There are no pews, no hymnals or secretaries or nursery workers. No stained-glass windows. There’s not a church roll, public meeting place or even a name.
What does exist: the Rev. Jimmy McIlrath, his wife Shannon, their two children and two dogs. And also the backing of a denomination that aims to start 650 churches in the U.S. in the next four years.
“I knew that the Lord was stirring in me to do something different,” said McIlrath who, as of mid-June, became a church planter in the United Methodist Church’s South Georgia Conference — the first in the Columbus District in at least 50 years.
For the past four years, McIlrath, 33, was the minister of evangelism at St. Luke. The downtown church was his first appointment following seminary at Asbury Theological in Kentucky.
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To deal with the inner stirring, McIlrath last year contacted the Rev. Tim Bagwell in Macon. Bagwell leads Centenary United Methodist Church but also works on the Conference level as director of New Congregational Development. Every other year, Bagwell leads a group of clergy in the Conference who are discerning a possible call as church planters, as well as those seeking guidance in revitalizing existing congregations. The group of 12-14 ministers meets monthly for about six months. McIlrath was part of the most recent class.
“I had seen the Lord use me to start new things. When I was in Cordele, I started something called the ‘Excite’ service which met once a month for praise and worship,” McIlrath said. The contemporary service drew many hundreds of people.
After his move to Columbus in 2005, McIlrath got the College House going on Second Avenue, as part of his denomination’s Wesley Foundation to college students.
“I started to wonder, could God be pushing me to something else?” McIlrath said.‘The front end’
McIlrath started meeting with Bagwell’s group last summer.
“I was having these conversations with Tim, and the bishop. They already had their eyes on Columbus,” he said, because of anticipated growth from the Base Realignment and Closure coming to Fort Benning, as well as growth from the Kia plant near LaGrange and West Point.
“Growth, and not just United Methodist growth, happens mostly because of new congregations,” said Bagwell. “The best thing to do is get on the front end of (community growth).” Bagwell sees great promise for Columbus, not only in McIlrath’s effort but in the city as a whole.
“I don’t believe there is another city outside of Atlanta that has the intentionality of Columbus. Part of that is being blessed with good civic leadership. … Industry is drawn there because of the leadership, and our desire is to join hands with that,” Bagwell said.
In the South Georgia Conference, people point to Harvest Church in Warner Robins as a church-plant model and trailblazer — and one that exceeded all expectations. Started in 2000 and with weekly services beginning in ’01, Harvest Church saw more than 3,000 in worship this past Easter.
The Rev. Jim Cowart of Harvest Church served four years as the associate at Dublin First United Methodist Church before starting Harvest in Houston County. In preparation, Cowart took a course and later secured a “coach” through Saddleback Church, a megachurch in California led by the Rev. Rick Warren. In this case, a coach is someone who’s done the particular work before and can be a resource. Cowart said he continues to attend seminars and learn about this specialized kind of ministry.
“It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and it’s similar to starting a family business,” Cowart said in a phone interview. “But the older you get, the more you have to think of a succession plan, so the church is not dependent on me or revolving around me.”
Other church starts in the Conference since Cowart’s: The Pointe, just south of Albany; The Chapel in Brunswick; Gateway Community Church in west Chatham County; and Lifespring in Statesboro. (True of most contemporary church plants, the denomination — and having the denomination in the name — is less important than in previous generations.)Summoning support
A key to McIlrath’s success is getting the other 59 churches in the district to support this new ministry in whatever ways they can, said the Rev. Shane Green, the new Columbus District Superintendent. That way, it’s seen as a district effort rather than one guy striking out on his own.
Green contrasted this new effort to the old model of church planting in which a minister takes a metaphorical parachute drop, who’s assigned to hit the ground and start something new but with little support.
“The keyword is ‘we.’ We can do more together than alone,” said Green.
In a practical sense, the support for McIlrath’s church may mean the other congregations send seasoned volunteers, or monetary donations, or a portable sound system, or folding chairs or other needs, large and small. For the foreseeable future, McIlrath’s salary, housing allowance, insurance and other basics for him and his family are taken care of solely by the denomination.
But once the congregation gets fully on its feet and becomes “constituted,” probably within several years, it will be financially independent.
In the meantime, McIlrath — whose father, Jim, is also a United Methodist minister, serving in Warner Robins — is busy meeting with people and working toward the next steps.
He is looking for what’s called a S.W.A.T. team: Servants Willing and Temporary. He doesn’t have a fixed number in mind. Then he and that group, after meeting for a time in his north Columbus home, will put a more-focused eye on a temporary meeting facility. Monthly preview services are planned starting in October, then a launch (with weekly worship) in early 2010.
“There’s no magic formula,” said McIlrath, who admits both nervousness and excitement going forward.
“I’m excited but also scared to death. My knees are knocking,” he said. He said his wife, who works at St. Francis Hospital, helps him stay grounded.‘Knack for worship’
Green sees McIlrath as uniquely suited for this work.
“He has a real knack for worship. He’s gifted musically, and he has a great sense of discernment,” Green said.
As for future members, McIlrath and Bagwell and Green cite the following statistic: 60 percent of Columbus residents do not claim a church home. “It’s not like churches are fighting for a small piece of the pie. There are more than enough people,” Bagwell said.
Yet, a more-sobering statistic is before them: Eighty percent of new church starts fail.
“There is nothing more difficult than planting a new church,” Bagwell said. “For one thing, it’s very expensive. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have to be invested (on the front end), which is why the leadership of a new church is critically important.”
The success rate becomes 50 percent if the new group has strong backing.
Among his mentors: In addition to his father, McIlrath counts the other church planters in the conference as guides, as well as other clergy in Columbus who have started new congregations: the Revs. Keith Cowart of Christ Community Church; Jeff Murphy of My-Church in Midland; and Brad Evangelista of CrossPointe in Fortson.
Green is helping spread the word locally that when something new like this begins, it raises the quality of the existing congregations; and that this new venture shouldn’t be a threat but cause for re-evaluation and renewal among the others — and not just those in his denomination.
“We are very supportive of this. We see it as part of our ministry,” said the Rev. Howard White of Pierce Chapel United Methodist in Midland. “This new church start is something we want to help succeed.” White, appointed to Pierce Chapel in 1991, mentions the new mission in his bulletin.
“If you have a McDonald’s on one corner and a Burger King on the other, they both do better,” reasons Green, whose role will be an encourager and a fundraiser for McIlrath, as needed. And in his projected eight-year tenure as the leader of this district, he wants to help birth more than one new congregation.
Meanwhile, McIlrath said he never dreamed of this type of work as he was studying for the ministry. “There’s a reason God doesn’t reveal everything to you all at once,” he said with a laugh. “Last summer, I didn’t know about this. I never knew it was a possibility. But the Lord put me in a unique situation and has really opened doors. I know this is where I’m supposed to be.”To sign up for McIlrath’s e-mail alerts, write him at Jimmymcilrath@gmail.com.