On Sunday night, July 10th, the church congregation of Bell Street Church of God convened for a regularly scheduled midyear business meeting. The meeting detailed calendar events and church budget information, an election to fill three slots on the church and pastor's council, and a vote to change the name of the church.
Change has been in the air since the church found itself relaunching in February 2014. Throughout its 37 year history, Bell Street Church of God has experienced the highs and lows that often are a part of every church's history. Founded in 1979 after breaking from the Hazlehurst Church of God, the church situated itself on a prime piece of property in town near the old Jeff Davis High School. It would adopt the name "Bell Street Church of God" due to the sanctuary's original entrance facing Bell Street and the church's physical and mailing addresses being on Bell Street.
Through its history, Bell Street Church of God has been a small church. There were moments of revival when the church ran in the 70's and 80's during its history. There were seasons where the church struggled to run in the 20's and 30's. Such is the history of many churches.
In 2014, the church found itself facing some major challenges. There was a desire for something new even without truly understand what the "new" would look like. In February of 2014, my family moved to Hazlehurst, my hometown. It would be the first time that I lived in Hazlehurst in over 11 years. I had spent a good year of my early ministry as the youth pastor of Bell Street Church of God in 2001. I knew the church, and I of course knew the town. My family came with a big vision and a big heart. We also came with some fresh wounds, disappointments, and challenges that follow everyone in ministry.
I grew up in Hazlehurst and was blessed to grow up at the Hazlehurst Church of God. It's all I ever really knew before entering ministry. I knew it was a great church then and it was still a great church upon me coming home. I also knew that God didn't need another Hazlehurst Church of God in a town of 5,000. Ministry experiences have changed me. Being a parent completely changed me. Being loved and accepted by an amazing wife has certainly helped too. Those changes have certainly incorporated themselves into my ministry and really who I am overall. Those changes in me have been enough in the past and would prove to be enough here to create a vision that would also be different and unique for this church in the community.
I hate competition; church competition that is. In a world where people are dying and going to hell daily, churches have little time trying to out sing, out preach, or out build one another. Whether we want to admit it or not, the church itself has dirty hands in helping to build the sand castles of consumerism that plague families and churches. I'm concerned that we've become too denominational minded and lost sight of the Kingdom of God as a whole. If I was coming home to pastor Bell Street Church of God, I wanted no part of a competition with my home church. They did what they do very well. I wanted Bell Street Church of God to be a place where what we would do would look, feel, sound, and be different, and I wanted us to do all of that very well.
We're still working on the "very well" part, but two and a half years into this journey, God has certainly been in the works crafting something unique and different, yet somehow organically traditional and original at the same time. Tradition essentially becomes the wrinkles in history's garments, and not every wrinkle is the same. There are certainly elements of Classical Pentecost in our church, but there are many different wrinkles as well born out of the same devotion.
Change has been the operative word for the church over these last few years. About 90% of the building has been remodeled in some way with many of the renovations being major in nature. From blowing out walls and stairwells to running brand new plumbing, almost nothing in the entire building is left as it was. Only two rooms in the whole building remain mostly untouched. Ministries were closed and relaunched then closed again and relaunched again. New things were established. New ministries rose up. Things started happening.
Our music would be different. My preaching would be different, (at least the topics and bluntness that is). Our focus would change. From the beginning, I began preaching that we would be a family oriented church in that our ministry and vision would be to find families in our community and offer them hope and grace. We wanted to grow the church through souls saved, not congregants transferred. We wanted the church to exist for the community, not the community for the church. We didn't want to have a mentality of protecting what we had, but instead, we desired to embrace what could be if we made room for something new. Specifically, we have worked to make this a place where the sinner feels more than welcome to come while in the midst of his or her sin and be accepted just as they are.
From the beginning, we've pushed grace. For some reason, grace is a word many Pentecostal churches sing about, but few seem to understand it. The dichotomy between grace and holiness truly doesn't exist in terms of one or the other. God is holy and saves us by His grace. God has grace and through it makes us holy. Churches have become museums for saints instead of the hospitals for sinners that they should be. In a hospital, doctors don't make the patient agree to quit eating fried chicken before performing heart surgery. In a hospital, if there's a dying person in a room, you want them there. They are in the place of healing and help. You don't mandate a lifestyle change while a person is bleeding out.
