By Kirby Deal
On March 1, Asbury United Methodist Church of Cleveland, Tenn., ceased to be. The physical symbol of the church had been bought by Trousdale School and preparations were made to modify the building from a 35-year-old church into a growing school for adults with intellectual disabilities.
Some may consider this the death of a church. Instead, it was the birth of a new congregation - Riverstone Church: A United Methodist Community. With it came a new location, new contemporary service, a lot of heartache and joy, and appreciation for how God works in the lives of the church and its members.
In 2006, the Rev. Tim Paul was appointed senior pastor of Asbury UMC. He soon realized that Asbury had acquired more than $400,000 in debt. The church at 3171 Hewitt Street S.E. had about 60 in average worship attendance.
“We prayed for a way to turn our curse of death into a way to reach people for the kingdom of God. And, the Lord sent Trousdale School,” says Paul.
The school needed more space, and in 2007, rented Asbury's gym and a few more classrooms -- about 65 percent of the building.
“First of all, the school offered financial support to help stop the bleeding, which allowed us time to formulate a vision for ministry," Paul said. "We used that time to evaluate why we were here, what were the needs of our community, and how God wanted us to address them.”
In 2008, after the congregation's time of reflection and evaluation, Trousdale made an initial offer to buy the gym and then the vacant property behind the gym. However, as Trousdale continued to grow and Asbury struggled financially, the school offered to purchase the entire property. After prayer, the congregation decided to accept.
“It was a perfect match for what Trousdale wanted to do as their vision and what we as a church had been praying about for our own vision," Paul said. "We could then use the resources gained from the sale to develop our own vision for meeting the needs of the community.”
The purchase price was $800,000, netting the church about $330,000.
While waiting for the sale to be final, Paul and the congregation had another decision to make: continue their legacy as Asbury UMC? Or start anew? The congregation chose to preserve Asbury's past while starting a new congregation.
“We felt a desire to start a new congregation with a fresh vision and a new name," Paul said. The church chose "Riverstone" from Joshua 4:
"As the Israelites crossed over into the land promised by God, they were instructed by God to gather 12 stones from the river. They were to make a monument so that later generations would see it and remember the miracle God performed on their behalf," Paul said. "I thought 'riverstones' was a great image of what we were doing with the church."
The new Riverstone congregation rented office space in downtown Cleveland. They found a place to worship at Lake Forest Middle School, "a more common, neutral location for un-churched, under-churched people to feel invited."
Along with the decision to change the church name and location came the decision to begin a contemporary service.
“We really wanted to broaden the scope of people that we could reach in the church," Paul said. "We felt that there were a significant number of people, specifically in our area, that could benefit from a more contemporary service and who would be attracted to that type of worship service."
However, the congregation was intentional about remembering their roots and the people who made them Asbury in the first place, he said.
“We wouldn’t be able to do the missional outreach that we’re doing today without the heritage and foundation of Asbury,” Paul said. "They made us into the church that we were and are helping us further ourselves into the church we want to be in the future.”
The mission statement of Riverstone Church reads “Connect to God, love each other, and serve the world.”
“Those are three of the things Jesus calls us to do: Connect, love, and serve," the pastor said. "We feel that if we aren’t doing these things, there is no reason for us to exist as a church.”
The sale of the Trousdale-Asbury building was final on March 1, 2012. "It was a win-win for both parties," Paul said.
On April 8, Easter Sunday, Asbury held its last worship service at dawn. The congregation celebrated the resurrection with the rising sun outside of their beloved church building.
A few hours later, at 11 a.m., Riverstone held its first-ever worship service.
Kirby Deal, an English major at Tennessee Wesleyan College, just completed a summer internship with the Greeneville Astros. Her father is the Rev. Tim Paul.
- Visit Riverstone's Facebook page.