By Jessica Brodie
SIMPSONVILLE—Two and a half years after a construction fire destroyed its sanctuary, members of Advent United Methodist Church are back in their building and ready to embrace all God has planned.
On Sept. 22 and again, Sept. 29, Advent is hosting a grand opening celebration with a big community worship event in its new space, followed by a community meal at 12:15 after the Sept. 29 service.
“We were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, love, and encouragement two and a half years ago when our sanctuary burned. So many people from the community grieved with us that we cannot imagine having this grand opening without inviting the entire community to come celebrate with us,” said the Rev. Michael Turner, Advent’s senior pastor.
Advent’s the Rev. Laura-Allen Kerlin, associate pastor and now campus pastor for Advent’s new Scuffletown location, said their experience has underscored how the church is so much more than a building—it’s about the people of God coming together in worship, in fellowship and in mission.
“We’ve been amazed at the ways we’ve experienced God’s faithfulness during this process,” Kerlin said. “It’s been a great and tangible reminder that it’s not about the brick and mortar but about the people and about how God is moving among the people and the Holy Spirit at work.”
Advent, one of the largest churches in South Carolina Conference of the UMC, has more than 2,000 members, and Kerlin said they’ve received at least 300 new members since the blaze regardless of having to worship in their gym instead of a sanctuary.
“We’ve still baptized tons of children, confirmed 25 this year, confirmed three rounds of students in the time we’ve been in the gym, celebrated graduations, funerals, memorial services and more, and all those things continued to happen regardless of our temporary space.
Indeed, she added, just because construction is over doesn’t mean they’ve “arrived.”
“This is now a new opportunity to accommodate more people and create new opportunities for connections, not an end into itself.”
A difficult blow
On Feb. 8, 2017, a lunchtime construction fire blazed through Advent’s sanctuary, demolishing it. At the time, Advent was under renovation as part of an expansion project, which was needed as they had reached 80 percent capacity, and the congregation had been worshipping in the church gym. Because of that, Turner said, everything was out of the sanctuary except for a few items, which was a stroke of providence; no one was injured in the blaze.
Still, it was a difficult blow. “We were taking the old balcony out, and the (construction crews) were cutting the last little bit of steel out. They followed protocol, waited an hour after using torch and used a fire extinguisher, then they went to lunch,” Turner told the Advocate at the time of the fire.
Two of the workers went to McDonald’s for lunch, Turner said. When they returned, they realized there was a small fire, banged into the wall with a sledgehammer and began fighting the flames with a fire extinguisher. Meanwhile, a passerby saw smoke and called the fire department, which arrived just as the crews realized the blaze was beyond their control.
“We were all in the other building working and didn’t know,” Turner said. “I was standing in the lobby of my office when I saw a fire truck coming down the road, slowing down, and saw them turn in. My first thought was that it was a false alarm.”
He walked out and smelled smoke—but it was far worse than any of them imagined.
Four fire departments fought the blaze with three ladder trucks and 2-3 million gallons of water, but it was like a bad dream, Turner said.
“They couldn’t stop the fire. It was up in walls and into the roof, and once it was in the insulation, they couldn’t slow it down,” Turner said.
The walls are still standing and a portion of the roof, but the structure was in complete ruin.
Because it was a total loss, Advent had to have totally new architectural drawings made, as well as new permitting. They broke ground March 2018 echoing the theme #AdventStrong, which they’d adopted for a church-wide prayer service a year after the blaze.
While the fire was a setback and turned their plans on end, Kerlin and Turner said the experience helped them heed God’s will in the process.
Another silver lining, Kerlin said: “Starting over from scratch allowed us not to be confined to structure already there.”
Still, they had only planned to worship in the gym four to six months. The fire meant far longer time there, necessitating the addition of new staging, temporary carpet, new chairs and other things to make worship in the gym more comfortable.
Beautiful and useful
Construction on the new 26,000-square-foot building cost about $8 million and enabled Advent to dream big about ways it can worship and do God’s work for the world. They built a larger sanctuary, providing more seats and room to accommodate growth; a connecting space, which was a lobby-type area where people from different services can have more room to easily connect with each other; a new staff office building for more centralized collaboration; a renovated, attractive children’s ministry environment; new music rehearsal space; and more.
The building was finished just before their Sept. 22 celebration.
“We are still getting settled in,” Kerlin said, but the new space is beautiful and useful, with super-high ceilings in a one-level worship area.
Members have said they are excited about the new space, and Kerlin said they borrowed an idea Mount Horeb UMC, Lexington, did when that congregation prepared to celebrate its new worship space a few years ago. Advent invited the congregation to join them in reading the Bible from start to finish every day during the final week of construction.
“It took us about 80 hours and was a powerful way to prepare for worship in this space,” she said.
Grand opening also helps fight hunger
Another way the church helped celebrate their new building was by gathering Sept. 22 for a church-wide meal packaging event with Rise Against Hunger, an organization that provides nutritious meals in developing countries. They held worship at 8:30 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. for traditional worship that day and 9:55 a.m. for contemporary worship in the new sanctuary. Then, from 9:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., Advent members had the opportunity to pack 21,600 meals in partnership with Rise Against Hunger, whose goal is to eradicate hunger. The meal-packing offered a chance to serve for those who have either just worshiped in the new sanctuary or were waiting on their worship service to start.
While the grand opening is a celebration, Kerlin said, “The primary celebration is not about a building. Instead, we are celebrating God’s faithfulness to us and the calling God has placed on our lives.”
All are welcome to join for the second grand opening celebration Sept. 29. Traditional services are at 8:30 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. and a contemporary service is at 9:55 a.m. every Sunday. On Sept. 29, a community meal will follow in the Christian Life Center at 12:15 p.m. For more on Advent and its new building, visit https://advent-umc.org.
By Jessica Brodie