Posts Tagged ‘ Lake Wylie ’

Pine Grove Baptist Church, Part II

The following interview took place in the office of its subject, Jerry Bryant, pastor of Pine Grove Baptist Church.  Mr. Bryant worked in an annex building of Pine Grove Baptist, in a room flanked by administrative offices and classrooms.  The wall behind him was lined with bookcases that reached to the ceiling; a broad wooden desk formed a solid bulwark between him and visitors.

Informed in advance of the pending interview, Mr. Bryant met it dressed for light business, in slacks and a polo shirt.  Though the top of his head was bald, its sides bore thick forests of brown hair.  His moustache was pale by contrast, thin and nearly invisible at a distance.

Mr. Bryant grew up within an hour’s drive of his current office in Monroe, North Carolina.  He was the middle child of three sons; his father worked in a mill, his mother in a grocery store.  The family attended church regularly, but as they moved from time to time they attended several different worship houses.

In 1971, sixteen and just shy of starting high school, Mr. Bryant opted to join the military instead.  He became a welder and pipe fitter for the navy, and spent the next forteen years in military service, the first eight active, the last six inactive.  He said that he was simply not interested in schoolwork at the time, and wanted a career.  He spent his active service stationed in Charleston and Norfolk, Virginia.

Asked about the Vietnam War, which was raging at the time of his enlistment, Mr. Bryant said, “I think the Vietnam War was necessary.  Do I think it accomplished what it should have accomplished?  No, because of the politics involved.”  Asked why it was necessary, he replied, “For the freedom of the individuals and the people involved, and their religious as well as political liberties.”

Bryant left active service for the Navy in 1979 and moved to Spartanburg, SC, where he found a job working for Michelin Tire.  He arrived in Spartanburg with his young family; two children and his wife, whom he married in 1974 while still in the Navy.  He’d not attended church since he left home for the military, and neither did his wife, but when neighbors invited him to attend Una First Baptist Church in 1980 it soon became a regular activity for his family.

Four years later, on June 15, 1984, Mr. Bryant described the moment he “gave his life to Christ.”  He was at Una Baptist, helping to teach boys’ classes of vacation Bible school.  He was sitting in on a class taught by what he termed a ‘child evangelist,’ who was painting an image of the cross while telling its accompanying story to the students.  As he listened, Mr. Bryant said “I realized for the first time in my life that I’d never completely given my life over to the service of God.”  From then on he dedicated himself to religious service.

Though he was two and a half years into a mechanical engineering study at Spartanburg Technical College at the time of his calling, Bryant abandoned that path in favor of a spiritual vocation.  He attended an unacredited bible school called the Dan Greer Bible Institute, but soon left it for North Greenville Jr. College.  After earning an Associate’s Degree there he transferred to Gardner-Webb University in the suburbs of Charlotte, NC, where he earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Ministry.

According to Bryant he became a pastor of the Southern Baptist Convention in August 1988, not long after he earned his Associate’s Degree, when he was invited to helm Thompson Chapel Baptist Church.  He continued working full-time at Michelin Tire until the following May, when he left that job to minister full-time.  He spent nine and a half years as pastor of Thompson Chapel until, in 1997, he transferred to Pine Grove Baptist.  He serves as pastor there to this day.

Pine Grove’s average attendance is, according to Mr. Bryant, approximately 100 persons on a Sunday.  The church was founded in 1958, while its current sanctuary was built in 1976.  The school maintains an auxilliary educational program, the “Pine Grove Christian Academy,” whose offerings start with infant daycare and progress through a K-3 kindergarten to a grades 4-12 after school program.

The church’s charitable works include an “orphan ministry” that works with the department of social services to find homes for South Carolina orphans.  The church also takes up offerings for New Beginnings Baptist Church in Clover, SC, as well as childrens’ and retirement homes in the state.

During his time at Pine Grove Mr. Bryant has, by his own admission, preached against homosexuality.  “It’s a sin,” he said, “and it’s an abomination before God.  It’s spoken against in the scriptures.  People can say that they are born that way, but if inidividuals are born that way it’s funny no animal lies with it’s own kind.”  The latter statement is untrue, as many nonhuman species exhibit homosexual activity in both captivity and the wild.  For the scriptural basis of his views, he referred Churchspotting to the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, and the Book of Romans in the New Testament.

