published Saturday, August 31st, 2013

Cooper: Oakwood celebrates 175 years

The red brick, columns and steeple of Oakwood Baptist Church don't necessarily distinguish it from many of the churches built during the same 1950s-1970s era.

That's probably why it's difficult to find a photograph of the Bonny Oaks Drive church on its website. Because it's not the exterior that counts.

Inside, the Rev. Grady Disheroon says, there's an excitement about "a different mindset as the times change," updated and upgraded facilities and the development of a "new generation" of believers.

That's where Oakwood is as it prepares to celebrate its 175th anniversary.

"God has kept us around for some reason," says Disheroon, the church's assistant pastor. "There were times when we probably had a country-club mentality, but now we're about being mission-minded and the heart of worship. We're trying to see what God is doing and join him."

Oakwood, which was organized in 1838 as Chickamauga Baptist Church, is one of the oldest churches within the present Chattanooga city limits. Online sources vary as to whether the 175th anniversary should be called demisemiseptcentennial, quartoseptcentennial, terquasquicentenniual or septaquintaquinquecentennial, so take your pick.

On Sunday, Sept. 8, Oakwood will mark the anniversary at a 10:30 a.m. service, with a former pastor, the Rev. Jack Fitts, speaking, other former staff members attending, and several recognitions being given. The service will be followed by lunch on the grounds and tours of the church.

Since its organization "under some large trees at Sivley's Spring," the home of Absalom Sivley Sr., near what is now the south end of Chickamauga Dam, according to a 1975 church history, the church has had a handful of homes and its share of strife.

Two of its buildings burned, one in 1866 and one in 1888. The congregation disbanded from 1863 to 1866 -- Union soldiers occupied the building and possibly used it as a hospital -- during the height of the Civil War in the area. And it survived a deep division in 1954 when only "a tiny minority" endorsed a new site -- its present location -- that had been chosen for relocation.

Disheroon acknowledges the church has its share of difficult times but has survived to become "bold" and "relevant" in an era when many Protestant denominations see membership declines.

"You see the ups and downs, as many churches do," he says. "We still have quite a few older members who are the anchor, the foundation of what we've done. We lean on them a lot. But ... we're gaining in younger couples."

Disheroon says the 600-plus member church is debt free, and that allows a discussion of "what are the things we want to do."

So, he says, instead of spending money on the building, for instance, the congregation can invest in missions work, stock its busy food closet or add special effects to its youth outreach Judgement House.

Today, Disheroon says, people know Oakwood by those things but also for "being really friendly."

"We're like a big family," he says.

As Oakwood prepares for its next 25 years and its bicentennial, "our buildings may be the old, traditional style," Disheroon says, "but God has done many things through the church" and will continue to work through what he says is a devoted membership.

Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.

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