Two South Georgia UM congregations are constituted


By Kara Witherow, Editor

Just two years ago, a small group of dedicated disciples began meeting together at Ebenezer Elementary School in Rincon. On Feb. 3, 2013, Gateway Community Church in Effingham celebrated their official constitution into The United Methodist Church.

A similar story unfolded on the other side of the state three weeks later.

The Ridge, a United Methodist congregation in Columbus, celebrated its third birthday and chartering in a combined celebration service on Sunday, Feb. 24.

“It was a great day,” said The Ridge’s founding pastor, Rev. Jimmy McIlrath. “We celebrated the fact that we have been going for three years since our launch, and in three years we’ve seen a lot of exciting things happen.”

Gateway Community Church in Effingham and The Ridge are just two of the 684 new United Methodist Churches that were established in the United States during 2008-2012. The number surpassed the denomination’s new church development goal for the quadrennium by 34.

Starting new churches is not a new initiative, though, said Dr. Tim Bagwell, executive director of South Georgia’s New and Revitalized Congregational Development (NRCD).

“Starting new churches…was the very definition of Methodism for Wesley and also for Asbury and Coke as they came over to the United States,” he said. “They would start these small groups and communities of faith. There was a time in history when the Methodist movement was starting literally one church per day.

“This is not a new thing. We’re trying to reclaim that which Methodism was intended to be and intended to do.”

Gateway in Effingham has grown from a 35-person launch team to a dynamic congregation of more than 200. Nearly 300 attended the church’s constituting service and 55 charter members were received.

Rev. Andy Lamon attributes the growth to a few key factors.

“I attribute our growth to our focus on being very engaged in the community, our very strong worship – we have an excellent band – and our focus on welcoming all people,” he said. “Our slogan is, ‘Same Bible, different church,’ so we still keep to the principle teachings of the scriptures, but the way we do hospitality is really what defines who we are.”

Last Easter Sunday, the congregation moved from the elementary school into a new, permanent location in a Rincon shopping center. A few short months later they were maxing out their space and started a second worship service.

Constituting and becoming an official United Methodist Church was a natural next step, Rev. Lamon said.

“This is a good growth step for our church,” he said. “It’s a maturing and us recognizing that there were many people who helped us to begin and to launch. Now it’s our turn to step up and join that larger story and participate both financially and in the larger connection to help others.”

Bishop James King, Savannah District Superintendent Rev. Mike Huling and Dr. Bagwell were present to preside over official business. Bishop King preached a message from Luke 8:43-48, “Something Wonderful Just Started.”

At the close of the service, the congregation released confetti into the air and celebrated with a cookout and family activities.

More than 400 worshippers were present as The Ridge received 170 charter members and was constituted.

Initially meeting in a Columbus cheerleading facility, two years ago the growing congregation moved into a larger venue at a local movie theater.

“We’ve been seeing growth happening the past three years,” Rev. McIlrath said. “I think one of the greatest areas of growth has been in our Journey groups, our small groups. Almost 90 percent of those who are in our worshipping congregation on Sunday mornings are engaged in study during the week. That’s a tremendous accomplishment, I think, and one of the places where we’ve experienced a lot of growth.”

Small group experiences are fundamental to the life of the church, he said.

“Being a mobile church, especially, we can’t do everything, so we’re trying to do a few things and do them very well. That means that our Sunday mornings have to be excellent and it means that our small groups have to be excellent. Those two things are vital to the life of the church.”

The Ridge’s vision statement and tagline is, “Tired of the view? Experience The Ridge.”

“That’s what has shaped us and pushed us since day one,” Rev. McIlrath said. “We realize that there are competing views all around us, but a view without Christ is not a view worth having at all. We want people to experience The Ridge and experience the love of Jesus and to experience a different kind of church.”

Being a “different kind of church” – one that is casual and that meets in a neutral venue like a theater – makes it an open and inviting environment for people to experience church, he said. Two entire families – parents and children together – will soon be baptized.

“I’m amazed at the number of people we have coming to The Ridge who are coming to church for the very first time in their life.”

At the constituting service, Bishop King preached and Columbus District Superintendent Dr. Buddy Cooper led the congregation in its first charge conference.

The church then celebrated together with a big birthday party, complete with a cake and inflatable activities for children.

“We’re just average, ordinary, casual people coming as we are to church and sharing His love in a real and practical way.”