Though homosexuals “are still human beings,” he elaborated, “Their mindset, their belief system is totally wrong, because up until the early 80s it was still listed in the journal of psychology as a deviant and abnormal behavior, until the homosexuals put pressure upon the authors of those manuals, to change that.  Things don’t change just because one group decides, and less than one percent of this country doesn’t have a right to enforce their beliefs or opinions upon others.”

Though he held forth with considerable vigor on the subject of homosexuality, Bryant was initially less forthcoming when asked to comment on the Catholic Church.  “I’ll have to think about how I want to respond to that one,” he said.  “I don’t normally have a lot to say about other denominations because Christ said in his word, ‘if they’re not against me they’re for me, if they’re not for me they’re against me.”   Still, it took no prodding on our part for Mr. Bryant to elaborate.  “I think the Roman Catholic Church is misled on some of its doctrine,” he said, “and I think that they seek to attain the same goal as a Christian church would, but I think they’re totally misled on a lot of the tenets of their belief system, as far as praying to Mary and thinking that the Pope is the only one who can bless a priest or preacher, and some of their doctrinal beliefs.  I believe they’re misled.”

When asked whether Catholics were indeed Christians, he said “I believe there are people within the Catholic Church that are Christian, as well as those that are not, but I also believe that there are Christians as well as non-Christians in any denomination.” “I believe there’ll be some catholics that go to Heaven and some that don’t, I believe there’ll be some Baptists that go to Heaven and some that don’t.”

Bryant was initially more forthcoming on the subject of the Church of Latter Saints, whose local church lies on the outskirts of nearby York, SC.  “I believe that the Mormon Church is a cult,” he said, “because they place Joseph Smith in a position of divine authority, as they would the Book of Mormon, and they place it equal with the Bible, and there’s no book in existence that’s equal with the scriptures.”

He did elaborate on the esteem he feels for Mormons’ emphasis on family ties, but added “I think they’re off base in a lot of their doctrines.”  He would not describe those doctrines, or the errors he saw in them.

On the subject of Biblical prophecy, Mr. Bryant stated flatly that he does believe we are living in the End Times.  Though he would not speculate on an exact date for the End, he did say that “We can look at the signs of the times and tell when that day is getting close.”  He cited how “God destroyed Soddom and Gomorrah because of homosexuality.  God condemned the killing of an unborn child,” and mentioned he found it “interesting that the Muslim [Brotherhood] are bringing themselves into leadership in countries around Israel.”

On the subject of Israel, Mr. Bryant “think[‘s] that Israel is on the verge of a major event that will have a lot to do with the fulfillment of End Time Prophecy.” “Iran is grossly misled,” he said, “if they believe that they’ll go in and wipe them off the face of the earth, it will not happen, it’s just not going to happen.”

On the subject of America’s own, current wars, Mr. Bryant replied “I think that the United States had to do something, to be involved in the Middle East, for the simple fact that Israel is one of our friends, our allies, and that we have an agreement that we will come to their aid just as they would to ours.” Further, Mr. Bryant “believe[s] that if what had went on in Iraq or Afghanistan would have been allowed to continue that there would have been a whole lot more 9/11s and a whole lot more events happening around the world, and that radical Islam is bent on destroying Christianity and the Jews, and they’re not gonna stop until they can try to accomplish that; until they’re able to wipe out Christianity, until they’re able to wipe out the Jews they’re not gonna stop.”

When asked for his thoughts on Islam, Bryant said “I think Islam is greatly misled in their belief systems.  I do not agree with what they believe…they don’t agree with what I believe, it makes no difference.”  He went on to add that “If you’re right and I’m wrong I don’t have anything to lose.  But if I’m right and you’re wrong you have everything to lose, okay?  The same would go with the whole issue of Islam and any other cult or group.”  When whether he believed Islam is a cult, Bryant grew cagey again.  “Let’s just say I do not agree with what they believe, and I’ll kind of leave it at that.”

