Friday, May 30, 2008

SoHills' 75th...

The Abilene Reporter-News did a nice story acknowledging SoHills' 75th Anniversary celebration this weekend. Stephen Corbett, my ministry partner and our multi-talented Congregational Life minister, did his usual great job of coordinating communication with Abilene's local media... so Stephen's behind-the scenes work made the AR-N's coverage a reality. Here's the story as it appeared in the May 29th edition of the AR-N:

With 75 years down, Southern Hills Church of Christ is looking toward the future. People who attend or work at Southern Hills, which celebrates its anniversary this weekend, say the church has never been content to sit still.

From an ambitious building campaign to a greater focus on community, the future mission of the church, located in south Abilene, is informed by a vision statement 14 months in the making: "We are God's community front porch: inviting, including and involving others in the life of Jesus."

Vann Conwell, Connecting minister at Southern Hills, said that message "flows from the heart of the Southern Hills people, a serving and loving people, and has helped reorient us with a focus on our Abilene community."

While the church has always had a rich tradition of sending missionaries elsewhere, its vision -- linked to the occasion of its anniversary -- "points us toward a new chapter in our history where we rediscover our opportunities to minister in our own community, to our neighbors," Conwell said. That means a rediscovery of a spirit and heart of hospitality, he said. It also means a distinctive call for every member to be a minister, a "priesthood of all believers," as Conwell put it, and the reality of "what it means to be, and grow, as a disciple of Jesus."

The church's outreach includes participating in "We Are The Sermon" Day (a massive day of service with other churches throughout Abilene), "Jesus Parties" and a rainbow of local ministerial opportunities. Now, the church has embarked on an ambitious building campaign, "Transforming Community," to provide facilities to help it reach out better to Abilene.

"Southern Hills has truly been blessed to be a part of the Abilene community these last 75 years," said Phil Ware, minister of the Word at the church. "Our desire as we move forward is that we can be ... a place and a people where Big Country folks can feel at home and experience God's presence and love."

Like its present incarnation, Southern Hills was never stagnant. Southward expansion of Abilene in the 1930s prompted the leadership of the Northside Church of Christ to plant a church at South 11th and Pecan streets. But the church proved so successful it only stayed at that location for three years, relocating a few blocks away to South 12th and Chestnut streets.

Ten years later, a new building was constructed, but that, too, proved only a short-term solution. After 18 years, the church's elders decided to relocate to the southwest edge of Abilene. In 1965, little existed on Buffalo Gap Road, according to the church's Web site. The church facility, built in a mesquite-filled pasture, was in a way a "testimony of faith in the southward growth of Abilene," according to the site.

Twenty years later, significant continued growth in both ministry opportunities and attendance prompted the church to build its present auditorium and eventually, the fellowship hall and children's ministry wing. Melissa Jacobs, who has been attending Southern Hills since 1994, said it is "amazing how far we have come in 75 years, and we are still continuing to grow." "We have been through two capital campaigns in the time I have been at Southern Hills," she said. "This means we have grown so much in that time that we have exceeded our building's capacity."

One thing that has always been constant is that if there is ever a need in a family, church members meet it, Jacobs said. "We try to take care of each other, in the good times and the bad," she said. "With projects like We Are The Sermon day and the Jesus parties, we are out in the community serving others as we have been commanded. We are not just about sitting in the pews and being served. We love to do the serving."

Hymonda Merkel has been attending Southern Hills for 43 years. She called the church's history "a journey with God as our guide through tears and cheers." "These folks are my extended family," she said. " We stay because we love the people and our own family has been loyal for over 65 years. Beginning with my grandmother, we now have had six generations."

Though she has served in a variety of roles, from polishing pews on Saturday nights to singing for funerals, Merkel has primarily been a teacher at the church, starting with classes for 2-year-olds and going all the way up to adult women. "We worship a living God," she said. "We are not a social club or civic organization. We believe and worship a Savior who died for us and we can never tell that story enough."