Blessings rained down in showers earlier this year for a Cleveland, Tenn., church and a school that serves high-functioning adults with intellectual disabilities.
In the March 1 transaction, the school moved from borrowed space into a building that came with classrooms and a gymnasium, giving it room to expand its programs. The 35-year-old church, then known as Asbury United Methodist, emerged from more than $400,000 in debt with a new focus and renewed energy.
"It was a blessing for them and for us," the Rev. Timothy Paul, pastor of what's now known as Riverstone Church, said of the $800,000 deal that sold the congregation's suburban building to Trousdale School.
"We took this as an opportunity to reach out to a different society than we have been reaching before -- the unchurched, the underchurched and those hurt by a church," he said. "We still want to minister to the community but to be seen as someone who is reaching out in new ways."
To mark the congregation's new image, crafted after years of vision, planning and prayers, the church changed its name, arranged to meet in temporary quarters at Lake Forest Middle School, added a contemporary service and placed an emphasis on small groups.
Significant change, said Paul, pastor of Asbury/Riverstone since 2006, is rarely achieved unanimously.
"It was very painful for several of our folks," he said. "We did lose some [members], but we assumed that would be the case."
Even though the church's name is Riverstone Church, its literature also refers to the congregation as "A United Methodist Community."
"We love our United Methodist heritage [and] our Asbury heritage," said Paul. "In Cleveland, anybody can practically rent a building and start a church. But we like the face that we're a UMC-backed building. We're reaching out in new ways but tied to our UMC heritage."
Erin Swem, 29, a member for three years, said the transition has been "mostly smooth sailing" and feels like "something that had been driven by God and meant by God."
"It's a way for us to have a new beginning so we can be a place where people can be free to come as they are and worship together," she said.
In its new setting, Riverstone now offers a contemporary service and a traditional worship service.
"One of the biggest issues pastors face today is the worship wars," Paul said. "And many people are adamant about what side of the war they're on. It's very difficult in some ways, but we tried to meet the needs of both sides. I think that helps us."
Paul said small-group ministry also is a new emphasis for Riverstone Church.
"We're intentionally doing it," he said. "We want to connect to each other and serve the world where we can reach out in all these kinds of different ways."
The hope, Paul said, is that members will take part in one worship service, one small group and one service project each week.
"It's sounds difficult, but it helped us to simplify," he said. "That's our focus."
The Rev. Joe Green, superintendent of the denomination's Cleveland District, said Riverstone "is a church that is looking ahead. They're finding out their identity is not in their building but in their people. Their identity is real, and they're making an impact. It takes a special group and a special leader, and Tim Paul is that kind of person."
Down the road, the goal for the church is to have a permanent location, Paul said. (Its rented office is in downtown Cleveland.) However, he said there is spiritual freedom in not having a building.
"We're not in a hurry," he said, "and Lake Forest is not in a hurry for us to leave. [Being without a building] is a great way to meet the needs in the community without being connected in that way. Being in debt is what got us in this position in the first place, [so] we want to be cautious and wise. It's a fine line to walk, but we're following God's leading in all of that."
Green said it's likely other churches will see similar changes over the next few years.
"When you look at some areas, they're almost inundated with churches, and some aren't," he said. "When circuit riders first began to move through the woods, they were not appointed to a particular church but a particular territory. They were ministering to the whole territory. Some [churches] are struggling, and perhaps we don't need as many. We could learn a lot from our history."
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...