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Back from the edge

Tennesseee church boosted by immigrant congregation

July 31, 2009

Two children sitting in a church pew.

Brentwood Presbyterian Church has grown by reaching out to younger people.

Statesville, N.C.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” ― Jerry L. Van Marter

Brentwood First Presbyterian Church in Brentwood, TN, was a dying church, so having a pastor with a primary job as an oncologist probably wouldn’t be a concern.

That’s what the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee thought. It didn’t expect much and had left the church to fade away on its own.

“It was a dying church for years,” said Phil Leftwich, Middle Tennessee’s executive presbyter. “In 1998, we wanted to close it, but that decision caused an uproar, so it was reversed and the church was simply left to die. There were some very tenacious older members who would not let it go.”

During its 25-year history, Brentwood was always a smaller church, topping out at 75-100 members before disagreements caused half the membership to leave. After that, the congregation just kept dwindling. When the Rev. Mike Magee arrived in November 2006 to take over, there were only nine members remaining — and all of them were above the age of 80.

“Three of those members died in my first year here,” Magee said. “I wasn’t really sure what we were going to do going forward.”

In the less than three years since, what happened has been amazing and inspirational, Leftwich said. Brentwood has grown to about 40 members and averages about 60 people for Sunday worship, more than ever.

Leftwich gives the credit for the growth solely to Magee and his very aggressive evangelism.

“He’s found ways to attract younger members who join and stay,” Leftwich said.

Magee is modest about his efforts and hesitant to take all the credit.

He and some of the members write notes and deliver them with a loaf of bread to first-time visitors. Magee is not sure if that actually helps the church to grow, but he says they just do it because it’s fun.

Magee has also energized the music program at Brentwood, bringing in a bluegrass band to lead worship quarterly as well as a female acoustic trio about once a month. The church also has a small choir and a small praise band. Magee points to the popular musical programs as a tool that has helped energize interest in the church.

“Mike brought not only enthusiasm and life, but he’s gotten this church mission-oriented and mission-engaged like never before and it has benefitted them,” said Leftwich, pointing to another area where Brentwood has really come to life.

Members make visits to the local nursing home on Sunday afternoons, and Brentwood has also been heavily involved in supporting medical mission to Guatemala. This focus on mission makes a recent event at Brentwood seem a divinely orchestrated coincidence. 

Early this year, an older man began coming to worship as a visitor. After attending for a few weeks, the man stopped to talk to Magee after worship. He explained that he was from Burundi, and that he was part of a group of refugees who had come to the United States to escape conflict at home. He and his group had been attending a Baptist church but had been told they would need to be baptized at that church if they wanted to continue to attend.

The group was unhappy with that prospect. They’d already been baptized in Burundi and did not see a need to do so again. They didn’t understand why the church they were attending didn’t see that as adequate.

So the man asked Magee if they could worship at his church without having to be re-baptized and if he would baptize those who did need it. Magee welcomed the group and was happy to accommodate their needs. About 30 adults have been attending Sunday worship since then.

The mix has challenges. The Burundi group lives about 20 miles away from Brentwood.  There are other churches closer, but they feel the most welcome at Brentwood. The session recently approved a $1,500 gift so the Burundis could buy a van to get them to church.

Of the 30 Burundis, only about two speak English. The rest speak their native language of Kurundi and have had difficulty learning English, although there are more English speakers among their children, who learn it in school. The church has translators on hand to help with the language barrier. 

That makes it difficult to worship together because there are people in both congregations who don’t care for the bilingual services, Magee said, adding that the resistance is slight.

Brentwood has held combined worship on three occasions — including Easter, when it had its largest attendance ever of 120 people. Magee likes the combined, bilingual services and thinks they are good for the church overall.

“I tell them it’s like having a flower garden with different color flowers in it instead of all one,” he said.

Most Sundays, Brentwood has two services, with the English-language worship first, followed by coffee time and breakfast for the Burundi children before the Sunday school hour. The Burundi worship service follows at noon. The Sunday school classes are made up primarily of the Burundi children because most of the English-speaking members do not have young children. 

Magee is happy about the effect the new group has had on the church. While it can be a stretch of resources for a small church to accommodate a group like this, Magee also sees the benefits in terms of how energized his members are to help out and take initiative. 

“We have members who used to attend occasionally who now come to church every week because they want to help teach Sunday school and work with the Burundi children,” Magee said.  “We love them. We’re happy to have them.”

Leftwich agrees with Magee’s assessment and has been pleased with the work Brentwood has done for its new friends.

“This has been a pure joy and if there has ever been a piece of interesting providence, it’s in how these people were led to Brentwood,” he said. “This is the second time we’ve been blessed with a ready-made congregation of immigrants that we’ve been able to take in and assist. It makes for a healthy blend of people who make up our presbytery.” 

Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer in Statesville, NC. She is church secretary for First Presbyterian Church there.

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