At length, Bryant broadened his scope to all other world religions.  “All the other religions of the world are a works based religion,” he said.  “If I do this I’ll please God or if I do that I’ll please God.”  “The Muslims believe that if they kill a Christian, or they kill a Jew that they automatically gain entrance into heaven and they’ll have so many wives and everything waiting for them when they get there.”  He went on to describe how his own faith was superior.  “It’s always works based, it’s always if I do this or if I do that.  If I had a religion that was works based what if I was an invalid, I couldn’t do any work, then I couldn’t very well get close to my God.  Christianity’s about a relationship, and every Christian church teaches a relationship with God, that it’s relationship oriented.”

When asked, like every other pastor interviewed by Churchspotting, about the proper relationship between Church and State, Mr. Bryant held forth at some length.  His first concern was that the federal government should not be able to dictate what he could or could not teach at his church.  “I’ve preached messages against homosexuality and I’ll continue to preach messages against homosexuality.  I’ve preached messages against racism and I’ll continue to preach messages against racism, okay?  Because to me racism is a sin just like homosexuality is a sin.  The federal government has no right to come in and tell me that I cannot preach against homosexuality.”

Mr. Bryant holds that a majority of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were “born again Christians,” and that this country was founded “so that the state or the government could not tell us what we could or could not do in our practice or our teachings, okay?”  He added that regardless of whether or not the government passes laws that label his preaching against homosexuality hate speech, he “will still continue to preach against homosexuality.  They can pass laws that say that living together is okay, but I will continue to preach against living together because the Bible says that’s fornication, okay?  It’s wrong, premarital sex is wrong.”

He conceded that the government has the right pass laws regarding speed limits on the roads, but said that “the poing where the laws they pass go against God’s law, is the moment where I’m no longer bound by their law and I’m bound by God’s law.”

Mr. Bryant voiced significant cynicism towards the American political system, and the president in particular.  “Those who are supposed to represent us,” he said, “have a tendency to lose sight of why they’re there.”  Of Mr. Obama he said, “I do not agree with our president, I hope he’s a one term president, has nothing to do with the color of his skin, has to do with the decisions that he’s made and the things that he’s said.  He’s a liar because he’s said one thing and done another.  But it’s not just him, it’s probably 90% of the rest of them up there.  He just happens to be the one in the forefront.”

Mr. Bryant said that the Bible enjoins him to pray for those in office, and that he does so.  He claimed that political parties were irrelevant to him, and that the only measure he takes of a politician running for office is their morals and values in relation to the Bible.  He addded that “we have seen the morals and values of this nation degraded over the last years, not in just the last three and a half years but for years now.”

When asked how the country’s morals and values have degraded, Bryant said, “What used to be wrong is now accepted.  If it was wrong in one time why is it accepted now?  And you can take that and apply it to whatever.  You know, if something was wrong it’s wrong, if it’s right it’s right.”  Specifically, he believes that “They’ve tried to take God out of the schools, they’ve made murder legalized as abortion and called it a woman’s choice.  Her choice was whether to get pregnant or not, okay?”

On the subject of teen pregnancy, Bryant related that “Used to if a young girl got pregnant in school she was not allowed to attend school, she had to go to home school, and she was not allowed to be part of a classroom, because it was not acceptable for a junior high child or a high school child to get pregnant and flaunt it in the eyes of the public.”  To this he added, “Do I believe they should be isolated and ridiculed?  No.  But I believe they need to be taught.”

Mr. Bryant concluded by defending his views through invocation of the scriptures.  “Everybody wants to label evangelical Christians as right wing conservatives,” he said, “I’m not right wing anything.  I’m a Biblical conservative, and I never vote on a person based on their political party, I vote for people based upon their biblical views, and whether their views align with scripture.”

Jerry Bryant preaches from the pulpit of Pine Grove Baptist Church every Sunday.

Pine Grove Baptist Church, Part I – Visited on 5/20/12

Just east of Oakridge Middle School, where Relevant Church meets concurrently, another Christian group gathers each Sunday.  Pine Grove Baptist Church occupies a substantial lot on the western edge of Lake Wylie, SC.  Its buildings are red brick and white-washed wood; a tall white steeple rises above the central crest of the sanctuary.

Inside, wall-to-wall blue carpeting covers the sanctuary floor.  Pews stand in three long columns facing a stage set with a pulpit to the fore and an electronic drum set behind.  A choir loft rises above and behind the pulpit, and above that smooth white walls, punctured at their middle by a recessed, spearhead cavity within which hangs a great wooden cross.

