetorium, where coffee and doughnuts were laid out for their use.

The pew-tables slanted to better focus their occupants on The Bridge’s “stage,” a huge screen lighted by an overhead projector which hung from a pole in the room’s ceiling.  To the right of the screen stood the instruments and microphone stands of the church’s live, in-house band; to its left stood an unadorned, human-sized wooden cross.  To the rear, laid out on a series of conjoined tables, were the controls and computers of the church’s audio-visual systems.

Kevin Witt stood behind that nerve center before the service began in earnest, talking with men from the congregation.  Mr. Witt remained the relatively short, heavyset, dark-haired young man of Churchspotting’s first visit.  He wore a polo shirt and jeans to his church; a clear plastic earpiece stretched the arm of its microphone midway over his right cheek.

It was not Kevin Witt who took the stage and began the morning’s service.  That duty went to a member of the church band, a man on the young side of middle-age in a blue t-shirt, goateed, with violently orange glasses.  He gave some announcements before the band started into the first song of its opening set, with him as its lead male singer.  After the first song, a standard Christian rock-pop ballad, the singer led the church in prayer.  He spoke while the congregants, most of them standing, bowed their heads and closed their eyes.  A guitarist in the band strummed behind the singer’s voice-over, till the prayer finished with a call of “How many people believe God isn’t dead?” and the band dove into its second song.

Kevin Witt emerged after the band finished its first set.  He stood behind a slim plastic pulpit set before the projector screen and announced upcoming events at the church: plans to hand out balloons and water at the annual Clover Auto Show, to feed the high school football team in the next week, all heralded under the banner of “loving our community.”  Another set from the band followed Witt’s announcements before the sermon began in earnest–not with an introduction from Witt, but with a televised clip from the 1999 film “Office Space.”

The clip, with its one use of the word ‘ass’ censored for the congregation’s benefit, showed the film’s protagonist, Peter Gibbons, speaking with a pair of specialists hired by his company to interview and subsequently downsize its work force.  He explained to them how the scant rewards and threats of reprisal he faced from his superiors at work were only capable of making him work just enough to avoid being fired.  As the film clip ended Witt regained the stage to open what he called a new series of sermons.  The projector screen showed its title in two foot high letters, “Malachi: Grace and Gratitude.”

Witt explained the historical context of the Book of Malachi, the last book of the Bible’s Old Testament, written in the middle of the 5th Century BCE within living memory of the Second Persian War between the city-states of Greece and the Persian Achaemenid Empire fancifully depicted in the film “300.”  Witt’s hands moved in rhythm with his speech, complimenting each word.  In fact his hands moved so often and with such a carefully repeated regularity of gestures that his display could almost be mistaken for sign language.  With the intellectual stage set Witt embarked on a chapter by chapter, verse by verse commentary on the Book of Malachi, with the projector screen behind him displaying the text to the congregation as he read.

The substance of Malachi’s text, as Witt described it, was a reprimand to half-hearted believers.  The prophet Malachi claimed that the priests of his day gave up only their lame and infirm livestock as offerings to God, not the best of their flocks, and that the people performed only the bare necessities of the rituals demanded of them by Jewish law.  The prophet went on to say that God had informed him that he despised these half-hearted offerings, and ordered that if his worshipers did not worship him whole-heartedly, with the best sacrifices they could manage and the highest devotion, they should shutter their temples and cease their lukewarm rituals.

Witt explained that in the Old Testament the blessings of God broke down on explicit national and ethnic lines, that he blessed the people of Israel above all others then and that this blessing obligated them to provide whole-hearted gratitude to God.  He explained further that the crucifixion of Jesus in the New Testament ended these ethnic restrictions and extended the blessing to those who believed in Christ.  “The air we breathe belongs to God,” he said, “Every good thing we have comes from God.”  This grace, he said, carried the same expectation of gratitude for modern Christians as it did for ancient Israelites.  In modern terms, he said, God would prefer the churches be shut than that they be used for less than genuine worship.  “Be real about this or just quit.”

Witt closed the morning’s sermon with a prayer.  The congregation bowed its many heads in silence as he spoke, while band members with downcast eyes retook their positions to the right of the pulpit.  Witt melted back into the crowd as the band began its final song, ending the day’s worship.  Worshipers at The Bridge emerged into the parking lot of Clover High School soon after, to soggy asphalt and a cloudy September sky pregnant with rain.

Brief Delay

Today’s Churchspotting has run long, so we’ll be delaying publishing till tomorrow, likely before noon.  It features Churchspotting’s return to a very early subject, The Bridge at Clover High School.  We’ll investigate what’s changed there in the last year.

First United Methodist Church, Clover SC, Part II – Visited on 6/20/12

Tommy Wilkes was in the midst of an administrative call when the time came for his interview with Churchspotting.  He was in his office on the second floor of Clover SC’s First United Methodist Church, the church he pastored, on a hall it shared with Sunday School classes and the church choir’s practice room.  His topic of discussion was a church-run summer camp.

His was a dim office, its walls plastered with finger paintings and drawings that might have come from other, similar camps of previous years.  After he finished his conversation Mr. Wilkes took a seat on office’s single low couch, opposite my chair, and began to tell me how he’d come to that place and time.

Tommy Wilkes was born in Charleston, SC in 1965.  His father was a United Methodist minister in his own right and Tommy’s family–his mother and two sisters–followed the elder Wilkes across South Carolina throughout his childhood.  The mainstay of his young life was Spartanburg SC where Tommy attended high school and played in a rock band named Escape.

After high school Mr. Wilkes attended the University of South Carolina, where he pursued a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology.  Even then, though, his goals did not lie in academics.  After completing his preliminary schooling he sought a missionary position through the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Missionaries’ US2 program.  The church sent Tommy to Philadelphia, where he spent his missionary years working with inner city communities.

His time in Philadelphia confirmed an inclination towards the church that Wilkes felt from a very young age.  He entered seminary school at Emory University soon after returning from Philadelphia, intent on following his father as a United Methodist pastor.  During his time at Emory he served as chaplain of a nearby mental health ward.  He worked primarily with troubled young people, many of them suicidal, and sought to offer them sort of hope in the midst of a terrible dark part of their lives.

Wilkes graduated from Emory in 1993 and was soon ordained as an Elder of the United Methodist Church.  He served as a an associate pastor at Central Methodist in Spartanburg before embarking on a career as senior pastor in his own right in a succession of South Carolina churches in Lexington and Lancaster.  In 2011 he and his family–his wife, Meg, and three children–arrived at Clover’s First United Methodist.  It was the most established church he’d yet pastored, with around 820 members and over 250 regular attendees each Sunday, spread amongst several services throughout the day.

When asked about the proper relationship between Church and State, Mr. Wilkes made clear his opinion that though the Founding Fathers were wise, they were not in themselves holy.  He held that Church and State should be separate, but thought hat some people want, with evil intent, to take God out of all aspects of daily life.  He insisted that no one “deny that God is.”