He is leaving what he founded more than 20 years ago, but Rev. Keith Cowart will still have a role to play with Christ Community Church in Columbus.
Cowart said beginning in 2019 he will be superintendent for the southeastern region of the Free Methodist Church overseeing congregations in Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
He and wife Pam plan to stay in town but will not attend services at Christ Community Church, saying he does not want the new pastor to “constantly be looking over his shoulder.”
“A lot of pastors who have been at a church for a long time and retire do not leave, and it is often not a good situation,” he said.
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The two will attend services at different churches throughout the region, but their two sons, Andrew and Aaron, will continue with the congregation in which they were raised.
The 53-year-old Cowart said the board at Christ Community Church has selected a successor to begin in October but has not released a name.
He believes people will be pleased with the selection.
Cowart said he had been approached three or four times by the denomination about moving into the supervisory role.
“I just did not feel the time was right,” he said.
But it feels that way now.
He said the church has grown from the Cowarts and three other couples meeting in a house to an average of 1,000 in Sunday attendance at a beautiful 32,000-square-foot building on Milgen Road. The church with a staff of 20 is in good shape and still growing.
In a few months, construction should begin on a new $1.2 million student ministry center.
Cowart said in his new role, he will maintain a close relationship with staff members.
Cowart, a native of Arlington, Ga., attended Georgia Southern University and Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
He formerly worked as a minister with St. Mark United Methodist Church in Columbus, and when he decided to begin his church here he told the St. Mark pastor he was not interested in taking congregants away. He received the pastor’s blessing.
“We are really distinct. We are not built on other church people. We have never been about taking people away from other churches but reaching those who don’t go to church,” Cowart said.
Cowart began his church in July 1997. That is when couples began to meet. The first public service was at Arnold Middle School in February 1998.
“For months we were praying for God’s vision asking, ‘what do you want this church to be?’ There were about 450 churches in the area, and we were asking the Lord why there needed to be 451,” Cowart said.
Cowart said the Lord told the couples to form a church that is authentic and real, one not consumed by its own needs.
“We need to be outwardly focused, to be diverse in an area of the country that was not diverse,” he said.
After just six weeks, Christ Community had to leave the area it was renting.
Letters from some citizens objected to the school hosting a church, and the superintendent decided to kill the deal after just after six weeks.
“We made no argument,” Cowart said. “We wanted to be a positive presence, giving to the community, not taking.”
For about six months, the church held services in a Carmike movie theater on Sidney Simons Boulevard.
It then moved to a dilapidated former Saturn dealership on Midtown Drive.
There, church members built a skateboard park in the back which Cowart said hundreds of children used.
The church also hosted late-night breakfasts for those leaving nearby nightclubs.
It moved to its current location in 2010.
“We did not want to get away from the heart of the city,” he said.
The church purchased 26 acres, some of which is wetlands, for approximately $6 million. Church construction was about $4.3 million.
Cowart said God has blessed the church. “God played a big part in it, no doubt,” Cowart said.
A key to its growth, he said, is its insistence on transparency and diversity.
“Transparency is a part of the culture of the church. We keep things in the light,” he said. “We are racially diverse. We are economically diverse. We are not antagonistic toward people outside the church. We are outwardly focused.”
Cowart remarked that people welcomed into the church are like those “we will share eternity with.”
The church has been a leader in diversity such as its Converge 2:14 Unity in Diversity conference in 2016. At that time, Cowart said, “the country is becoming more polarized, and the polarization is driven by fear and anger. We need to learn from each other. We need to stop talking at each other and begin listening.”
Another part of the culture at Christ Community, according to Cowart, is church members have a “passion for the Lord’s word.”
“We are Biblically grounded. We believe the Bible is God’s word. It is important to let people know where we are,” he said.
Christ Community Church lists as its mission to “awaken ordinary people to extraordinary life in Christ-centered community.”
Its core values are passionate spirituality, authentic relationships, environment of grace, unit diversity, wholehearted service, and intentional outreach.
Cowart said there are no plans for a school, but the church will continue to prepare pastors, life leaders, etc.
“We have always been a training and sending church,” he said. “We have sent 16 people to missions. We have planted churches in Phenix City and Angel Fire, New Mexico.”
He said what he has enjoyed the most at Christ Community Church is the “amazing and humbling privilege of getting to see God changing lives right before my eyes.”
“For me and Pam, this church has been like our third child. It is not easy to hand it off, he said. “But this church will continue to grow, and be everything God wants it to be. The future is bright.”