(Left to right) John Thornton, Jr., Co-Pastor of Mission and Outreach, Heather Thomas Folliard, Co-Pastor of Community and Hospitality, and Kevin Georgas, Co-Pastor of Teaching and Worship at Jubilee Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, N.C.
By Kevin Georgas
This past Sunday, I walked into the building of the church where I’ve pastored for almost four years. I paced alone around the sanctuary and stood up in the pulpit thinking through a section from my sermon that I still wasn’t sure about.
While I moved through the room, the floorboards sighed all around me. The building’s materials came from disassembled military barracks after World War 2—swords crafted into something more peaceable—and even after all these years the foundation is still settling into the boggy ground beneath it. Things that look still, even dead, can be quite pliable in their depths.
Exactly a year ago, I admitted to myself that this church, Ephesus Baptist—founded in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1891—had died. The church’s life followed the pattern of many American churches, swelling and splitting through the decades, ultimately dwindling to a handful of people whose backs ached. When they called me as their pastor four years ago, they hoped that hiring a young minister would attract other young people. I hoped they were right.
For my first three years, I pastored the way I was taught to pastor: building consensus by mediating between extremes, working gradually to make subtle changes, facilitating outreach events that the congregation could participate in so that my work involved spurring on other peoples’ gifts. This failed.
As I performed funeral after funeral, it became apparent that the church would not thrive by subtle modulations of the status quo. New life would require an apocalypse, a eucatastrophe, a death followed by, God willing, a resurrection. This is the way of things.
Last November, I told our leadership that I thought we had three options for how to move forward: we could close; we could merge with a church plant; or we could re-start, honoring where we’ve seen God at work through the years but then closing the doors and inviting neighbors to come build a new church out of what remains here. In January, Ephesus’ members voted to pursue this last option.
Through the spring, we spent time remembering what had been good at Ephesus and being honest about what could have been better. We called John Thornton and Heather Folliard to form a team of co-pastors, each having authority in the areas of our gifts. We called a Cooperative Council made up of both longtime members and new friends who were excited about building something. We went through the CBF Church Starting Initiative’s Online Church Start Discernment Cohort and Exploratory Conference.
Over those months, we came to realize that Ephesus had served a world where many people had extra time and money they could devote to a country club, a civic organization, or a church, whereas today most people we know live more precariously, moving often for work, driving for Uber to make ends meet, foregoing having kids because they can’t afford it. We began to imagine a church that stood in solidarity with working people, where we didn’t have to be ashamed of our material struggles, where we could join together to pay off each other’s debts.
We heard God calling us to start a church that was a place of Jubilee. In the Bible, the Jubilee is a disruption of the status quo, a re-ordering of class relations, an unveiling of God’s judgement on injustice and God’s care for the lowly. That sounded like good news.
On Easter Sunday, Ephesus Baptist Church died. Over the Summer, we met for brunches and book studies, and did the unglamorous work of renovating structures (floors and by-laws). On Sunday mornings the sanctuary was still. But sometimes things that look still, even dead, can be quite active in their depths. From the rubble of Ephesus, God’s Spirit gave us the materials to make something new.
So, this past Sunday, I was not alone in the sanctuary for long. The band started warming up and their song filled the creaking space: “Every ditch and valley will be raised up, every hill and mountain will be laid low. Every rugged place shall be made flat, and everybody shall see the glory of the Lord!” I stood in the front of the sanctuary, wondering “Will anyone come?” and then, fifteen minutes later, “Will there be enough room?” The room filled and the music swelled and we worshipped.
Four months after Ephesus died, I saw longtime members of the church smiling as they stood and sang next to new friends we’d never seen before. Ephesus Baptist Church died, but on Sunday, the first day of the week, Jubilee Baptist Church rose to walk in newness of life. Thanks be to God.
Kevin Georgas was commissioned as a CBF church starter at the 2019 General Assembly in Birmingham in June. Kevin is a graduate of Baylor University and Duke Divinity School. He’s serves as Co-pastor of Worship and Teaching at Jubilee Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, N.C.