Published July 5, 2007
ATLANTA — “I think I’m going to cry,” exclaimed Gladys, her hand covering her mouth in surprise. Moments earlier, she had been relaxing at the swimming pool of her apartment community on the scorching Saturday afternoon. Then, hearing her name called, Gladys quickly rushed to the pavilion where food and drink had been served and live music had been performed all afternoon. A young man, dressed in a tropical shirt, shorts, and sandals, smiled as he presented Gladys a voucher for $500 off one month’s rent.
In that moment, The Midtown Bridge, a new church being launched in midtown Atlanta, made a connection.
“Our purpose as a church is to connect people with God in worship, with each other in small groups, and with the world in service,” said church planter Larry Grays, who has been toiling for the past year to connect with the thousands of individuals who have planted their lives in the newly constructed “live, work, play” urban environment.
Today’s block party, complete with Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers helping prepare and serve food, was just one outreach event of many in the church planting process. Random acts of kindness, such as free gift-wrapping during the Christmas season, have been a part of the process. The congregation has held worship services in a nearby battered women’s shelter. Also, canvassing, Bible studies, and “preview” worship services have taken place.
For about 10 years, Larry Grays served as an evangelist. Still, he sensed that God somehow might want to use him in an urban church that would “look a little more like the city and like heaven, with rich and poor, black and white.” Driving past the new Atlantic Station development with a minister friend, Grays mentioned, “That would be a great place to plant a church.”
Thinking about the challenges of doing so, he then joked, “But I wouldn’t want to be the one to start it.”
Yet, the 130-acre development in the shadow of downtown Atlanta stayed on his mind. A mentor had once told him, “A strategy without a burden is just ambition.” Grays began to feel a burden and passion to reach for Christ the thousands of people who would ultimately call this racially diverse community their home.
“There are so many different cultures represented here that it truly is a melting pot,” said Grady Robinson, who serves as the music minister for the young congregation. Robinson, an Anglo American, and Grays, an African American, have known each other since their high school days in Jacksonville, Fla., and are unified in their commitment to reach the Atlantic Station community.
Grays, along with his wife and two young children, moved from suburban Cherokee County to an apartment in Atlantic Station in mid-2006 to immerse themselves in the sometimes rewarding, sometimes frustrating process of starting a church. “I think it’s important to live among the people you are called to reach,” he said.
Immediately the personable young man and his wife befriended people, told their new friends about why they had moved to the area, and shared their faith in Christ. The first person Grays led to the Lord was a leasing agent in his new apartment community.
Key to the community
They also shared their dream with Christian friends, seeking financial and prayer support. The couple even asked some people to give a year of their time away from their home churches to be part of the core group for the new congregation. Grays’ home church, First Baptist Woodstock, embraced the dream. Several other churches and individuals also offered their support, with some sending mission groups to help the young congregation.
“God is at work [in the Atlantic Station community],” said Mike Gwinn, director of church planting for First Baptist Woodstock. With his large congregation involved in sponsoring new churches throughout the nation, Gwinn, a native Atlantan, said, “We can’t partner in other places and let our city go.
“I believe a key in church planting is connecting with the community,” he continued. “Larry has done an excellent job making those connections and communicating that the church is there for the community rather than the other way around.”
With a committed core group in place, the congregation is scheduled to hold its first official worship service in mid-August.
Among those in the core group are Twyla and Kerry Jackson, Mission Service Corps missionaries for the North American Mission Board. They are developing a ministry outreach to the Atlanta arts community and believe their involvement in The Midtown Bridge is an ideal complement to their task.
Commissioned in October 2006, the duo has moved to the Atlantic Station community. They hope that the use of visual and performance arts in The Midtown Bridge worship services will draw many non-believers.
Core group member Connie Saltamacchio first attended a worship service for The Midtown Bridge on Easter Sunday. “This is a unique opportunity to be right downtown, to be a presence for God in the city,” she said.
Prior to the launch date, the congregation will offer free pancake breakfasts, along with an invitation to the worship service, to community residents. With the date drawing near, the congregation is still finalizing a location for its first worship service. A local theater and a newly opened jazz club are possibilities. Space is one of the biggest challenges in the “vertical” community where “every inch counts,” according to Grays. With the past year of challenges behind him, Grays has faith that the location challenge for his new congregation will be resolved in due time.
“We want to have faith and works so that people can hear and see the gospel,” he said.
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