North Carolina rural churches adapt quickly for future

Smaller churches across North Carolina have been forced to make changes -- some small, some large -- in order to keep up with the new landscape that is the religious experience today. As young families either change churches, or enter one for the first time, those in charge try to find a way to cater to long-time parishoners as well as reinvent themselves for the future.

Here's a look at how six churches from across the state, from the 1700s to the mid-1900s, are keeping relevant in new times:

Sandy Creek Baptist Church, Liberty

A wide variety of churches fall under the umbrella of “Baptist.” Many have been planted in areas all around the globe that can trace their roots back to Sandy Creek Baptist Church in Randolph County.

As one of the memorial markers placed by the Baptist History Preservation Society on Sandy Creek’s property reads, "There are thousands of Baptist churches as the result of the labors of Shubal Stearns and the Sandy Creek Baptist Church.”

Stearns was pastor for 16 years until his death on Nov. 20, 1771, but his legacy and his contagious enthusiasm with which he inspired others to carry the Gospel into the wilderness stills lives on.

Travis Brock, current pastor of Sandy Creek, explained why.

“I am not a historian, but pastoring this church has been such a rewarding experience, realizing that when Shubal Stearns stopped and set up camp to preach, the membership grew, in two years, from 16 faithful members to 606. It was during the first 17 years that 42 churches were established and 125 ministers were called by God. The spreading of the Gospel from this church is extraordinary.”

Sandy Creek Baptist was organized on Nov. 22, 1755. The log building “Meeting House #3” which still stands today, was built in 1802 and is now owned by the Sandy Creek Primitive Baptist Church.

When visitors step up on the rock step and make their way into this roughhewn log building with its plank floors, rough benches and narrow stairway to the balcony, they are taken back in time.

Bethany Baptist, Gastonia

The pews of Bethany Baptist Church once overflowed with neighbors who walked to services for Sunday worship.

As people became more mobile, the congregation dwindled. When Dwayne Burks became the church pastor 12 years ago, membership had shrunk to six people. Paying the bills became a monthly struggle. “The challenge for small churches is they don't find the time to survive fiscally,” Burks said.

"We're using our assets, and that's great, but we still haven't found our purpose." - Pastor Dwayne Burks

Burks saw an opportunity to stay afloat by opening the doors to other churches. Three congregations now use the old church on Goble Street in Gastonia. Open Arms Ministry hosts nightly food and prayer for anyone who wants it. The ministry has met with success in the basement of the church — so much so that it may eventually move out of the shared space.

But for now, it helps fill the building and pay the bills. A Hispanic congregation also meets each weekend at Bethany Baptist Church. Services are held Sunday afternoons after Bethany church members have left. Social and youth events are often scheduled on Saturdays.

Bethany's membership has grown to about 50 people. Now that paying the bills has become easier, Burks said his congregation wants to focus on boosting attendance at their services.

“We're using our assets, and that's great, but we still haven't found our purpose,” he said.

Refuge Temple of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Burlington

“We are a praying church,” says Reginald Davis, pastor of Refuge Temple, a church he helped found.

It was a seedling effort then. Today it's a major presence on the North Main Street Community.

“Ours is a diverse congregation. We draw from all socio-economic levels. We have members with high school educations to PhDs. And we vary in ethnicities from African American to Hispanic to white, as well as some from the Middle East and Palestine,” Davis says.

There were four people in attendance at its first service in November 1995 — Davis, the late Minister Melvin Hansard, Mother Evelyn Pope and the late Mother Hazeline Davis.

Elder Davis's first sermon was titled, “God Will Finish What He Starts.” It wasn't long before the little church began fulfilling that message. In August of the following year, Davis was appointed as pastor by Bishop Hargrove. In 2010, with the church bursting at the seams, Refuge Temple relocated to Graham, then returned to Burlington. Attendance still grew.

Within two years they added about 100 new members and baptized 70. Davis characterized that as “a major transition designed by God to bless us beyond measure.”

Today, Refuge Temple is a vibrant multi-cultural/multi-age congregation that serves parishioners and families in Alamance County, the Triad, the Triangle, eastern North Carolina southern Virginia and beyond. People travel from more than 20 different communities to be a part of the ministries the church offers.

St. Paul's Episcopal, Edneyville

Visitors sometimes tell the Rev. Harriet Shands that they’ve passed by historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for years, but this is the first time they’ve ventured in.

Shands responds in her typical direct and dry humor, “Well, it’s about time.”

The 106-year-old sanctuary, built from locally quarried granite, looks as if it came from a children’s storybook. 

Situated on a hill among the orchards of Edneyville, the church was established by farming families in 1895 in a Henderson County community known for its apple production.

St. Paul’s last hosted a full-time priest in the 1970s, and the membership slowly dwindled over the passing decades.

Today, 35 to 40 worshippers usually attend Sunday service. While that number seems small, efforts to boost the music and Sunday school programs have helped to grow the congregation by 50 percent in the past two years.

A new organ, visiting high school student musicians and an involved music director, Tim Utterback, keep the congregation singing and wrapped in music. “We sometimes have adults come to sing and raise up heaven,” Shands said.

There is something special about the little church with a mountain view and its people, said Shands, who initially planned to stay only one year but has now pastored there for seven.


Westminster Presbyterian, Wilmington

It’s not hard to understand why the tidy sanctuary of Westminster Presbyterian Church continues to draw the faithful. Two rows of pews bathed in sunlight streaming through a trio of large yellow and white paned windows provide an immediate sense of warmth. The gilded organ pipes towering over the congregation represent more than a century of Presbyterian history in the Cape Fear region, originally installed in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian – today known as the Brooklyn Arts Center – before the instrument's relocation to Westminster in 1976.

The church, which sits on an expansive green space at 500 Kenwood Ave. in a quiet residential neighborhood lined with sidewalks, live oaks and abundant blooming azaleas, was founded in 1954 -- a few charter members still attending Sunday services more than 60 years later. While the congregation is currently without a pastor following the departure of Rev. David McDonald at the end of 2015, members remain active in their ministries.

In addition to feeding its own congregation during church functions, Westminster’s fellowship hall serves as home to volunteers lending a hand to the Bread for Life program that provides supplemental food to assist low income seniors in the area.

Zoar Baptist, Shelby

While many churches are working to rebuild their congregation base, Rev. Rob Helton is looking for ways to connect with the community in a stronger way.

Dedicated Sept. 7, 1838, Zoar Baptist's original congregation consisted of 25 members. Now in only the third building in its long history, the congregation rises to around 150 members between its two Sunday worship services. At the height of attendance, the congregation was made up of around 200 to 250 people.

There has never been a dramatic drop in attendance over the years, but numbers have waned slightly at different times, Helton said. The local pastor said he has noticed that older generations of churchgoers are always eager to grow numbers while the younger generation are looking to build quality rather than quantity.

Helton said he finds himself between the two schools of thought:

“We're definitely in that category of churches that have found themselves trying to in a sense reconnect with our community in more intentional and ways."

The pastor said he would like to bring in more people, but he wants to connect with them in a way that isn't consumeristic or all about the numbers. Helton hopes that his work brings people together to meet their needs in a serious and substantive way.

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