The sanctuary’s walls are whitewished brick, embellished with vast wooden rib-arches like those seen in the sanctuaries of Charlotte Avenue Church of Christ and Trinity Bible Church in nearby Rock Hill.  Between those arches the walls are punctuated by windows of frosted, blue-stained glass.  Electric lamps of glass and metal hang from the sanctuary’s ceiling, a gently angled triangular peak of fitted wooden boards.

Pine Grove’s congregation numbered about fifty strong that morning.  Their clothing tended towards formal, with men in collared shirts and slacks while women wore dresses of varied design.  The congregation’s children were similarly attired, but the younger teenagers wore their street clothes.

After some opening pleasantries, the day’s worship service at Pine Grove Baptist began with prayer.  The church conducted its prayers by having the lay members bow their heads in silence while a speaker at the pulpit, whether the church’s pastor or some other member, prayed aloud.

Music followed prayer, presented by two female singers and a male singer-guitarist, all roughly middle-aged.  They sang a medley of contemporary Christian worship music, and encouraged the congregation to sing along with them.  According to the guitarist, the musical style at Pine Grove’s worship services varies from week to week.

While the music played the congregation was directed to rise and greet each other with handshakes and hugs.  Pine Grove’s worshipers circulated in and around their pews greeting each other until the music faded and they sat to hear announcements of current events in the church and the lives of its members.

During a second music set the church’s deacons passed around the offering plates.  When it quieted again Pine Grove’s pastor, Jerry Bryant, took his place behind the pulpit.  Bryant was a heavyset man in glasses and a dark suit.  The crown of his head was bald, but its sides held a thick coat of brown hair.

The subject of Bryant’s sermon, which filled the rest of the day’s worship service, concerned unity and the responsibilities of life as a church member.  He opened by saying that “Christianity is about a relationship with God where other religions deal with a responsibility or ‘works’ kind of relationship.”  He went on to explain that this relationship entailed good works nonetheless, specifically that though Pine Grove’s congregation worshiped within the church’s walls, their work as a congregation took place outside the church, in their community.

He said that the church was “an organism guided by the Holy Spirit,” which strove to please that Spirit.  That goal entailed ‘ministry,’ which he described as programs and personal efforts to affect one’s surrounding community.  He named the church’s “Orphan Ministry” as a concrete example, but elaborated that such programs had to be actively promoted and operated by the lay congregation.

As Bryant closed his sermon the music started back up, and the church began an “Invitation,” literally inviting visitors to the church that day to become full members.  As the music finished Pine Grove’s congregation stood, joined hands and bowed their heads as the pastor voiced a final prayer.  Then they dispersed into the parking lot outside, and a startlingly bright May afternoon.

Relevant Reprised: Return to relevant (sic) Church, Part I – Visited on 3/18/12

Since the early weeks of Churchspotting one article in particular has attracted long-term, continuous interest.  At least once a week someone arrives at the blog looking for information on relevant Church, a group visited in Churchspotting’s fourth ever article (available here).  Our last encounter with relevant was all the way back in August of 2011.  This week, more than six months later, we return to see what’s changed.

When Churchspotting first visited relevant Church, the group hadn’t yet been an independent congregation for a full month.    Its senior pastor, Matt McGarity, had only recently separated his operation from River Hills Community Church (visited here).  Mcgarity, still relatively fresh from seminary, worked at the RHCC as a youth pastor and outreach minister; relevant began as an auxiliary program to the RHCC, a deliberately ‘contemporary’ service intended to draw in worshippers turned off by more traditional religious services.

It’s been over six months since McGarity replanted his program as an independent church, renting space each week at Oakridge Middle School.  During our first visit relevant held a single worship service at 10:30 AM each Sunday–the same time slot as its former host, the RHCC.  Now relevant has two services, an early one at 9:15 and a late one at 10:45.  In August the church had between 150 and 200 active congregants; between the roughly 100 attendees at the early service and the 190 at the later service, the church now seems to host between 250 and 300 worshippers—about the same number Rev. McGarity claimed the program drew each week as an auxiliary of the far older RHCC.

