Tiny St. John UMC fixes up church for what they hope God will do
By Jessica Brodie
GREENVILLE—Over the decades, the membership at St. John United Methodist Church has shrunk from 80 to 50 to 30 to a dozen on Sunday mornings. First, Donaldson Air Force Base left, then families began departing one after the other.
Now, the older, mostly Caucasian congregation sits as an anomaly in a high-crime area of the Upstate, just off Augusta Road south of I-85. Their pastor, at 61, is the second youngest person there. Their trustee chair is 100.
But before you dismiss them as a dying congregation, they want you to know what God has doing for the last 18 months—working a miracle in their midst.
It all started in 2020, when St. John’s the Rev. Brian Underwood realized the church’s ongoing roof deterioration had reached a critical point.
They learned they could get some roof funds if they started the conference’s Forward Focus process, which is a voluntary South Carolina-specific plan for church revitalization unique to the individual church.
Greenville’s district congregational specialist, the Rev. Cathy Joens, walked with them through that process, which took a longer time because of COVID-19 and all the closures and restrictions.
Finally in December 2020, Joens and Greenville District Superintendent Jim Dennis came to St. John to present their findings and let the congregation vote on what they wanted to do next.
“Basically, we were in a bad place—really struggling,” Underwood said.
Their choices were to close the church immediately, let things ride until they were forced to close or try something new.
They chose the latter.
“It was really three people who started it,” Underwood said. “They stood up and said, ‘Hey, we’re not dead. We want to try to find ways to do something different, some new way to do ministry in the community. We don’t know what that looks like, but we want to try.”
Underwood said he was willing to put in the effort if they were.
And since January, that’s exactly what they have been trying to do—something different. Something new.
Already, St. John had been renting space to Christ Mission Outreach Baptist Church, a mostly Black church that worships in their fellowship hall every Sunday. And they were also providing space for Blue Star Mothers of America to store and package care packages and other items. But they decided to strengthen their bonds with these groups, intentionally building their relationships.
Next, they decided the church needed a facelift. They had two dingy, vacant rooms being used for nothing but storage, so together they cleared them out, gave them a fresh coat of paint and brought in some new furniture provided by nearby Travelers Rest UMC. Now they have a brand-new conference/meeting room and a children’s space—even though the church currently doesn’t have any children.
“The room is really nice,” Underwood said. “Several have walked in and said, ‘Man, I just can’t believe how bright it is in here. You walk in here and feel like there’s life!’”
On the heels of this, they learned the city had closed an old, run-down community building on their block where a local woman had been hosting a summer camp. The woman approached St. John to see if they’d be willing to serve as a host.
At first the church didn’t know what to do.
“But finally, we said we can wear this out talking, or we can say maybe God brought this to our doorstep. So we said, ‘If you can help with a little money to cover air conditioning, lights and water, then yes,” Underwood said.
With that, from June 14 to July 30 the church hosted the camp there every day for neighborhood kids ages 5-13.
Earlier this year, they hosted a representative from the National Alliance on Mental Illness so they could discern how to help some of their neighbors with mental illness, and maybe also add chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. They realized they needed to learn a lot about how to help people in this way, so now with Joens they are walking through the book “When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor.” Christ Mission and their sister church, McBee Chapel, is also doing the book with them.
Underwood is also going through training so they can offer a GriefShare support group in the future.
“They are really stepping out in faith,” Joens said.
Not only do they want to learn, but they aren’t afraid of what could be perceived as obstacles, she added.
“They really want to help their community,” Joens said.
Underwood said being a part of the transformation has been amazing.
“Before, we didn’t have much spark. There were not many people getting involved, and we thought it was probably only a matter of time. But now there’s enthusiasm. There’s people wanting to make something good happen.
“It’s a whole new environment when you have fresh paint and positive changes.”
He, Joens and the members of St. John hope others will be inspired by what they are trying to do by stepping out in faith and preparing the church so God has ample space to move.