For our church, our goal has been to extend grace to people regardless of their struggles, sins, hurts, addictions, or issues. In our church, we preach against sin while loving the sinner. We don't sugarcoat that sin will ultimately lead to eternal death in hell and even now, is resulting in the death of blessings and promises that God wants to unlock for people through a relationship with Christ. We don't mandate perfection before placement. We don't mandate holiness before encounter. We don't seek the gifts of the Spirit absent the fruits of the Spirit. We believe we're changed by serving and giving, not by receiving and sitting. It's been our desire to create a place where love is the law and grace is the method and holiness through sanctification is the result.
Two and a half years later, more than 100 decision for Christ have happened around our altars. Some will point out that not everyone has remained. I pity those people who see the few and ignore the many who have found their lives completely changed. More than 80 people have been baptized on the property of Bell Street Church of God which was a first. In years past, the church would use another church, a swimming pool, or the river. More than 100 new members have officially joined the church in two and a half years as well. A majority of these joined a church for the first time in their lives. The church has found itself averaging about 125 people with more than 175 on its roster who attend.
We've seen marriages healed and divorce papers ripped up. We've seen marriages begin out of situations where the enemy had complete control. We've witnessed addictions to alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and pornography become broken. We've seen young and old worshiping together, fellowshiping together, and learning together. We've seen miraculous healings and provisional miracles to add to the miracle that each salvation truly is. The testimonies of the redeemed are mind-blowing, heart-stirring, and faith-building. Without question, in two and a half years, Bell Street Church of God proved to be a church unrecognizable in terms of what many had associated with the church. It was time for a change.
I mentioned earlier that the church adopted the name "Bell Street Church of God" because of its address and location. In the mid 90's, the church renovated their sanctuary and inverted it. In doing so, the entrance to the church from Bell Street was closed and the main entrance of the church was then facing West Jefferson Street. As a result, the church's physical and mailing address was changed to 118 West Jefferson Street. For over twenty years, the church has existed as the Bell Street Church of God at 118 West Jefferson Street. The church mailing address became synonymous with the church's parsonage address to maintain a Bell Street mailing address through the years. Nevertheless, for official records, GPS mapping, and church deliveries, the address was 118 West Jefferson Street.
When looking at the major overhauls and changes that have taken place at the church over two and a half years' time, and considering that the church name itself does not actually match the church address, I believed it was time to approach the subject of changing the name of the church.
I prayed about a new name. I had several ideas, but none seemed to really connect with my spirit. The one word that kept rolling around in my head was "Grace." I preach it regularly. The results at our church have been a result of God's grace in action. Our vision is one of grace, and people keep coming in and finding the Lord and growing through God's grace. I've always like the name "Grace." It was Ma Ma's (Hilda Pope) middle name (though I'm told she didn't like it). The name seemed to fit with the ministry and vision that was taking place at the church.
As I continued to pray about the name of the church, the other word that came late to me was "Community." I read in scripture how the early church was more a community of believers than anything else. They shared all things. They prayed about all things. The needs of one became the needs of them all. They were interconnected and focused on the love and grace of Jesus Christ. In a community, everyone has a role. There are no spectators. A community is often looked at as a collection of people from all walks of life living together in a defined area. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. In my heart, "Grace Community" was born.
I developed a logo for the church name and presented it to our church and pastor's council and planners board. I couldn't ask for a better group of men and women to work and serve with. They have vision and excitement and see the need for God to do something different in this house. That night as I shared the name, logo, and reiterated our vision, everyone joined in complete agreement that this was indeed who we were. One remarked that we were already a community of grace. We might as well officially call ourselves such.
So on Sunday night, July 10th, a historic vote came down. Due to the address situation and discussions I had with our State Office, the church name was going to be changed. Whether it would be changed on July 10th was another story.
After presenting our new budget plan designed to streamline many of our remaining projects so that we can begin focusing on the major need of a church (a new sanctuary) and talking about the need for workers as we expand our ministries and reaches, I began talking about the church name.
If I'm honest, I was nervous. This was historic. A lot of good things have happened under the name Bell Street Church of God. Members like Johnnie Bohannon, Judy Dykes, JoAnn Sharpe, and Marcus and Johnitta Dykes had sacrificed so much through the years to see the church survive and people be blessed. Others had raised their children in the church. Still others had passed through and without them, the church would not have survived many of the rough patches it endured. I thought about my old youth group from 2001 and remembered the memories of those days. I thought about the blessings of God that came from large donations through the years from families, some in the church and outside the church, that had made it possible for me to live in the parsonage I'm living in and host Family & Friend Days and youth services in the social hall we all enjoy. This would be the first major name change for the church, and the last thing I wanted to do was to disrespect the heritage and sacrifices made by so many. Without them, I wouldn't have had the few pieces I had when I arrived to see God do what He has done.
