Originally created 08/24/02

Born again



Each day that Andy Tisdale walked past the First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Lyndon Grove, he thought of the church he once attended near Boston Common.

First Associate was urban and within walking distance of his home. So, he and his wife, Holly, joined in January 2001.

Four months later, a decline in membership reduced the church to mission status and brought it under denominational oversight. "We stopped attending, thinking the doors were going to be closed," he said.

Another six months passed, and the Tisdales were surprised to see cars - several cars - in the lot around the 53-year-old church.

Members had dug in, deciding to stay put instead of following other downtown- and midtown-Augusta congregations out to Columbia County.

It's a decision that runs counter to accepted church-growth wisdom, which says church builders should go where the people are going, said Mr. Tisdale, one of four elders installed this spring as overseers at First Associate.

"We are trying real hard not to be pressured by" that, he said. "People will always live in Richmond County. We are trying not to be part of the trend" to go west.

Adherents to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian faith could describe the denomination as "settled," settled in beliefs and in polity, "its way of doing business." Liberalism has not found a home here.

Based in Greenville, S.C., the denomination grew out of the 1782 merger of Scotland's Associate and Reformed Presbyterians living in America. Most of its more than 43,000 members live east of the Mississippi.

The Erskine Theological Seminary, affiliated with Erskine College in Due West, S.C., enrolled about 420 this fall, including those on its satellite campuses, such as one that meets at University Hospital.

First Associate Reformed, founded in 1949, is the denomination's only congregation in Augusta. There are sister congregations in Wrens, Louisville and Thomson - all of which trace their roots to the Ebenezer Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, between Wrens and Louisville. Ebenezer's founding in 1771 predates the merger that formed the denomination, according to Dr. Hershel Don Yancey, First Associate's pastor.

Augusta's congregation grew out of the post-World War II expansion boom, said Dr. Yancey, who came to the congregation in August 2000 as the denomination-appointed church developer. Members called him as pastor this spring.

There was no Sunday school and no youth development program. "The only thing normal was the Sunday service," said Dr. Yancey, who recalled seeing nine to 12 people in the pews on Sunday, when official membership stood at 19.

Mildew had taken over the education space and the fellowship hall because of a leaky roof. "It smelled," said Dr. Yancey. "We had tremendous problems with the building."

Members undertook much of the restoration of the building themselves. A regular Sunday night supper and other efforts are pushing Sunday attendance to about 50. The congregation is helping support a missionary family in Moscow, among its ministries. A new youth leader, Jeff Lahman, has reactivated the youth group. Young people from First Associate served on an Appalachian mission this year.

"All of this program of revitalization culminated on May 26 this year when the church returned to 'church status,' " said Dr. Yancey. "God has the most amazing ways to bring people here."

Dr. David Bickel, 31, found the church in the Yellow Pages after moving to Augusta in April 2001. An assistant professor in biostatistics at the Medical College of Georgia, he lives about five minutes away by car from the church.

He was installed as an elder with Mr. Tisdale. He and other elders visit church members to pray and look after their spiritual needs.

Dr. Bickel also sits on the board of sessions, one of four ruling elders at the church. The oldest is younger than 40, an advantage in ministering to peers while a disadvantage in other ways, he said. "But we are growing in wisdom as we are serving."

Dr. Yancey cites the church's conservative theology and liturgical worship style as qualities which resonate with people.

They "know what to expect. We don't do surprises," said Dr. Yancey, who always wears clerical robes on Sundays. "We are Reformed, but I am self-consciously being what we are supposed to be."

He also credits the accepting attitude of longtime members, such as Margarette Miller, with preserving First Associate.

Mrs. Miller joined the congregation in 1972 with her husband, Charles, who was a deacon. First Associate was viable until the 1990s when younger members started drifting away to other churches or left Augusta entirely, according to Mrs. Miller.

The congregation is working to increase membership, she said. "We have had brochures printed up. When cooler weather comes - we are getting these brochures out to the neighborhood and to the surrounding area."

Mr. Tisdale said that he and his wife would never have found First Associate if they hadn't been living nearby. "It is buried in the neighborhood, but it does attract people."

For more information, call 733-0047 or see the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church Web site at www.arpsynod.org.

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.