EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story is part of an ongoing series initiated by Baptist Press to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.
CONOVER, N.C. (BP)–Sixteen years ago, Lanette Harris was caught in the middle.
She felt torn by the bitter division at Springs Road Baptist Church in Hickory, N.C., a town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her roots ran deep at Springs Road, where her grandparents, parents and many other family members attended.
Her husband, Bill, however, felt the Lord leading them to join about 150 church members to break off from Springs Road and form their own church.
A rancorous disagreement had spiraled out of what some describe as a generational test of wills. What began as a difference of opinion between the new, well-liked, innovative pastor — who brought much growth and change to the church — and a beloved, longtime music director, spilled over into the membership.
New ideas clashed with tradition, said Bill Harris. No compromise could be found, and the pastor resigned in the fray.
Those who had taken his side founded New Life Baptist Church in neighboring Conover, eventually settling in a building just four miles from the old church in Hickory. The exiting pastor, however, did not join them.
Lanette Harris was among the charter members at New Life. “I was going under the authority of my husband where the Lord wanted us to be. It was a very, very difficult time when the split happened. I was emotionally wrought. It’s something I hope I never have to go through again,” she said, echoing the sentiments of many who remember those bitter days.
The Harrises long ago made amends with Lanette’s family and other church members, who understood their decision. But, for all these years, the split left lingering resentment over the emotional and financial devastation caused by the departure of such a significant segment of the church membership. In the community, the perception was of a house divided.
Rather than let the longstanding resentment fester any longer, New Life members this year offered an olive branch to their former church home, inspired by a marathon revival that surprised the break-off congregation and softened hearts to heal old wounds.
Bill Harris, a deacon at New Life, was among those who thought it was time to put it right, although no one anticipated the change would come from a revival meeting.
New Life member Mary Larson admits she had no great expectations and was even a bit skeptical at the prospect of keeping people engaged for 10 straight days of revival.
She certainly didn’t think she’d be asking for more, along with many others in the fellowship.
“We said, ‘Oh, we don’t want this to stop!’” Larson said, after being part of an invigorating 10 days that brought revival in the true sense of the word.
Seeing the profound outpouring, the Life Action revival team, visiting from Buchanan, Mich., stayed on to preach an extra day that was to have been a day of rest before traveling to their next engagement.
Still, the congregation wanted more.
New Life’s pastor, Steve Clark, was so moved by the unexpected outpouring in the church that he kept the revival meetings going, preaching for 35 days, staring in March and ending in April.
The spiritual marathon took on a life of its own, as person after person shared how God was working.
“It just fell like a rock,” Clark said. “There was such a spirit of brokenness and repentance. You could hear sobbing. It was about forgiveness. It just permeated the congregation. We met every night of the week. It was incredible. It wasn’t an outpouring of spiritual awakening so much as it was revival –- God’s people returning to Christian life.”
Larson said people were healed and family members who had been prayed for over the course of years came to Christ.
“People I never thought would share came up and would encourage you to share. God was doing some mighty things. We said, ‘Whoa! God is here.’ You just couldn’t wait to get there every night. We would hang around after the meetings. We didn’t want to leave each other. We just bonded,” Larson said.
Though Clark has only been at the church for 11 years and, like most now at New Life, wasn’t part of the rift that broke apart Springs Road, he was aware of the painful history. Occasionally through the years the pastor had brought up the idea of making amends, but people weren’t ready. After the revival, however, when he broached the subject, most everyone enthusiastically agreed.
Clark asked for the few remaining charter members to discuss the possibility of issuing a formal, written apology to Springs Road Baptist Church for any harm or hurt caused by New Life’s departure in 1988.
“The revival just broke everyone. They felt very sensitive to sin, any sin. That’s where the seed was planted. I asked the Lord if there was anything we hadn’t done, and the Lord spoke to me. ‘There is one thing, Steve,’” Clark recounted.
Clark personally delivered the letter to his colleague and friend, Arthur Yount, who has been Springs Road’s pastor for eight years. Yount shared the letter with the church, which had never recovered the membership it lost in the exodus and, for a time, had struggled to meet its financial obligations.
Not only did they accept the humble apology, they reciprocated. Members of Springs Road wanted to be forgiven for any hard feelings they contributed during the split as well.
“There’s no such thing as a completely innocent party,” Yount said. “God never orchestrates division.”
In September, a full-page newspaper advertisement in The Hickory Daily Record announced an upcoming reconciliation service between the two churches. In the ad, they publicly requested and gave forgiveness. Their humility extended to the public, to which they offered contrition and made a joint apology for the poor Christian witness their breakup had been in the community.
“Repentance and forgiveness are the core of who we are,” Yount said.
Instead of being known as churches that were at odds, they publicly sought reconciliation as one in Christ in the community, and the action to close a traumatic chapter in their church history has garnered many positive comments from non-church members.
Larson, who was among those intent on leaving in 1988, said she thought it was the right thing to do at the time but now knows it was wrong.
“We should have prayed through it and made it work,” Larson said.
At the reconciliation service, Yount preached from Nehemiah about restoration. Members from each church joined together to sing in the choir. For members of both churches, a burden was lifted.
The two churches shared a Thanksgiving-eve service, and seniors from both churches have begun to share excursions, including luncheons and a Christmas celebration dinner at Springs Road, with more joint efforts to follow.
Larson said the revival that inspired the reconciliation has had a lasting effect in the daily worship of New Life members. Four prayer groups started meeting on various days in members’ homes, and it is hoped they will lead to other groups.
For her daughter, it was great to walk down the halls of the old church where she had attended Sunday School as a child.
“It’s just opened up doors. It’s so wonderful. These people that were my friends, it’s so wonderful to see them again,” Larson said. “I found out that publicly going to someone and saying, ‘Will you forgive me?’ is a very freeing thing in your life. It’s changed my life.”
It has also changed her church.
“I did a discipleship program –- going through and forgiving people and asking forgiveness for past wrongs, and that changed my life. It freed me up. I know it’s the same principle for the church,” Larson said.
“It’s amazing when you get rid of it, how wonderful it feels,” she said. “You can receive those blessings when all that junk is gone.”
“I feel like God will really bless New Life for what they have done,” said Annie Lee Lafone, 81, a charter member of Springs Road back in the 1950s.
Lafone stayed on during the exodus in 1988, which even saw the departure of her daughter. She remained friends with those who left, but saw hard feelings break up other friendships. Springs Road, which can seat 600 in the chapel, and was having tremendous growth before the split, now sees only about 160 at Sunday services.
“It’s a sad story, but I think God’s going to straighten it out,” Lafone said.
Looking back on what the battle was about, Lafone calls the issue “nothing.”
“A little old misunderstanding – the devil can take it and really make use of it,” she said.
By the same token, looking at the formation of two churches after the traumatic events — New Life and Tri-City, a large church that has outpaced both of its predecessors, with a membership in the thousands -– along with the recent reconciliation, Lafone said: “God can take bad things and make them turn into good.”