The relevant Church volunteer staff seems less prominent six months on.  Gone are the neon ‘event staff’ t-shirts; now they wear black tees emblazoned with the church’s logo across the chest, or simply their street clothes with blue ‘event sticker’ nametags on cords about their necks.

At relevant there are no strict rules of dress; some worshippers arrived today in shorts and sandals, some in collared shirts and khakis.  Its primary attendees still appear to be middle class families from the Lake Wylie area, though some new arrivals did come from the other direction, where lies far less affluent Clover.

The church’s tradition of live, contemporary music remains strong.  The house band’s equipment filled the stage that lines one end of the Oakridge Middle School’s combination cafeteria-auditorium, and its musicians played three sets over the course of the day’s second worship service.  A projector screen hung above and behind them, displaying lyrics to their songs during performances.

For other sections of the worship service the screen served to display biblical quotations, graphics to accompany the sermon, and advertisements for church programs—early in the service it displayed a brief film clip promoting a relevant Church association called ‘life groups.’

Another visual presentation preceded Rev. McGarity’s sermon, the latest in a series called ‘Simple.’  McGarity, called Pastor Matt by the congregation, read the opening verses of the second chapter of the New Testament book of James, in which the author warned early Christians against privileging wealthy members of their churches over the poor and needy.  It rebuked them for showing deference to the wealthy, saying

 1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?”

McGarity’s sermon focused on the first half of this passage.  As was the case in August he delivered his sermon as a series of anecdotes combined with biblical references.  In particular he told stories of times he’d judged others on the basis of clothing, hairstyle or piercings, and warned his flock against the error and danger in doing the same.

Though its congregation’s size has grown over the last six months, the general program at relevant appears unchanged. The church still specializes in creating a nontraditional atmosphere, supported by contemporary music and an informal, casual approach to religious worship.  Later this week Churchspotting will sit down again with Mr. McGarity, to interview him on less immediately visible changes at relevant since our last visit.

The Journey at Crowder’s Creek Elementary School – Visited on 10/23

Months ago Churchspotting visited two churches of Lake Wylie, South Carolina in rapid succession: the elder, established, wealthy and sprawling River Hills Community Church (http://wp.me/p1JM4Z-u), and its offshoot relevant (sic) Church (http://wp.me/p1JM4Z-r), founded by former River Hills associate pastor Matt McGarity.  During the River Hills visit Kenny Ashley, another of River Hills Community Church’s associate pastors, announced that he was leaving to establish his contemporary Christian service, “The Journey,” as an independent organization.  In this article we visit a service of The Journey, eight weeks into its life as an independent church.

Like its fellow RHCC offshoot relevant Church, The Journey meets each week in an area school–in this case Crowder’s Creek Elementary.  The morning’s congregation gathers in a sort of carpeted gymnasium space with a small stage.  The corridor outside is set with tables of homemade cookies, supermarket pastries, and decanters of coffee for the gathering’s use.  Inside the carpeted floor is covered with over two hundred and fifty chairs, with the stage before them and tables for the service’s sound crew behind.

Like other meetings styled as “contemporary worship services” visited by Churchspotting, The Journey makes much of its focus on live music.  That morning’s performance was a lone singer and guitarist crooning gospel-pop to the soft accompaniment of The Journey’s congregation, somewhere between 180 and 200 souls.  There was a certain shyness to the congregation’s musical participation—only when the singer put the group on the spot and had them sing a verse with only  his guitar to assist did they begin to truly raise their voices in song.

There was an undercurrent of reliance on community throughout the morning’s worship at The Journey.  That day’s offering, when the congregation was prompted to donate money to the church, was turned into a social affair at Mr. Ashley’s insistence.  The offering bowls were set behind the main seating, and congregants were encouraged to greet each other, to hug and introduce themselves on their way.  “You can’t do the journey by yourself,” he said as the service got underway.  “Our job is to connect you with Jesus and one another.”

The morning’s sermon concerned itself with the “the God-Ordained Life,” and Ashley focused on describing what it meant for his congregation to live their lives based on Christian principles.  He emphasized the importance of having and showing love for everyone, even enemies and those who do you harm, and of showing integrity in business and relationships.

