Shady Grove Wesleyan Church's (SGWC) innovating through disruption is nothing new. The Colfax, North Carolina, congregation celebrated their 150-year anniversary in 2021, amid a cultural moment that has been challenging for almost every church.
As congregations sift through pandemic recovery, theological deconstruction and competing visions of the church’s place in society, SGWC’s history offers an instructive path forward for those seeking to be faithful in our time and place.
“When I think of this church,” said the Rev. Todd Reynolds, lead pastor at SGWC, “they’ve been through pandemics before. They’ve weathered world wars and great depressions — and have remained convinced the message is greater and stronger than what’s around us.”
That durable ministry emerges from a well-laid theological framework. Founded in 1871, SGWC was rooted in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition of personal holiness and social activism. Adam Crooks, an early Wesleyan-Methodist minister instrumental in abolition and temperance movements, was among the early theological influences for SGWC.
“Shady Grove is holy ground for Wesleyan history,” reflected Dr. Bob Black, professor emeritus of religion at Southern Wesleyan University. Even before their founding date, as early as the 1840s, SGWC was an “open-air preaching point that was the scene for mob attacks against Wesleyan preachers,” he added.
“When I think of this church, they’ve been through pandemics before. They’ve weathered world wars and great depressions — and have remained convinced the message is greater and stronger than what’s around us.”
Social and personal holiness came through in the church’s early ministry, with church members regularly advocating (in personal relationships and public legal advocacy) for just laws and a society respecting the dignity of all image-bearers.
“The social issues he (Crooks) was standing up for at the time, and the holiness movement and the desire to preach a holiness message in the community … those are things the church has been built on,” reflected Rev. Reynolds.
Those messages were countercultural in North Carolina at the time and SGWC’s founders knew the potential cost. In the early 1850s, Rev. Crooks was driven out of North Carolina for his open advocacy of abolition. Yet when the fledgling congregation decided to build a church building, he reprised his role as the church’s spiritual father and preached at the building’s dedication service.
Services continued to draw a group of congregants who believed the gospel must be good news; not just in the abstract, but in holy habits that oriented churches, communities, families and individuals.
“But the greatest accomplishment is that the church remains a dynamic, thriving, innovative congregation today with the same sense of mission and the same level of commitment as those pioneering Wesleyans demonstrated a century-and-a-half ago.”
This optimistic gospel gave young people in Colfax a vision of Christianity big enough for them to commit. As young attendees, motivated to make a difference in their community and to grow in holiness, began emerging in leadership through SGWC, the congregation became a “sending church,” developing clergy and lay-shepherds who took the optimistic gospel with them into their next placement.
SGWC’s mobilizing of leaders made it a natural “convening place” for conferences and revivals in their district of The Wesleyan Church. For decades, SGWC hosted the district’s camp meetings; the congregation invested deeply in creating space for a broader community to listen to God’s voice, and that effort has multiplied their disciple-making. Even now, many trace their spiritual lineage — whether a confession of faith, call to ministry or invitation to holiness — through their experiences at SGWC.
This past work dovetails with SGWC’s continued work as a vibrant church for their community. “Shady Grove deserves a whole array of historical markers to tell of her past,” said Dr. Black. “But the greatest accomplishment is that the church remains a dynamic, thriving, innovative congregation today with the same sense of mission and the same level of commitment as those pioneering Wesleyans demonstrated a century-and-a-half ago.”
Evidence of this commitment abounds, including the Colfax Partnership, a partnership between SGWC and the nearby Colfax Elementary School, in which volunteers, teachers, administrators and clergy work together to meet student needs in their school district.
God continues to call missionaries and ministers through SGWC’s robust intergenerational community; yet, as Rev. Reynolds reflects on his time in the congregation, he articulates a rising sense of “call” among laity who approach their “secular” vocations as a sacred calling.
“Like every other church, we have our challenges and issues,” reflected Rev. Reynolds. “And yet there is a great nucleus of people who love God, love one another and love their community … and who have an understanding of our tradition and heritage as Wesleyans, and our unique calling to spread a message of hope and holiness.”
“People are hungry for hope; and our unique Wesleyan message of the hope and holiness of Jesus Christ now is in a place where it resonates."
SGWC’s holiness vision may be instructive for churches looking to faithfully minister to communities in which many of their neighbors (especially young people) need a reason to be convinced the local church is worthwhile. We’re in a time of deep suspicion around religion and our moment requires churches to find a fresh vision of success: not just calling people to come to church but inviting people to move with God into the spaces of their work, homes and neighborhoods.
Situated within a rich Wesleyan history of personal and social holiness, SGWC has a uniquely important charge to keep to the next generation. Their commitment to raise up and send out leaders for the church and community — an important emphasis during their entire history — continues in robust children and youth programs. But perhaps more importantly, SGWC offers a vision of the gospel that ages well, because it’s truly good news — not just for the church but for their community.
“With every new challenge, God is always going to have a people who share the message that doesn’t change,” reflected Rev. Reynolds. “People are hungry for hope; and our unique Wesleyan message of the hope and holiness of Jesus Christ now is in a place where it resonates. As things get bleaker in our world, and people have more questions, there’s more opportunity for us to share that message.”
As churches seek to be faithful in bringing our Wesleyan history and theology to bear on lives today, SGWC’s trajectory offers much to learn from: harmonizing piety with activism, community commitment with a deep theological mooring and empowering the leaders of tomorrow. As Dr. Black reflected, “There’s more history to be made at Shady Grove.”