Neighborhood church looks at new challenges and big ideas
Churchwell Avenue Baptist Church has been around for almost 80 years and was built at the start of World War II using salvaged and surplus materials that had not been swallowed up by the war effort. It has become a neighborhood hub, one of many thriving places of worship and community.
But times have changed, and so has the neighborhood. The congregation was shrinking and aging and the building was also aging. The maintenance was postponed and was only carried out on a patchwork basis made necessary by the emergency. At one point, the city closed the building after a partial roof collapse, and the congregation gathered at Christenberry Jr. High School (now an elementary school) while repairs were being made.
Dr. Ken Link has pastored there for the past five years and is an energetic and likeable guy whose signature line includes the exhortation “Be encouraged!” He reaches out to his neighborhood and sometimes parks his motorbike outside the church to demonstrate his non-traditional approach to ministry. Several years ago, he let it be known that his congregation was interested in helping neighbors who could not afford to repair their homes, and soon volunteers wearing “Doing the Right Church” t-shirts were hammering, sawing. and embellished the houses. They make Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets and keep looking for ways to serve.
Recently, however, the condition of the old building has become impossible to ignore. The roof is leaking again. There is a compromised wall and a flowing staircase. Fixing what is broken will cost so much that the congregation will have to make life changing decisions.
In mid-September, as part of the decision-making process, Link shared the situation on the Oakwood Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association page:
“Our church family has reached a crossroads. Either we invest a large amount of money and energy in our building – nothing cosmetic, strictly maintaining the structure – OR we move out of the neighborhood. This is the reality we are facing. We have no desire to leave our current location. We love the neighborhood and appreciate our testimony there. However, we cannot make the investment without increased community involvement.
“It’s not about money; it’s more about our impact and our relevance to the people here.
“So I’m just asking a simple question: what can Churchwell Ave. for you and your family?
“Thanks in advance for your honest response.
“Pastor Ken Link”
It received 31 public responses and a fair number of private responses, ranging from serious suggestions on tackling homelessness and bigotry to a request for a breakfast burrito. He shared the list with his congregation when he presented them with a range of options in a Wednesday prayer meeting. He polled the members the following Sunday to see if they wanted to try and fix the building’s structural issues and find new ways to reach out, or just find another space to rent and continue with what they’re doing.
Mending (within their financial capacity) and reaching out won the day, and the following Sunday Link made a formal presentation featuring a bold new vision that he said God gave him at 3:30 a.m. days earlier.
“I asked, do we want to reach this neighborhood, or do we want to find a place to just worship? And the answer is we change our focus, and our focus now is assembly, ”he said.
He called his idea Ironworks Assembly and explained that he had visited the new breweries and thriving businesses that were popping up along Central Avenue and in Old Town. He was inspired by the industrial setting and proposes to take out the benches of the sanctuary and turn it into a workshop where people can work on concrete community issues. (Watch Pastor Link’s Ironworks presentation here.)
“We had a choice constrained in the foreground by the construction problems,” he said. “Do we find a small place to exist until we are gone OR do we change our character and make sure we have a building that allows the ironwork to function?” … The overwhelming response from the church family was, “We are not ready to go and we still feel called to join the Oakwood / Lincoln Park community. Having said that, I will not be asking this question again. It has been answered.
Betty bean writes an opinion column Thursday for KnoxTNToday.com.