Karen Pearce is an IMB worker among European peoples and contributing writer.
GREENVILLE, S.C. (BP) — An old cigar warehouse that has stood sentry over Greenville’s Main Street for 150 years is now part of the emerging millennial mecca in this town of 70,000.
The warehouse’s rustic and historic atmosphere, paired with the newly polished wood floors and recessed lighting, make it the perfect place for the newest church plant in “the 29601” — Greenville’s downtown — relaying the old, old story of the Gospel in a language understood by modern young professionals flocking to this South Carolina city.
Abi and Matthew Elrod moved to Greenville eight years ago to do apartment ministry through the North American Mission Board and became involved in a church plant, Origins, in the city center. Matt became the discipleship pastor and, two years ago, was asked to become the lead pastor.
“Our purpose is to live out the Gospel for those who work, play and live downtown [the 29601],” Abi said. Through community groups and involvement in the life of the city, Origins encourages people to come as they are and discover a God who accepts and loves them without hesitation. Origins’ 100 members are mostly millennials. Many were raised in the church, walked away from faith during college, but are now seeking community and fellowship.
“Our members are inviting their co-workers and they’re coming!” Abi said with amazement.
“We’re not a production church. We’re relational and community-focused. We know that we’re all messed up,” she said, reflecting on Matt’s own experience with depression, which he has shared openly.
The transparency of this brokenness seems to be reflect an authenticity that draws millennials’ attention.
Sarah, by way of Thailand
Sarah was raised a practicing Catholic, but when she went off to college, she left that life behind, thus beginning her agnostic years.
“I didn’t really take anything away from [those years in the Catholic church],” Sarah said. “To me, it was like fictional stories.”
Her grad school study led her into meaningful discussions with students that revolved around race, gender and religion, leading her to explore her own faith. Burned out from grad school, looking for answers, and ready for a change, Sarah found a job in Bangkok, Thailand.
“I wanted to experience a different way of life,” she said. “I wanted to dabble [in religion] and see what felt right.”
Her connection in Thailand ended up being a strong evangelical Christian who invited her to church. It was there that Sarah’s understanding of God changed.
“I was finally able to take in who Jesus is, what He did for us, what it means to be a Christian. All these concepts I had grown up with, but didn’t really understand,” she said. “I was still exploring other faiths, but nothing I discovered really clicked. But at this church [in Bangkok], everything made sense — I felt a sense of peace I had never felt before.”
The pastor preached a sermon that had a direct correlation with some personal family issues Sarah was dealing with at the time. Through the pastor’s words, she realized that God had not left her alone.
“I was in a place of sadness, uncertainty and loneliness, and God met me there. I didn’t have anyone who really understood what I was going through, but I felt like … someone was hearing me … when I heard that sermon at church.”
Her journey continued as she transferred to Ireland and then came home to South Carolina, where she was baptized. She settled in Greenville, living life-on-life in an apartment ministry by hosting dinners and social events, sharing Christ, and becoming friends. When they started Origins church, Sarah became a part and found her home.
Chelsea, by way of a night in jail
Chelsea began her journey in Greenville but found herself in the same place spiritually in her 20s as Sarah. Departing from her early teaching at a Presbyterian church, she went from being a part of the “God squad” in high school to partying with the philosophical artsy crowd in college. Despite her religious childhood, she had no foundation for her beliefs, questioning everything she’d been taught, and was easy fodder for a deceptive worldview.
“I had created this theory in my head that God was the same god that everyone was worshipping, but they were worshipping in a different way. I didn’t grow up reading the Bible. I didn’t understand God’s Word or get deep into the Scripture. I had no foundation to walk on.” Describing herself as “a feeler,” her sense of the Holy Spirit led her to believe “He must be there. But that’s all I had; I was wandering.”
One night after being with friends, she was stopped by police and put in jail for the night. That experience was a turning point.
The night before it happened, Chelsea’s “God squad” girlfriends called her out on her waning faith. “Me and one friend were literally arguing with our other two friends about Jesus being the only way. The other two girls were in tears trying to get us to change our minds.”
Chelsea decided to get back to her party friends and that’s when she was pulled over and put in jail. She was never charged in the arrest, but the night in the slammer led her to an “aha” moment.
“It shook me. Made me want to start calling out again. I got out my Bible when I got home and prayed,” she recounted. “Sometimes you have to run smack dab into the face of Jesus to know He’s there.”
Chelsea and her best friend found their way to Origins through the apartment ministry and were baptized on the same day several months later.
“I gave my life to Christ. That’s only the beginning,” she said. “I’ve struggled with surrendering, I’ve struggled with church, but I’m a part of the community now.”
Chelsea typifies how many millennials feel about church.
“I feel like church turns people away — partly because the truth hurts. But I also think we’re not ministering the right way or fostering relationships the way we should be.” At Origins, Chelsea said, “We’ve tried to be inclusive and invite people. That’s why I go there.”
Origins, staying on Main Street
In January, Origins moved from a coffeehouse to the former cigar warehouse to accommodate growth. They are renting space and are determined to stay on Main Street to continue reaching the young professionals who are beginning to explore their spiritual questions.
Sarah and Chelsea are examples of the disciples being trained at Origins.
Sarah has become a co-leader of a small group, and she and her husband have seen one coworker already become a part of Origins and be baptized.
Chelsea also feels called of God to be involved in ministry in Greenville, saying “God has flipped my life upside down. I feel an anointing in my life to talk to people about this transformation. At first, my foundations were so shaky I felt like I couldn’t talk to people with confidence because of all the questions.”
Through good friends and a place to worship like Origins, Chelsea’s confidence in sharing her story is growing.
“I have this crazy joy now,” she said. “This is just the beginning of my story with Jesus.”