Yet he also made a point of saying that living virtuously is not a matter of simply “trying to do better.”  He equated his congregation’s daily spiritual struggle with being adrift in the ocean.  Living by rules and codes was likened to clinging to a life preserver—in Ashley’s description it might keep you afloat, but it ultimately still left you in the water.  Spiritual peace, in his view, came from accepting God’s love—in his allegory such constituted the hand reaching down from the lifeboat, offering to pull those adrift out of the water entirely.

After the service I conducted a brief interview with Kenny Ashley.  Before becoming a pastor Mr. Ashley spent twelve years as a high school athletic coach and chemistry teacher.  For the last five years of that time he ran his school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and eventually he felt it was time to pursue that calling full-time.  After two years at Erskine College and more at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, he earned his degree and became a full-time pastor in 1983, and has served as such ever since.

On his relationship with River Hills Community Church, relevant Church, and the circumstances of The Journey’s departure, Ashley referred to “differences of vision” that precipitated the splits.  In his own words “He (Matt McGarity) wants to reach people, I (Kenny Ashley) want to disciple them after they’re reached.”  Though both relevant and Journey are independent organizations now, Ashley mentioned that all three churches have mission groups working together on a project to prepare Thanksgiving dinners.

In both the interview and preceding sermon Ashley emphasized the importance of personal freedom in his church’s beliefs.  “You’re free to do anything you want on your Journey,” he said, just before the congregation broke up to make their offerings, “so long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s Journey.”  When asked how that stance pertained to modern American Christianity’s hot-button social issues, like homosexuality and abortion, Ashley’s thoughts were concise.  “We love people and tell them the truth as we see it.  I don’t have the option not to love you.  I don’t think God was ever into rules.”

The Journey itself is a loose conglomeration of worshippers without fixed membership.  Ashley himself was resistant to the idea of any sort of premium or advanced memberships in the church, or a fixed register of attendees.

Though it does not have charitable programs of its own, The Journey transfers 5% of each week’s donations to Mayday, a local charitable organization that assists people in immediate, sudden need, such as families who’ve lost homes to accidents or natural disasters, and connects with other organizations for more long-term support.

Finally, on the relationship of Church and State, Ashley said that he didn’t believe God or Thomas Jefferson ever intended a national American church like the Anglican Church of Britain.  He repeated his belief that people ought to be free to live their lives as long as they do not impose their lifestyle on others without consent.

Living Waters Presbyterian Church – Visited on 9/25/11

Beyond the main thoroughfares of business and travel the Carolina Piedmont’s roads are winding, lonesome things.  The ever-present forest shadows any traveler to either hand, save where the trees are hacked back to make room for human spaces and open sky.  Away from the towns these spaces are usually farmers’ fields or household lawns, whether they be old hardwood ranch homes or double-wide trailers.  The road slides round the summits of hills and hops over stream beds, an asphalt spiderweb cut into the green and brown that surrounds every little cluster of urban life in this state.

Living Waters Presbyterian Church sits on just such a plot carved from the forests, its entrance fortified by a simple cattle gate the likes of which can be found on any of the region’s farms.  A small parking lot surrounds the church itself, along with a field and a modest, scarecrow-watched garden.  The church itself is a plain aluminum-bulwarked rectangle, of the sort used by small manufacturing businesses across upstate South Carolina–before it was bought by the church, the property was used for warehousing.

When I arrived the congregation was still trickling in, availing itself of the coffee and breakfast food laid at one end of the sanctuary.  The interior of the church is plain and unadorned, lit with banks of institutional halogen lights and seated with rows of removable chairs.  Two linked flat screen televisions hang facing the congregation, to display scripture readings or song lyrics throughout the service, or to simply provide a splash of color with their screen savers in the otherwise austere space.

The people of Living Waters Presbyterian are an older set, many of them married couples without children in attendance.  Dress in the sanctuary was casual, and the atmosphere convivial–the members of Living Waters seem to have known each other for some time.  The morning I visited there were approximately 20 worshippers in attendance, but when all the church’s members gather they number around forty-five.

