A fusion of faith

INDIAN TRAIL – Two Indian Trail churches are fusing their rich history in a joint effort to reach the surrounding communities.

Mill Grove and Bethel United Methodist churches, both founded in the 19th century, recently agreed to a merger that will create a church with one name and two separate campuses.

Effective Dec. 25, 2013, Mill Grove, at 7311 Mill Grove Road, became Mill Grove United Methodist Church Hemby Bridge Campus, and Bethel, at 3270 Wesley Chapel Stouts Road, became Mill Grove United Methodist Church Sun Valley Campus. Rev. Earl Bradshaw, senior pastor at Mill Grove, will lead the Hemby Bridge campus, while Rev. Doug Harr, pastor at Bethel, will head the Sun Valley Campus.

There were only 55 people at the Sunday morning service when Bradshaw began preaching at Mill Grove in 2001. More than 300 people now attend one of three different services at the church on Sunday mornings.

“The church has great DNA, which made us able to transition from a small, single, almost micro-sized church to a small, medium and then larger church,” Bradshaw said.

But Bethel’s story is different. Church attendance declined steadily over the past two decades, and when Harr stepped in as the church’s pulpit-fill lay pastor two years ago, he adopted a resolution with Bethel leaders and members to go to the United Methodist district and ask for help.

“I shared that I felt Bethel needed a major change. It needed revitalization in all aspects,” Harr said. “We’d made some progress financially, being debt-free, and started to grow some, but in my opinion it wasn’t enough.”

In the late spring of 2013, Mill Grove and Bethel began talking about a merger. The churches
decided to move forward with the merger after prayer and consideration, and Harr took his congregation on a “field trip” to Bethel one Sunday morning in October to give members a feel for the church’s vision. Councils from both churches voted unanimously in December to approve the merger, which became official immediately following an 11 p.m. Christmas Eve service at Bethel.

Bethel, now officially Mill Grove’s Sun Valley Campus, will remain closed for the next several months for renovations including upgrades to its audio/visual technology, the installation of a new sound system and Wi-Fi, painting, cleanup and redesigning the church’s sign. The church will officially reopen on Easter Sunday, April 20.

“That was our intention to launch at Easter,” Harr said. “So we have the birth (of the church) on Christmas and the resurrection on Easter.”

One of the most challenging – and controversial – aspects of the merger was Bethel’s name change. While many church members – and even Harr – were apprehensive and hesitant to drop a name that had been part of the community for about 150 years, they realized there must be a sense of unity between the churches for the merger to be effective.

“I spent a lot of time preaching, teaching and talking to the congregation” about the name change, Harr said. “I preached about God changing names, such as Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah … I was journeying with them, hoping they’d see the light.”

While Bethel is adopting Mill Grove’s name, Bradshaw was clear there will be no “main campus.” He and Harr will work together on sermons and preach on the same topics each week, but each pastor will be responsible for his own congregation and use his own illustrations during the sermons.

“One of the things we’re very intentional about is it’s not about a main campus and a secondary campus,” Bradshaw said. “…It’s about two churches with history coming together to create a better future.”

Mill Grove’s Sun Valley campus will begin hosting two services – one traditional and one contemporary – when it reopens in April. The Hemby Bridge campus currently hosts three services – a blended service at 8:20 a.m., a contemporary service called “The Grove” at 9:45 a.m. and a traditional service at 11 a.m., as well as Sunday school at 9:45 and 11 a.m. Wednesday night activities will take place at the Hemby Bridge campus.

Find more information about the churches at www.millgrove.org.


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