By Gayle White
Methodism’s founder John Wesley traveled on foot and horseback to spread the Gospel in Georgia more than 270 years ago. Today, one of the state’s newest United Methodist churches sends the word out via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Worshippers are even encouraged to text message during services.
On Dec. 20, Impact Church will be officially constituted as a United Methodist church by the North Georgia Conference. With two services most Sundays drawing as many as 1,000 people and an annual budget of about $1 million, it’s grown faster than any other new church plant in the conference during the last 20 years, said the Rev. Jamie Jenkins, executive assistant to Bishop Mike Watson.
On a recent Sunday morning, worshippers – many in jeans and sweaters – swayed and clapped to contemporary praise songs in an auditorium at the Georgia World Congress Center. Actress Niecy Nash spoke about the struggles that followed her divorce, her image appearing on giant video screens flanking the stage. Then the Rev. Olujimi W. Brown, the lead pastor known as Olu, came up to preach, wearing sports coat and slacks, no tie. Pacing the stage, he spoke passionately for half an hour about treasures in clay jars.
You are the earthen vessels that hold the gifts of God, he told the congregants. “Never forget where your gifts come from.”
He sprinkled in a few references to football.
“Best pre-game show” in Atlanta
At Impact, don’t expect a bulletin, liturgy or congregational hymns. But don’t be surprised if someone hands you a plastic football, a miniature megaphone or tickets to an NFL game.
Impact, after all, bills itself as the “best pre-game show” in Atlanta. For several months, its worship services have been held in an auditorium of the massive convention hall next door to the Georgia Dome, home field of the Atlanta Falcons. Impact landed at the convention center when the middle school that had housed it underwent renovations.
On home-game Sundays, football fans in jerseys and face paint pour out of a nearby transit station as worship gets underway. Inside the convention center, some worshippers were similarly dressed – without the face paint. A few may be going to the game. Congregants may even be asked to text message the answer to a question to win a pair of tickets.
The football subtext is a matter of turning a challenge into an opportunity, Brown said, adding, “We knew we would run up against football season.” So Impact’s marketing team – one of the church’s working groups made up of staff and laity – developed a strategy called “Game Plan.”
Early next year, Impact will move back to the newly refurbished middle school, but a team is looking for a more permanent site.
“We see ourselves as being an investment in the community,” Brown said. “There are warehouse-factory type spaces that have been a blight in the community. We can invest in them and make them an asset.”
New way of service
Brown, 32, grew up in Lufkin, Texas, the son of divorced parents. He attended Baptist churches with his mother and grandmother during the school year and Presbyterian services with his father during the summer. He graduated from Jarvis Christian College, an institution of the Disciples of Christ.
Because of a Methodist mentor, he chose Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, the United Methodist component of the Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of historically black seminaries.
He was youth pastor, then associate pastor at Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta before “feeling the nudge to do something different.”
“I was very reluctant to do a new church plant,” he said.
A yearlong program in the North Georgia Conference provided the confidence he needed. The conference’s church development initiative also provided much more – including his salary for the first year; a $100,000 grant for facilities or staffing, of which the church spent $12,000 to hire its first band and saved the rest; and another $25,000 for startup costs. Brown and his wife, Farrah, raised $25,000 more.
Brown – and conference officials – knew from the start that inner-city Atlanta didn’t need another traditional United Methodist church. Ten sit within a five-mile radius of the West End area Impact is targeting.
“But the world does need many more cutting-edge and relevant new churches that are willing to reach the people of the world for Jesus Christ in new and creative ways,” Brown wrote almost four years ago in his vision statement for Impact.
He envisions a church that will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with recreation, child care, counseling and worship opportunities available to people whose jobs prevent their participation during the day. There will also be plenty of opportunities for service and outreach.
Some of Impact’s charter members come from other United Methodist churches. Others have been unchurched for years.
Impact is “out of the box,” said Dereke Dorsey, a United Methodist who’s attended Impact for about five months. “It’s unpredictable. There’s something new to experience every Sunday.”
“We see ourselves as missionaries,” said the Rev. Tommy Willingham, executive director of new church development for the North Georgia Conference, “and, like all missionaries, seek to meet people where they are in order to share with them the great news of a savior.”
That, Brown says, should have an Impact. An Impact not only on individual lives, but on an entire city.