Small Membership, Great Witness


Photo: Even the local fire department takes part in Fields Chapel UMC's Community Thanksgiving.

Some North Georgia Conference churches are proving that church size is not the only factor in how alive a congregation is to its community.

Bowman UMC Dinner Church

Bowman UMC in the Athens-Elberton District has just 4 members. When part-time local pastor Rev. Tim Savelle began serving the church last January, he jumped right into the mission work already happening. These 4 members, all women, participate in local food ministries, including a food delivery program.

"One of the places we deliver food is a low-income apartment complex for elderly and disabled adults," said Savelle. "The church has delivered food there for some time. I began to do some pastoral ministry while I was there and knew there was something more we could offer."

Savelle prayed about the opportunities in this community. 

The 4 ladies had not yet heard of the Dinner Church movement, but when Savelle mentioned it to them it resonated. He felt like it might be an answer to prayer. They began to consider offering a Fresh Expressions Dinner Church in the common area of the complex where they were already in ministry. 

"We talked through and prayed through our idea to offer a meal to this community in their common space," Savelle shared. 

Bowman applied for a Fresh Expressions Grant from the Center for Congregational Excellence. Their grant request was approved and the pastor and members began taking online Fresh Expressions training. They consulted with Rev. Heather Jallad who leads Conference Fresh Expressions efforts who encouraged them. 

The grant covered the cost of catered meals (about $300/meal) which the church determined was the most effective avenue for hosting the dinner, with an added bonus of involving a local business person. 

The first dinner church was in November, and 18 of the complex's 30 residents attended.

"We gathered, we ate, and the Lord blessed us," said Savelle. "The complex's site manager was just beside herself. "

Other members of the community have expressed interest in taking part in some way. 

"We have moved from passive food delivery to being ministers of the gospel," said Savelle. "The Lord has blessed us."

Some may wonder if the rural church had the technology to do a 9-week video training. When this process started, they didn't, so Savelle posted the need on the classifieds page of A couple in Atlanta donated a brand new TV to the church. Another couple donated a used electronic keyboard for playing worship music.

"God's favor was all over this," he said. 

At Fields Chapel UMC, Members are the Ministry

Rev. Linda Evans, pastor of Fields Chapel UMC in the Atlanta-Marietta District, says that the members are the ministry at Fields Chapel. 

Years ago, when the Core of Engineers created Lake Allatoona, the lake overtook the road that was used to get to Fields Chapel UMC. That meant people had to drive all the way around the lake to get to church. But the members were determined not to let inconvenience affect the impact of their small community church. 

"They are about making disciples and sharing their love for Christ," she said. "They don't do it because of a church program, they do it because of the depth of their relationship with Christ and each other."

One member is the head chaplain for the Cherokee County Jail. Three others are chaplains in other capacities. Several members are involved in a Celebrate Recovery Ministry at the church. Other members are passionate about and active in homeless ministry. Another is involved in equine therapy. A member is involved in the Reinhart Wesley Foundation reaching college students.

Evans says that being part-time she might not hear about someone in the hospital because the members have already been there. They've prepared meals. They care for each other, for the community, and beyond.

"My first introduction to the church was by invitation to go on a mission trip to Costa Rica," Evans said. "Our attendance is 50, and 7 were on that mission trip. They paid my way so their new pastor could be with them that week."

The small church hosts five weekly bible studies and a number of small groups. The largest event hosted at the church is Fields Chapel's community Thanksgiving. It is open to any and everybody. The goal is to have more community members than church members attend and they arrange to have more food than can be eaten in one meal so the church can send people home with baskets of food for later. 

"Where do you find churches like this?" Evans said, beaming with admiration. "It is amazing. They are an amazing church."

Lanier UMC Members Have Left the Building

In the Conference "re:Vision" e-newsletter, Rev. Dr. Ed Tomlinson recently shared the story of Lanier UMC. He writes:

"When the time came for the offering at Lanier United Methodist Church’s first worship service in the non-traditional setting of a skating rink (complete with disco ball), the congregation was informed there would be two offerings that day. The first was designated as a 'mission' offering. Once received, the worshipers heard, 'Let it always be said that the first offering of Lanier Church was an offering for others.'

Across the years, there have been reminders of that first call to be in mission. In fact, I mentioned it occasionally when I was their District Superintendent. Today no one leaves worship at Lanier without hearing, 'You can leave this building but you cannot leave the church. Where you are there is the church also.'

Has it made a difference? I can only report what is happening. When appointed to Lanier, I made a visit to the youth the first Sunday. They were putting together health kits for UMCOR. The youth and the congregation had contributed the contents. As I became acquainted with non-members in the community, the oft relayed impression was, “There are always cars at that church. Something is going on all the time.” A fact check revealed that more than 20 organizations experience the church’s hospitality. Eight Scout Troops, four Alcoholics Anonymous groups, an Al Anon group, and the only Narcotics Anonymous group in the County call the church home. Lanier Church is a community place where four homeowners associations meet. Our neighbors gather here to discuss issues such as legislation and beautification regularly. The church extends its hospitality to voters as they come to vote. Hosts and hostesses are always on the scene with a welcome word and refreshments on election days.

Mission efforts are constantly underway with our youth. A favorite place to volunteer is Wesley Woods’ Branan Lodge in Blairsville where staff and residents provide extraordinary affirmation. And the youth are ready to return this summer to the hurricane-ravaged area of the Bahamas where they have worked before. 

United Methodist Men are invested in doing construction and repair projects at Glisson (much work has gone into the new Outpost Camping area through their efforts). The United Methodist Women are busy with organizing Operation Shoebox collections and making tie blankets for persons who face surgery and cancer treatment.

Along with the strong support of UMCOR, the church has extended its witness to Africa by building a relationship with a sister church there. 

That first offering went to the Children’s Home (now Wellroot) and to Wesley Woods. The annual offerings for these ministries are still priorities. If you look for Lanier's giving on their lists of churches of less than 500 members, you will be amazed.

Whenever you see a bright yellow shirt that says, 'The Church has left the building,' look closely. It may bear the name 'Lanier.' Members could be doing a shore sweep on Lake Lanier or packing food for persons in need at The Place or providing meals for Family Promise. 

While I cannot prove that the first offering for others and the weekly statements of where the church goes have produced today’s expressions, I firmly believe frequent reminders, whenever they begin, establish a strong culture for mission and outreach."

Bowman, Fields Chapel, and Lanier are outstanding examples of smaller North Georgia Conference congregations making a difference, making disciples, and transforming their communities and the world!