After a season of economic downturn and fits and starts, all the pieces now seem to be in place for the newly named Valley Church to begin its launch in 2020.
Leading the venture is the Rev. John Gargis, age 60, a licensed local pastor with experience in several large Knoxville churches, including the launch of recovery ministries.
“The key to starting a successful new church is often an outgoing, gregarious leader,” said the Rev. Brenda Carroll, the recently retired superintendent of the Tennessee Valley District. “I always thought, in my heart, that John Gargis was the kind of person I would choose to start a church.”
Earlier this year, leaders of Concord United Methodist Church voted to host the new church, to be located seven miles north of Concord's West Knoxville location. Gargis was appointed to serve as Concord’s pastor of new campus development in July 2019.
Through funds marked for congregational development, Holston Conference will provide support of about $300,000 to begin the new church, according to the Rev. Rusty Taylor, director of congregational development and revitalization.
“John has been working very hard to build the foundation to what I believe will be one of our most successful new church starts,” Taylor said. “Valley Church will require support from the Annual Conference for at least three years, and I would estimate that it will cost approximately $100,000 a year for those three years.”
Even at a time when The United Methodist Church seems on the verge of schism, Gargis says it’s the right time to pursue the church mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
“That’s our mission. We have no other agenda,” Gargis said. “Our mission is to connect the disconnected.”
Hardin Valley is the fastest growing area of Knox County, according to the city and county’s Metropolitan Planning Commission. More than 1,200 building permits have been issued in the area since 2014, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports. On average, nearly 60,000 vehicles use Pellissippi Parkway near Hardin Valley Road each day.
The 22 acres owned by Holston has frontage on Hardin Valley Road, which can see more than 3,000 vehicles an hour. “The population is 50,000 in the targeted area, and we know 20 percent are not churched,” says Gargis.
Gargis said he doesn’t expect to break ground on a church building for perhaps five years. However, small groups are scheduled to begin meeting in April 2020. Worship will begin next summer in a temporary location, such as a school.
In March 2020, the Valley Church launch team will present a plan to the community to build a park on the property, including a walking trail, playground, and community garden. Hardin Valley currently doesn’t have a park, Gargis said.
Concord United Methodist Church’s commitment to starting a new church in Hardin Valley follows a seven-year effort by Cokesbury United Methodist Church to do the same.
Oak Ridge District leaders had eyed the growing Hardin Valley community as a place for a new church as early as 1996, when the district bought 10 acres. The acreage was later sold for a profit, and Oak Ridge District partnered with Holston Conference to buy the 22 acres in 2007.
In 2009, Cokesbury started a worship service at Hardin Valley Academy, a large high school that had just opened. The goal was to eventually build on the acreage.
The Rev. Stephen DeFur, senior pastor, says the 2013 death of his predecessor, the Rev. Steve Sallee, along with the difficulty in staffing a third campus led Cokesbury to discontinue the church plant in 2016.
“We found the majority of folks we were reaching eventually came to our main campus,” DeFur said. “Because of a lack of community infrastructure, most attendees were used to leaving Hardin Valley to shop, work, play, etc. ... It was an easy transition for them to drive to a campus that had daily ministry opportunities.”
Although Hardin Valley growth was booming when Holston invested in the property, a 2008 economy crash put the brakes on growth for several years, Carroll said.
“Cokesbury made a valiant effort to make something happen,” she said. “Growth in the area just stagnated. Growth has now fully returned, and you can see a ton of new development.”
Hardin’s Valley rapid growth has left it “starving for identity,” says Gargis, unlike other nearby high-population areas with more history. “It’s not Farragut. It’s not Turkey Creek. It’s not Oak Ridge. We want to help shape Hardin Valley’s identity.”
Accordingly, the 21-member launch team made an effort to include Hardin Valley’s name in the church’s new name, he said.
Gargis believes phase 1 of the church launch, which includes the park and garden, will be a key part in achieving identity as well as connecting with the community. Phase 2 includes Valley Church’s first building. Phase 3 is the “big dream,” which hasn’t emerged yet, he said.
Gargis is a second-career pastor who operated three businesses in the tech industry before answering the call to full-time ministry eight years ago. He is a former member of Middlebrook Pike United Methodist Church and former member of Cokesbury United Methodist Church.
“I often say that I got saved at Middlebrook Pike and sober at Cokesbury,” he says.
He is a recovering alcoholic, sober for 17 years. He was on the start-up team when Cokesbury launched its now multi-site recovery ministry in 2003.
At his first appointment at Lincoln Park United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Gargis also worked part-time in development for Emerald Youth Foundation and Knox Area Rescue Mission. When he heard the Rev. Randy Frye, then senior pastor at Fountain City United Methodist Church, wanted to begin a new recovery ministry, Gargis called him.
Gargis went on to lead the newly created Celebrate Recovery North for 180 worshippers as well as to help grow Fountain City’s contemporary service to an average of 180 worshippers.
During the process, the Fountain City associate pastor had a vision for a new church. “I had an epiphany,” he says. “It’s not about recovery, it’s about wholeness ... At the end of the day, you want to give them a pathway to wholeness.”
Carroll says Concord and Holston Conference leaders saw an opportunity in Gargis and his vision as they struggled to find a way for Hardin Valley.
“There were pieces of this that were scattered on the table,” Carroll said. “We didn’t know, but God knew how it was it going to go together ... Every which way we turned, it fell into place.”
Gargis is a student at Asbury Theological Seminary, scheduled to be commissioned as a Holston Conference provisional elder in June 2020. He meets regularly with Taylor, who is guiding the development of Valley Church.
Gargis also has a coach to help him lead the way. The Rev. Jacob Armstrong is senior pastor at Providence United Methodist Church in Mount Juliet, Tennessee. In 2012, Providence started in a school. Today Providence has a two-year-old building and 2,000 in worship attendance.
“As John took me on a drive through and around Hardin Valley and I began to hear the story of how this new church plant dream came to life, I was struck by how clear it was that God has been at work in the valley preparing for this season,” Armstrong said.
“A new church is not just the dream and effort of a new pastor and his or her congregation,” he said, “but really is one of the best pictures of our connection that we ever get.”