The pastor of Living Waters is Marty Taylor, a former businessman who, by his own description, made religion a part of his life after faith helped him overcome alcoholism in the 1990s.  He has worked as a pastor since 2000, and began ministering to the congregation that now worships at Living Waters in 2010.  He is a congenial, bespectacled middle-aged man, welcoming to strangers, who began the tradition at his church of worshippers voicing their prayers aloud, in turns, so that their fellows can join with them.  On the matter of Church and State, Taylor said that “God has instituted governments for the people, all governments are answerable to god.”  He believes that there is a certain amount of overlap between Church and State simply because there are religious people in government, and their beliefs inform the policies they enact: “Faith naturally expresses itself.”

The morning I visited, Rev. Taylor was dressed just as casually as his flock–moreso, as he wore a Brett Favre football jersey throughout the service in anticipation of the church’s “Football Kick-Off lunch” held after worship that day.  Yet his sermon that day, entitled “…Really?”, was stern.  He claimed the congregation was not personally committed to its church–Living Waters needed more volunteers to maintain the grounds, more donations to pay for its property’s upkeep, more activity from the congregation in general.  The church’s bulletin showed that Living Waters was over $500 behind on its weekly financial needs the week before, and over half the congregation was absent from church the day I visited, not because they could not come but because they did not attend every week.

Before Rev. Taylor arrived the congregation of Living Waters worshipped in a rented space at Bethel Elementary, not unlike other groups visited by Churchspotting.  The church bought its current space in 2010 and moved into the warehouse plot in February of 2011.  The church’s expenses grew considerably with its new property, but the congregation itself has not, and now financial troubles lurk in the background of its services.  Yet it’s been less than a year since Living Waters moved to its new location, and Churchspotting has certainly visited smaller churches that maintain equal facilities.  Living Waters remains a troubled church, but its future remains undecided.

Passage of the Day for 10/1 and Tomorrow’s Update

Today’s reading comes from the Qur’an, Surat an-Naml (The Ant), 27:52.

Tomorrow’s update is Living Waters Presbyterian Church.

River Hills Community Church, Traditional Service – Visited on 8/14/11

It is important that you understand certain things about River Hills.  To the north and east of York County sits a great spider, spinning out its web.  That spider, the greater metropolitan area of Charlotte, NC, spreads its concrete strands of housing development service roads and strip malls further and further from its center, the great glass and steel tower of Bank of America, every year.  Charlotte’s web does not sit idle: its strands snare homemakers from the American Northeast even as we speak, snaring them in aluminum box-houses and the bricked hubris of McMansions in ever greater numbers.

Years ago the web spread over the shores of Lake Wylie, a small body of water that defines the eastern border of York County.  There it snared yet more flies to feed their time and money to the great weaving beast at Charlotte’s heart, in the form of a swirling mandala of new suburban housing complexes carved into the forests that surround all settlements here in the Carolina piedmont.  Of these perhaps the largest, certainly the most visible, is River Hills: a gated community for the middle and upper middle class of York County, a new pole of political and economic power fighting to metastasize into its own school district where the children of the relatively well-to-do need not share classrooms or cafeterias with the greater mass of the county.

River Hills Community Church sits on two plots of land astride the road to River Hills—one must pass between the church’s two complexes to reach the community’s barred gate.  It boasts an athletics center and an expansive sanctuary for the church’s traditional service, and supports at least three worship services a day—two of the aforementioned traditional services, presided over by the church’s lead pastor Bruce Jones, as well as a contemporary service called “Journeys,” led by associate pastor Kenny Ashley.

I attended that latter of the day’s two traditional worship services.  The old sanctuary, where it took place, is a cavernous chamber paneled from floor to ceiling in dark wood.  The ceiling vaults high above the congregation, hung with banners of white and green like some time-lost Viking hall.  Rows of pews fit to seat hundreds sprawl back from the raised altar while a choir loft broad enough for dozens of singers rises behind it.  Behind and above the choir the wooden walls give way to plate-glass windows that fill the airy hall of the sanctuary with natural morning light.

The worshippers who filled the sanctuary for the traditional service that morning represented the long-time faithful of River Hills: retirees in their Sunday best sat shoulder to shoulder in their hundreds, intermixed with a handful of young professionals and parents with teenage children. Magisterial tones from the sanctuary’s pipe organ welcome worshippers to seats they’ve occupied for Sundays uncounted while the pastor and his staff prepare themselves for the morning’s service.

