Inviting growth: Church thrives after members start bringing their friends
By Jessica Brodie
PINEWOOD—Step outside Andrews Chapel United Methodist Church, and all you’ll see for miles is fields.
“It really is in the middle of nowhere,” says Andrews Chapel’s pastor, the Rev. Mary Everhart.
There are houses nearby, but none next to the church. Fifteen miles outside Summerton, it’s just fields and farmland, no town to speak of, just a handful of farming families who live scattered across the land.
Yet it is there that Everhart says the Holy Spirit is breathing a fresh wind of new life.
The 150-year-old church had been in a decline over the years. Once thriving, and site of the second appointment for the Rev. Bessie Bellamy Parker, first ordained female pastor in South Carolina, Andrews Chapel UMC was averaging just a handful of members when Everhart came a year and a half ago. In fact, Parker’s daughter, Sarah, is the church matriarch.
But now the church has gone from four to seven people to 30 or 40 most Sundays.
“I know what it is—the Holy Spirit is in the church right now, and you can feel the Holy Spirit there,” Everhart said.
It started small, as it typically does. One Sunday, a church member’s grandson decided to come to worship, bringing three of his four little boys.
The next Sunday, they came back, this time bringing one of the boys’ best friends.
Soon after, one of the farmers in the area asked Everhart if she would consider blessing his field, as the region had been plagued by strong drought that was impacting the crops.
“The others heard and asked if I would bless their fields, too, so we went and prayed and asked God to send rain, and the next week we had rain,” Everhart said.
Those farmers decided to start coming to church.
Around this same time, a woman who had been frequenting the church asked if her friends would consider joining her at church as a special birthday present for her. When the day of her birthday arrived, all her friends came to church, filling two pews with people, Everhart said. The next week, many of them came back.
“To make a long story short, these people have continued bringing people, and they’re still bringing people! Every Sunday it seems like we have somebody else,” Everhart said.
None of it is anything she has done, Everhart said—it’s just a matter of the people of the church feeling the Holy Spirit’s nudge, reaching out and encouraging their friends to come join them. Now, they are getting so big they are talking about starting a Sunday school, with grownups in the sanctuary and kids in the dining room. Andrew Chapel hasn’t had Sunday school there in 30 years.
Recently, she baptized four young boys whose family has joined the church, and she will soon be baptizing the fiancée of one of the farmers whose fields she blessed; in January, she will officiate their wedding.
“There’s no community there, it’s not in the middle of any town, and that’s the thing—you can just feel the atmosphere of that church!” Everhart said. “It’s not like anything I’ve ever been around. We don’t have much to offer—no choir, no pianist, just the love of God in that church.
“Inviting friends is what has caused that church to grow, people taking the time to invite each other. If they can do this, the larger churches can, too.”
The Rev. Terry Fleming, Florence District superintendent, said Everhart is an “amazing pastor and colleague.”
“When my wife, Carla, and I walked into the sanctuary of Andrews Chapel, it was immediately apparent that the church had been built with love; the aged knotty pine paneled walls were glowing in the morning sun,” Fleming said, noting Everhart loves her congregation in much the same way.
“Rev. Mary Everhart is doing an amazing job of initiating a joyful turnaround of this historic congregation, with an increase in average morning worship attendance of around 600 percent!” Fleming added. “Her relentless loving of the people of the congregation and nearby communities is bringing hungry spirits back into both worship and relationships. If you ask her about it though, she is quick to respond, ‘It's not me, it's God!’"