After explaining the need for a new name, the reveal moment was at hand. I'm not a stranger to confrontation, nor do I ever shy away from it. But when I clicked the button to make the next slide appear with the new name and logo, I admit that I held my breath and turned my head away from the people. Before I could turn my head back around, I heard the people behind me begin to clap and a few cheered. I didn't see that coming.
I explained how the name came about and what it meant. I rehashed what I've delved into in this article about where we had been as a church, where we currently are, and where I believe God is taking us. I emphasized what being a church called "Grace Community" would look like and require of us. I shared again how God was calling us to show grace and to find those in need of grace and to be that safe place for those looking for grace. In short, we're a community of believers saved by grace, growing in grace, and extending grace to our community and all we meet.
Finally, the ballots were passed out and the waiting game began. When the results came back in, I was floored. I took a couple of minutes to read the paper. I looked at the new council members the church elected. In Marcus Dykes, the church reelected a pillar of the church; a man that has served humbly and sacrificially for years to love God and others. In Marcus Dykes, the church elected an older man of vision with a heart to see lives changed whatever the cost. I saw Stacy Merritt's name second; a man that has always been gifted by God to do great things and was finally getting his time to shine. In Stacy Merritt, the church elected a man with a lion's heart for God and others. Last, I saw Steve Creamer's name. My mind wandered back to the youth revival the church had in July of last year. In a conversation with Steve and Jacob Jackson after the meeting, Jacob spoke to Steve of the same memory. On the first night of the revival on a Wednesday night, Steve's daughter Davne came to the altar. When Jacob went to pray with her, he could see that she was sobbing and praying sincerely. He asked her what she wanted God to do and through brokenness and tears, Davne said, "I want my Daddy to be in church with me. I want him saved." Jacob looked Steve in the eyes and said, "Steve, a year later, you're saved and elected to the church council." If people want to know why Grace Community, that's just one story that demonstrates what God has been doing.
After seeing the names of these three great men who were elected, I looked below and saw the following: "Name Change: Unanimous." I honestly got a little choked up announcing to the people that they had unanimously decided to no longer be the Bell Street Church of God. Instead, they had unanimously decided to become Grace Community. With the announcement came applause and cheers, and now the work goes into place to make the change complete.
Changing a church name isn't as easy as just changing a sign. There's work to be done, papers to be signed, and more. I started the process Monday morning, and it's ongoing. We have targeted Sunday, August 21st as our first official day as Grace Community pending us being able to get accounts and legalities situated. On our special launch date, we'll have a different kind of service. We will be baptizing people and having a special presentation entitled, "Cardboard Testimonies of Grace." In a special, moving presentation, individuals, couples, and families will walk to the front of the church holding squares of cardboard. On one side, they'll write who they used to be. On the back, they'll write who they've become through the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Many have already volunteered. On that day, one man will hold a piece of cardboard where the front side will say, "Addicted to Nicotine for 30 years." He'll victoriously flip the sign around to read, "Set Free by the Grace of God." There'll be more signs describing families almost divorcing, but now finding fulfillment in their marriages and children. Grace Community's launch date will be one for history, and it will be one you will not want to miss.
So this is Grace Community. This is who we are. We've probably honestly always been this. We've just finally decided to make it official with our name. We're not your traditional Pentecostal church by any means, but we definitely believe in the power of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit to change lives and situations. We may not sing all the songs other churches do, but we do believe in worshiping Christ with reckless abandon for who He is and all He's done. We do a lot of things different at our church, but we do these things with the lost in mind and families in mind who are under attack by every power of hell in the world today. If you need grace and want to be part of a community of believers where you can be loved, accepted, grow, change, and make a difference, look no further. We're not a finished product by any means. We have our faults. We've got more growing to do . . . a lot more to do truthfully. But we're on a journey, and God has been faithful, and we believe the future is brighter than ever.
While we wait for the official launch date, we are already in the process of setting up new social media accounts, emails, and a website. You can find us online on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can email me here. Our website is under construction here. You'll see us use the #GraceLivesHere on a pretty regular basis. It's our motto. It's the summary of a our vision. Our people will probably be putting it behind every post about the church whether it be an announcement or a personal testimony of something God has done in their lives. Plain and simple, at Grace Community, grace lives here. It's who we are. So find us online. Check us out. Come be a part of a service soon. We'd love to have you. We're a community church offering grace to all.
My name is Ryan Herrington, and I have the distinct privilege to pastor Grace Community.