Two Fayetteville churches become one

by Mike Creswell
  • The launch service for Refuge Church - which formed from the merger of two Fayetteville churches - included baptizing four family members.

  • Members of The Bridge Community Church and New Life Community Church greet one another during their first worship service together.

Monday, March 11, 2013 | 1 year old

Two churches in Fayetteville ceased to exist in February.

And everybody’s happy about it.

That’s because two churches merged into a single, stronger congregation: Refuge Church.

By mid-2012 New Life Community Church had dwindled to around 10 or 15 members and had no pastor. Lay leaders feared they would have to close the doors. "We were in need of help from the Lord," said Carl Barefoot, a long-time member of New Life, founded 30 years ago as Providence Baptist Church.

Meanwhile The Bridge Church, led by Pastor Brian Woodall, was a healthy and growing 90 or so members but had no good place to meet. "The Bridge had been going about four years," he said. The church had met in a series of rented facilities over those four years: a conference center, a school and finally at a tanning/video store they had outgrown. Then the rent was raised.

That's when Randy White, director of missions, and Robert Ivey, associate director, for New South River Baptist Association got involved. At the time the two ministers were taking turns filling the pulpit for services at New Life.

They began thinking, what if these two churches merged?

"The Bridge Church had members but no older adults to provide stability. New Life didn't have young adults or children. The Bridge had no building, but New Life has a nice building sitting on five acres of property. Why not combine the two?" White said.

"I just couldn't get away from that idea. One Wednesday night I said to myself, it's time to float this balloon and see what happens," White said. The 10 New Life members voted unanimously to approve the merger; soon afterwards, The Bridge members also gave unanimous approval.

"Even though this happened quickly, they did not rush it," notes Robert Ivey. "They took time to visit with each other and each side made sure that this was what God was leading them to do."

"It's a God thing," White said.

Brian Woodall agrees: "It has been awesome. This is God at work. People here at New Life have been as accommodating as can be. They allowed The Bridge to come in and continue a lot of ministries we were doing, but then ramp up some new things that are more relevant to this community," he said.

The older New Life members have remained, though Sunday morning services now feature a praise band with guitars and drums. "The older adults have reacted well to the changes. They realize what's needed to reach a younger generation," said Woodall, a 2003 graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Wednesday evening services are more traditional, with hymns and a Bible study.

"Brian has done a superb job of bringing together the two separate bodies into one body. Almost like a marriage, the two became one," said Ivey.

And the marriage is likely to last because of the nature of the churches involved in this particular merger, according to Mark Gray, the Baptist State Convention staffer who leads church planting. His team helped start 101 new churches across the state during 2012.

"Mergers tend to work best when an effective growing church merges with a struggling church. The strong provides strength for the weaker. But, when a struggling church seeks to merge with another struggling church, the outcome tends to be less fruitful than anticipated," Gray said, citing a study by Leadership Network that supports his assessment.

For the last several months the newly united church has been worshipping together as they also set up teams, trained members and renovated the building.  On Sunday, Feb. 10 they launched the church to the community, with a new sign out front proclaiming the new name.

Carl Barefoot greeted people at the front door and handed out bulletins.

"God just led us together," he said of the merger. He said it reminded him of the Genesis account of Abraham and Sarah having a child in their old age.

"If God had told me a few months ago that today we would have 75 to 100 people in this church, I would have asked, 'Lord, you're not funning me are you?' But here we are," he said with a broad smile.

The new church, renamed Refuge Church, meets in what was New Life's solid building complex that includes a sanctuary, classrooms and a fellowship hall. Members and visitors nearly filled the sanctuary Feb. 10, an indication the church may need a bigger building before long. They will have room for one on the five paid-for acres, valued by one real estate agent at $1 million or more.

Woodall said some of The Bridge's members already live near the new location. Refuge Church's location on Ireland Drive, just off the busy Raeford Road, seems a perfect location for a growing church. Four schools are within a mile; apartments and housing developments are nearby.

Woodall estimates their location is right in the middle of the sprawling city. "You can access this church within 10 to 15 minutes from anywhere in Fayetteville," he said.

Already the church has reached some local ethnic minorities and leaders hope to expand that outreach effort; a Spanish-speaking church may be sponsored in the future. Woodall remains committed to reaching Fayetteville's predominant military population as well. He notes they lost five military families in December who were moved elsewhere, a normal occurrence for churches ministering to the military in the area.

"It's a new beginning for a new church," Carl Barefoot said to sum up the situation.

"There are other places where this could happen," said White, "if congregational DNA is not so entrenched that they are willing to do a new thing. Across our state there are numbers of our churches that could merge and so become strong enough to have an effective ministry."