On Aug. 5, attendees will worship for the last time at New Bethany Baptist Church.
After 137 years, the church on Lanier Islands Parkway in Buford is calling it quits.
Well, sort of. The church will reopen the following Sunday as Lanier Islands Community Church.
While some may call the move crazy, its leadership team says this is just what the church needs.
The idea started with the church’s co-pastors, Ron Cansler and Joey Jernigan, who have been leading the church since 2009.
“We really began to sense that God was moving us in a new direction (around March), we just weren’t sure where that direction was going to take us,” Cansler said. “We went on a focused prayer for about eight weeks and really began to seek God by asking, ‘How can we be a blessing to this community? How can we make a difference?
“We wanted to not just be a church on the corner, but a church that’s really in the community.”
During their prayer period, they received information from the Lanier Islands Parkway Community Improvement District about plans to improve the area within the upcoming years. That got them thinking about their place amid those changes and how they, too, could make community improvements by being more inclusive.
They wanted to go above and beyond customary projects like the ministering they do at area campgrounds and the annual sharing of the gospel during the Magical Nights of Lights at Lake Lanier Islands Resort.
After prayerfully considering their new direction, the two ultimately felt they were being called to spearhead a movement to change the church’s name to realign with their vision of being more community-minded.
After discussing it first among themselves the next step was for Jernigan and Cansler to take their idea to the church leadership.
“The first team that we broached the subject with was our Thrive Team. They are a leadership team that gives us wise counsel,” Cansler said.
“Even though God may give us a direction, he uses that group to help us work through how it’s going to look at our church,” Jernigan added.
“Our main objective always is to be obedient. Sometimes, as God lays a big task in front of you, it’s tough to say ‘OK, we’re going to do that,’” Cansler said.
“Quite honestly, when we really began to say this is something we need to pursue, there was a part of us that said, ‘We really don’t want to do this,’ because we understand the heritage behind a name that’s been around this long.”
After being “grilled” by the leadership team and receiving unanimous support, the co-pastors called a meeting with the church’s deacons.
“During our first meeting with them, we presented everything to them and they were in unanimous (approval) immediately,” Cansler said.
“That was pretty amazing and confirmed that we were heading in the right direction.”
That group was an especially important sounding board because some of the men’s families have been involved with New Bethany for the majority of its 137-year history, Jernigan said.
“Their relatives were founding members of this church,” said Cansler, who also grew up in the Buford church.
“One gentleman, Frank Compton — whose relatives were among the church founders — is one of the biggest supporters of this plan.”
After securing that piece of the puzzle, the co-pastors decided that the name change was an idea worthy of presenting to the overall church body. But first, they wanted to start with the senior members.
“We don’t have a lot of senior adult members, but we wanted to meet with them first out of respect,” Cansler said. “I can’t say they were ecstatic, but they were supportive because they believe in the next generation.”
On June 3, the co-pastors presented the idea to the entire church body during Sunday morning worship service.
“There were some questions. Some people asked if this was an anti-Baptist thing,” Cansler said. “We let them know it’s not anti-Baptist, it’s pro-people.”
When people hear “Baptist” they have a preconceived notion about the formality of the services and some worry they won’t fit in, Jernigan said.
That isn’t the case with New Bethany. The co-pastors typically dress in jeans or khaki pants, the church organ and choir have been replaced with a band and the services are held in an “auditorium,” not a formal sanctuary.
“It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people. We recognize and appreciate churches that do things more traditionally than we do,” Jernigan said.
“We’re not anti-Baptist or anti-traditional. We have the same message, it’s just presented a little differently.”
From the leadership team’s perspective, the name change isn’t synonymous with losing touch with the church’s Baptist roots.
“We’ll still be a Southern Baptist church and we’re not ashamed to be Baptist, but the truth is we don’t exactly reflect what people think a Southern Baptist church is,” Cansler said.
“We really wanted to have a way to communicate in our name a little more clearly what kind of church you can expect when you come here,” Jernigan added.
“Just like every Baptist church isn’t traditional, we realize that not every community church is more modern, but a lot of them are known for being more contemporary.”
The church body voted June 24, with a majority of members — about 84 percent — approving. If the vote had swung in the other direction, Jernigan and Cansler say that the members’ wishes would’ve been respected and the new name would have remained in the idea phase.
But instead, they’re in the process of officially becoming Lanier Islands Community Church. The necessary paperwork has been submitted to the Georgia Secretary of State and the church is planning a special ceremony for its worship services Aug. 12.
The community is invited out to be a part of the 10:35 a.m. service that Sunday, as well as all other services.
“From the beginning, we said, ‘God, if you are not in this, shut it down,’” Cansler said.
“This wasn’t about us doing something to get publicity. This was about New Bethany being what God wants it to be.
“We knew that this could be very polarizing or unifying and so far, it has been very unifying.
“We believe God has said, ‘This is who you are. You are a community church and your name will better reflect that to the community.’”