Centenary United Methodist Church is 132 years old — 133 next month.
The congregation will celebrate completion of a $300,000 facility renovation Sept. 17 that officials said has helped shore up structural problems and restore the building more to what it once was.
But they said the physical restoration is only emblematic of other changes at the church.
“To me and those connected to this place, Centenary has a remarkable story,” said Tim Bagwell, Centenary’s lead pastor since 2005. “As with most urban areas, at one point it experienced a tremendous time of white flight from surrounding neighborhoods followed by a dwindling number of people willing to drive back into town to attend. Where there once were maybe a thousand people here in worship, by the mid-2000s there were maybe 30. It certainly began to struggle.”
Bagwell said there were no endowments or trusts to support Centenary so it began to suffer both in ministries it could undertake and in keeping up the historic building.
But Bagwell said a turning point came in 2005.
“You see a lot of churches like this closed and shuttered and Centenary was headed in that direction,” he said. “But this church made an intentional decision to really connect with the community, with its surrounding neighborhood and the people here.”
Bagwell said the earliest manifestation of that was a free, Sunday morning breakfast that continues to today. The breakfast is provided by Centenary and Centenary Community Ministries, Inc., the church’s 501(c)(3) charitable arm led by Eric Mayle.
Bagwell said other ministries growing out of the small congregation’s decision include such things as a homeless to self-sufficiency transitional house plus additional homeless work in partnership with community groups such as the Macon Coalition to End Homelessness.
Another example is garden spots on green space owned by the congregation worked by members and community folks.
Bagwell said it was the church’s commitment 12 years ago to explore new ways to serve its immediate community and pursue a more progressive, inclusive theology that led to his serving as pastor. Raised with a father who was a Methodist minister and himself pastoring South Georgia Methodist churches, Bagwell said he was working as a church planting and church growth consultant when he began work with Centenary.
He told the small congregation if they were seriously committed to their decision to pursue the new course he would gladly come and walk with them through the process as part of the team, first as pastor in conjunction with his consulting work then full time.
“This was the worst crack community in Macon 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. “Mercer (University), which is our neighbor here, hadn’t started revitalization efforts as we see now. But even with a measure of positive change you don’t have to go but a couple of blocks to see the need, the poverty and blight. At the time, that small remnant couldn’t afford their building or a pastor. I was happy to be part of their radical revitalization — not just a tweaking of the scenery but moving across all sorts of barriers. I was excited about it if we were all willing to work in a unique ministry situation.”
Bagwell said Centenary has not just seen growth from the neighborhood but people regularly attend from across the Middle Georgia region. He said well over 200 now attend.
“So on Sunday morning you may be seated next to a homeless person that feels this is their home or it may be a physician or teacher or blue collar worker,” he said. “There is a deep hunger on the part of some people to be in a church that is inclusive where everyone doesn’t have to look like me.”
Bagwell said all are truly welcome at Centenary.
“All are welcome in this place and when we say all we mean all,” he said. “We’re a theologically progressive congregation dedicated to taking seriously the social justice proclaimed by Jesus. As we started down this path people joined the theological conversation of what faith is and how it’s to be lived every day. That includes an openness to other faith communities, to the LGBT community and to such things as exploring what it means to be people of faith in the face of the racism we see today. We welcome people who have been on the fringes and excluded. Many who come here are surprised and amazed to find there’s a place for them here.”
Leaders at the church said a central decorative item represents the heart of Centenary: a unique, stained glass cross made in 2009 during the celebration of the church’s 125th anniversary.
“One of the centerpieces in the sanctuary is a mosaic Celtic cross,” said Beth Dunwody, director of worship and communication. “It’s a symbol of who we are. So often churches become filled with people with a façade, a pretense that everything is always alright. The cross shows our attitude and represents the broken places and things we all have and how those things can become beautiful, especially when they’re shared in community and allowed to heal and become something beautiful.”
Dunwody said a background circle which is part of the cross is made of bits, pieces and trinkets brought by Centenary members. She said there’s things like a veteran’s military dog tags, a button from someone who had nothing else to contribute, pieces of broken pottery, pieces of plates from a family table where there was brokenness but little communicating and even an engagement ring.
“I think for the future we want to continue to build bridges within the walls of this community and beyond. In 2005 our challenge was to get the word out that all are welcome here. Really welcome with the emphasis on really. Now society’s environment is so polarized the challenge is to open and maintain dialog with people of all different theological viewpoints and faiths.”
Bagwell highlights the practical and spiritual aspect of the journey.
“Centenary dates back to 1884 with the building we have now built in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” he said. “I think the physical renovations are absolutely wonderful, and honestly they’re not completely finished, but I think the most beautiful thing is the spiritual renewal in our community. Altogether, I see it as an outward sign of an inward spiritual grace.”
Contact writer Michael W. Pannell at email@example.com.
Centenary United Methodist Church
Address: 1290 College St., Macon, Ga. 31201
Leadership: Tim Bagwell, lead pastor
Worship: Sunday community breakfast 7:30 a.m., morning worship 11, Nueva Vida UMC Spanish worship 11 a.m.