Music forms a strong component of the traditional RHCC service.  Years ago the church hired Kevin Gray, then one of two leading music instructors in the Clover School District, to take over as choir director.  Mr. Gray is a perennially energetic man who directs his choir of at least twenty volunteers with the panache of a seasoned performer.  His dark hair rises to a peaked black spitcurl—Gray has been known to moonlight as a fairly convincing Elvis impersonator in his spare time.  He and the choir perform with undaunted energy throughout the service, and even take a moment aside to accept hymn requests from the audience each Sunday.

Two speakers interrupted the procession of praise music that morning.  The first was a representative of Operation Mayday, a local charitable group attempting to recruit players for a charity golf tournament planned for early October.  The second speaker was Kenny Ashley, pastor of the Journeys contemporary service at RHCC.  Ashley is a big man, balding, who still commands the rough gregariousness of the high school football coach he was before turning to ministry.  He is a man who refers to his God as “Papa,” and describes the religious experience as ‘being broken to God’s saddle.’

Ashley addressed the congregation for a sobering announcement: he planned to leave the RHCC and take his Journeys program with him.  He said that just as he’d felt a calling to become a pastor, he now felt a calling to take his program beyond the bounds of the RHCC where it could become its own organization.  It was a similar refrain to that provided by Matt McGarity of relevant Church, whose organization was also once a part of the RHCC as well and split from that group a mere five weeks before Kenny Ashley’s announcement.

When the music finished the lead pastor finally rose to stand behind his pulpit.  Bruce Jones has the look of someone’s congenial uncle, an older man with a round face and thinning crop of gray hair, drooping jowls hanging about smiling lips.  As he delivered his sermon, the second in a series that strove to explain ‘why bad things happen to good people,’ he maintained the rhythm and energy of a public speaker sharpened by decades of practice.

Though the sermon began by exploring competing theological explanations for the purposes of suffering and calamity in the world, Rev. Jones soon passed into descriptions of two moments when he’d felt the hand of the Almighty directing the events of his life.

First he told the tale of how, as a boy, he’d jumped from a diving board into a public pool, only to find himself unable to swim.  Jones began to drown as he struggled towards the lip of the pool until he felt what he described as strong hands grasping him and lifting him above the water.  The pastor said that when he’d looked behind him to find who had saved him, no one was there.  Rev. Jones attributed his rescue to the hands of God himself, lifting him from the water to preserve his life towards the fulfillment of some unknowable purpose.

Rev. Jones’s second story hailed from much later in his life, when he was already pastor of the RHCC.  He related how he’d planned to visit a hospitalized woman of his congregation but felt a strong urge, as though from outside his own mind, to visit a day earlier.  When he arrived at the earlier occasion he found he’d come just in time for a crisis: a car wreck wounded several members of a family from his church that night, and Jones described how he spent that evening praying with them and their visitors before visiting the woman he’d originally come to see.

Jones said a call to the hospital the next day brought news that the woman he’d visited the night before had passed on in the night.  Jones attributed this remarkable timing, both in arriving to minister to the family involved in the wreck and to comfort the unnamed woman on her last evening alive, to God steering his actions.  In addition he mentioned that over the course of his ministry he witnessed seven occasions where members of his congregation were miraculously healed of their illnesses by divine providence.

After concluding his sermon, Rev. Jones had one last announcement for the congregation.  After a joking aside that “No, I’m not leaving too,” he let it be known that he intended to step out of the day-to-day operations of the Church to devote his time to his wife, due to return from missionary work in the Philippines soon, and to focus on his pastoring and ministering.

I conducted a brief interview with Rev. Jones after the service.  On the affiliation of his church he said that the RHCC was strictly nondenominational, and held within its congregation members of some 27 different Christian traditions.  On the departure of the relevant and Journeys programs from his church he explained that no bad blood lay between the RHCC and its splintering contemporary programs.  Rather he said that those ministers, McGarity and Ashley, had felt it was time to plant their ministries beyond the bounds of River Hills. He made no mention of any link between his own withdrawal from the RHCC’s day to day operations and his associate ministers’ leaving the church to establish their own ministries.

When asked about the 1st Amendment and the relationship between Church and State, Jones would only refer me to Romans 13, which instructs the believer to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” and leave matters temporal in the charge of secular authorities.