By Kara Witherow, Editor
In the South Georgia Conference’s Coastal District, one plus one plus one equals one.
This may seem a mathematical miscalculation, but in Savannah it represents a significant and historic development that’s unfolded during the past year as three congregations and pastors have prayed and sought God’s will.
ConneXion Church – a new congregation birthed out of Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Cokesbury United Methodist Church, and Speedwell United Methodist Church – will organize on June 19 and officially launch Sunday, Sept. 11.
Cokesbury UMC, which was organized on May 2, 1954, will close Easter Sunday, March 27. The property will be renovated during the summer while the new ConneXion Church group gathers at the Aldersgate UMC property. Aldersgate UMC, organized in 1938, will close Sunday, June 12. Speedwell UMC will remain open as a historically African-American congregation and a quarter-time pastor will be appointed to the congregation at the 2016 Annual Conference session.
Rev. Michael Culbreth, who currently serves as pastor of Speedwell UMC, will serve as ConneXion Church’s pastor. Rev. Ben Gosden, pastor of Aldersgate UMC, will be appointed to a new congregation, as will Rev. Mike Myers, who currently serves Cokesbury UMC.
“This is an opportunity for God to do something new in Savannah through three longstanding traditional churches, all of which are facing a time of transition and a need to become renewed,” Rev. Culbreth said.
For the sake of the kingdom
Located just a few miles from each other in Savannah, both Aldersgate UMC and Cokesbury UMC have experienced decline in the past several years and would have eventually closed within one to five years, church leaders say. Just a couple of miles away, Speedwell UMC’s congregation was strong and needed additional ministry space, but lacked the funds to build or expand.
“What we are doing is an asset reallocation,” said Rev. Ben Gosden, pastor of Aldersgate UMC. “We have big buildings with small congregations in them and growing churches in tiny buildings. How can we – for the sake of the kingdom – allocate our resources better?”
Aldersgate UMC had decades of thriving ministry, but in recent years financial realities, aging buildings that needed repairs, and a diminishing giving base contributed to its decline. The church facility will be sold and the funds will be used for ConneXion Church’s launch.
The congregation wrestled with whether to keep the church open or to willingly close and has found that, in choosing to close and partner with ConneXion Church, discipleship and spiritual growth have occurred, Rev. Gosden said.
“That speaks of a very mature faith of a congregation and one who is willing to risk in order to see God do even greater things,” said Coastal District Superintendent Dr. Wayne Moseley.
In August 2015 Cokesbury UMC’s congregation voted unanimously to join ConneXion Church. Though all change is difficult, Rev. Myers said, the congregation has been open to the transition.
“We realized it was in the best interest of ministry to continue by merging with these other churches and that would be a wonderful opportunity to minister in unique and different ways,” he said. “I am thankful that our church and members voted and want to be a part of this. Like all change, there may be some struggles and difficulties, but it is a wonderful opportunity.
“All three congregations, the clergy, and the district superintendent have worked and prayed to try to discern the will of God to bring this about to make sure that a healthy transition can be achieved and we can realize this new vision of ministry.”
A new thing
Technically not a merger or a church plant, what’s happening in Savannah hasn’t been done before in South Georgia. Blending three historic and distinct congregations – one predominantly African-American, one predominantly Caucasian, and one that has become fairly multiracial in recent years – has had its challenges, but the focus remains on kingdom growth and reaching people for Christ, Rev. Gosden said.
“I’ve had members say, ‘If we’re going to reach more people for Christ, we have to do this,’ he said. “New life is rising out of these churches.”
Ariana Berksteiner, a member of Speedwell UMC who will help launch ConneXion Church, appreciates that the new congregation will bring together and attract a diverse group of people.
“There is something daring, exciting, and almost defiant about pulling together three different churches with different socio-economic and racial backgrounds to form a brand-new church,” she said. “Doing this makes the very blatant statement that what we do and who we serve has absolutely nothing to do with our skin tone, our money, or our gender.”
ConneXion Church’s vision is to create a church that will reflect the kingdom of God and that will minister to the disconnected and disenfranchised. The unique name - the English spelling of “connection” - means “bind us together.”
“We are connecting and binding three churches together, racially and inter-generationally, so that we can be the church that expresses love and hope in a community that is broken and has needs,” Rev. Culbreth said. “We want to connect the disconnected to Jesus Christ.”
ConneXion Church is working to break down barriers and mentalities that still exist within faith communities and, above all, to introduce people to Jesus, Dr. Moseley said.
“Jesus was inclusive of all persons, and our model should reflect His model. That’s what we’re trying to do here,” he said. “I think this will have a tremendous impact on that community. Our main goal is not simply to merge three congregations… the focus has been since the beginning to reach persons who have yet to come to Christ.”
Dr. Phil Schroeder, director of Congregational Development for the North Georgia Conference, has helped guide the pastors and congregations through the merger process and has helped them refine and focus on their vision.
“We’re not just bringing three churches together, but we’re coming together with a purpose and to meet a need, to allow God to work through us to reach people who haven’t been reached before; that’s our hope,” Rev. Culbreth said.