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Weathering history: Presbyterians among region's first congregations

Sue Guinn Legg • Dec 23, 2019 at 7:24 PM

One of the nation’s oldest established churches, the Presbyterian Church has survived some of the most difficult chapters of United States history.

Leaders of two of the region’s oldest Presbyterian congregations, Jonesborough Presbyterian, which next year will mark 230 years of worship, and Watauga Avenue Presbysterian, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2017, took time recently to look back at their origins, at their current state of faith and to the future of a church perpetually in transition.

History

Founded in 1790, Jonesborough Presyberian is among the oldest Presbyterian churches in Tennessee. Speaking to the longevity of church, Pastor Allen Huff said, “Who knows why certain congregations survive those difficult chapters and some do not?’

Like many other denominations, Huff said, the Civil War split the Presbyterian Church into factions. And during a period that spanned the late 1920s-1930s, the Jonesborough Presbyterian congregation as a member of the southern alliance of the old Presbyterian Church in the United States, “nearly died.”

“In the early 1940s, JPC reunited with its sister church, Second Presbyterian which was then a member of the old United Presbyterian Church-Northern Presybetian. After than reunion the church “resurged and has been active and healthy since,” Huff said.

In 1983, he said, the Presbyterian Church-United States and the United Presbyterian Church officially reunited to form the current Presbyterian Church USA. “If all of that has anything to say about the state of faith," Huff said, “I suppose it says that when people of faith mine the spiritual depths available to us, we can find the grace and the will to forgive and grow. Transformation doesn't happen quickly or painlessly, but as we say in the Reformed Tradition, "We are always reformed, and always reforming."

Founded in 1892, Watauga Avenue Presbyterian Church has endured through several difficult eras of American history.

Pastor Patricia Locke said, “I believe the church continues today because of two things: a sincere effort by all members over many years to continually and prayerfully discern how God is calling us to be church in this place, and how we are to lovingly serve the community.

“Our vision is ‘Loving God, Loving Others, Serving All.’ Our church community is built on, and continues to be a place of acceptance, and sincere welcome to all.” she said.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Locke said WAPC noticed that an African-American Presbyterian church in Johnson City was struggling to keep its doors open and invited all members who wished to do so to merge with our church. Twenty-five people took Watauga Avenue up on the offer, making it the first integrated church in Johnson City.

Around the same time, “The Pastor of Watauga,” the Rev. Donald Frederick, spearheaded an effort to compel the Johnson City school system to hasten school integration. This was successful,” Locke said.

And in the nation’s current chapter of renewed social reform, the Watauga Avenue congregation begins each service with the recitation of a “Litany of Welcome” that begins, “Whoever you are, wherever you come from, we welcome you here,” and concludes, “No matter where you are on your faith journey, may you feel welcomed as we would welcome Christ himself.”

Numbers and Trends:

After several decades of declining membership in nearly all denominations, Jonesborough Presbterian today counts more than 180 faithful members and regularly sees 100-110 people at its Sunday services.

Huff said, “On one hand, our congregation seems to be bucking the trend of decline. Our overall numbers remain steady with an influx of new members slightly surpassing the losses to death and members moving away. We are deeply grateful for that.

“Having said that, the majority of our new members are retired. Jonesborough/Washington County has become a favored destination for retirees, and we are benefitting from their presence. The trend for us is to enjoy frequent visitors and some new members who come bringing years of experience and wisdom. New retirees have time, energy, and a willingness to serve. That helps to keep our worship and mission vital.

​At Watauga Avenue, Locke said, average Sunday service attendance hovers in the mid-40s, down from a one-time high point of 125-150.

“Just like all mainline Protestant churches, the Presbyterian Church USA, which is the official name of our denomination, has seen declining membership in the U.S. and other places globally.” Still, she said, “South of the equator, many churches are growing across all denominations” and WAPC, membership has been on an upswing for the past several years.

“Since I arrived in 2015, we have been very active in raising the profile of our church within the community. Due to cross-denominational decline in membership, we probably will not see attendance in the 150 range again, but strive to be Christ’s hands and feet. We believe God is still speaking.”

Worship:

While numerous churches have adapted their worship services to capture the interest of younger generations, adopting more modern praise music, revising service times, increasing their online presence and revitalizing youth programs, Huff said Jonesboorugh Presbyterian continues to offer "traditional" worship, beginning at 11 a.m. each Sunday.

“We have a choir director and a pianist who are second to none in our area. Their work and the work of our very dedicated choir help to make worship at JPC lively and memorable. They will do the occasional contemporary piece, and periodically they will use some "contemporary" instruments. More often, for cantatas and other special occasions, we will have excellent musicians from the community to play violin, cello, and flute. Those contributions are great blessings to our worship.

“We do struggle with keeping a youth group going, and that is an issue that many in our congregation appear ready to address in the coming year.”

At Watauga Avenue, Locke said, the church “is very open about worship practices. We currently follows a traditional order of worship, but often include music that is more current and intentionally use many of the arts in worship. In the last few years, we have offered a contemplative midweek Taize´ Service for Wholeness and Healing. We hired a social media company to keep our Facebook pages and website up to date and fresh.

Serving:

When it comes to the Chistian tradition of serving others, Huff said Jonesborough Presbyterian actively supports the Jonesborough Ministerial Association Food Pantry with financial and food donations, logistical support and organizational leadership. The church is also a member of Family Promise (Interfaith Hospitality Network) of more the 100 area church that work together to house and assist homeless families with children over the long term.

Jonesborough Presbyterian is also involved with the Loaves and Fishes public kitchen at West Main Street Christian in Johnson City; The River ministry for women founded by Johnson City’s First Presbytherian Church; the local Salvation Army; Sunset Gap Ministries, a Presbyterian Church USA-affiliated mission in Cosby, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance; the Community Living Center at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home; the Day Reporting Center for probationers; and previously, in the home repair mission trips of Appalachia Service Project.

For a church the size of Watauga Avenue, Locke feels the church is unique in the area for the many, missions we serve — “everything from a pollinator garden to Loaves and Fishes to Good Samaritan Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets.

For a more complete idea of scope of the missions work of the Watauga Avenue congregation, she invited visitors to peruse the church website at www.wataugapc.org.

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