Another lease on life: Old country church now thriving after fears it would close

By Jessica Brodie

GRAY COURT—Eighteen months ago, many thought Bramlett United Methodist Church was like an hourglass quickly running out of sand. Once thriving and filled with large farming families who lived nearby, the small rural church in the Upstate had dwindled to 20 people on Sunday mornings.

But now the church has more than 100 active members—including a children’s and youth group. They’re doing big Christmas and Easter services again, vacation Bible schools, baptisms.

“It went from a flatline on the operating table to being a church that’ll survive,” said the Rev. John Fahrney, Bramlett’s pastor. “A lot of country churches are dying, but this one is growing.”

Fahrney said the congregation has embraced a new way of doing ministry, expanding its former concept of “community” to include not only the old, established families but the new families that have started moving to the area as Greenville continues to sprawl outward.

“This church has been willing to broaden its understanding of community to include the new families moving in behind them,” Fahrney said. Instead of the two groups remaining separate, he said, “They are mixing now and becoming a community, not the old little handful we used to know.”

One young man from one of the new families has “adopted” one of the older men as his grandfather because he doesn’t have a grandfather, and they have developed a close bond. Another new family with several children needing to be baptized asked two from the older generations to be their godparents.

“We have another lease on life,” Fahrney said. “A church that was dying is now alive!”

“It’s been amazing,” said Jerry Williams, lay speaker and a longtime member of Bramlett whose parents and grandparents also attended the church. “I have always known we had the potential here at Bramlett, but it was just a matter of people getting their minds right, being committed and becoming a congregation again.

“It’s not a church going down. It’s a church going up, and we’re proud of that. And it’s just through people coming together and saying, ‘Hey, we can do it.’”

Time capsule opened

Bramlett UMC is more than 200 years old, and Methodism’s Francis Asbury wrote about visiting and preaching at the church a few times in his early journals. Members started meeting in the late 1700s, and the church officially founded in 1803.

Fahrney said Bramlett was one of a number of “buggy churches” in the area—churches that were a short buggy’s drive from a cluster of farmhouses to the church. But over time people moved away from the family farms. Families started dying out, children moved away to the city, and the country churches saw their numbers slip away. When Fahrney took the helm of Bramlett in June 2018, it looked like the church was headed for closure.

But thanks to the church’s commitment to community—new and old—things have changed. Members began a feeding and visitation ministry and started supporting local schools.

This year, they will fully fund their church budget for the first time in many years.

“It’s really turned around,” Fahrney said.

This year, they had a special treat—opening the time capsule at their church. The capsule has been embedded into the side of the church, behind the monument stone, and was last opened in 1962. They took it out Nov. 13, and planned to open it Nov. 24, just after the Advocate went to press on this edition.

Fahrney said they planned to open the time capsule now because many of the older members were eager to see it—and add additional items incorporating some of the newest members.

“The people who are the oldest now were just children when it was put in,” Fahrney said. “They knew it happened but didn’t know what was in the time capsule, and they really wanted to see it before they died.”

Fahrney said they are adding an updated picture of the congregation, group photographs of families on a thumb drive, bulletins and a list of updated leadership, a scroll made of all new active generations signed by each one, and a letter to the next generation.

“We’re opening it now because we’ve got a second life and we’re doing so well,” Fahrney said. “I’ve always said, ‘You take steps of faith and God will meet you there.’”

Just getting started

Williams believes the growth at Bramlett has just started. As more and more people in the community begin to hear about Bramlett, its ministries and activities, he is certain more people will join.

He believes the activities the church started after Fahrney came as pastor was a catalyst.

“When you have activities it just helps the people to come together and really deepen their faith,” Williams said, noting they not only had mission opportunities but also meals and talks on biblical topics. “It was a transformation of the church. We began to realize we could be better than what we are.”

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