Salem United Methodist Church had an active school group in 1887. The building behind the members burned in 1906. (contributed photo)
Editor’s note: Throughout 2013, the Times-News will feature one church and its congregation each month. Please share your church’s story and the ministries it offers by calling (423) 392-1367, e-mailing email@example.com or posting at Facebook.com/TNbecky.whitlock
During the past 200 years, Salem United Methodist Church has withstood two fires, a tornado and several reconstructions. The current structure is the fifth building on the site.
Margaret Fogleman says she joined Salem when she was about 8 or 9 years old and was just a young girl when the building Salem used for worship was destroyed by a tornado in 1933.
“I like to remind people this was just after the Great Depression and building a church back was a real act of faith. There was all sorts of volunteer labor that got the church to the point that it could be worshiped in again. I do remember the worship taking place before there were pews. We just made do with whatever we could find,”
Fogleman said. “But we grew after that.”
The church grew so much that additional buildings were constructed to add more space.
“As we grew, we just knew that eventually the sanctuary was going to have to grow. The structure was such that it was not feasible to try to remodel or build onto it. We decided to tear that building down and make space for the new sanctuary that we’re worshiping in now,” Fogleman said.
Salem UMC, located at 230 Boozy Creek Road in Blountville, just a short distance off 11-W, opened its new sanctuary in 2008 — just in time for its 200th anniversary celebration.
The Rev. Will Shewey is the pastor at Salem today and says when he first arrived at his new appointment in 2009, the church was experiencing a bit of a plateau, possibly even a decline, in attendance.
“They were averaging in the 80s and 90s when I came,” said Shewey, who has a passion for growing and starting new congregations. “Today, our average attendance runs 208. We are growing. We’re not a dying Methodist church.”
Although Shewey is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he actually began his ministry in the Church of God, a Pentecostal church. Today, Shewey is a part of the Rethink Church Team of the Kingsport District of the United Methodist Church’s Holston Conference. This team is led by the Kingsport district’s superintendent, the Rev. David Graves.
Shewey says Rethink is trying to bring a clearer focus to churches about how they can survive, and sometimes, he adds, that means stepping out of your comfort zone and doing what you never thought about doing before.
“Did you know that over 75 percent of the people in Northeast Tennessee have no affiliation or claim to a congregation — that’s three out of four people? Those are real numbers. We’re in bad shape in this country,” Shewey said.
Shewey also says that a “death tsunami,” is quickly approaching American churches.
“Within five to six years from now, it is said that one out of every three congregations in the United States will not exist. That’s all denominations across the board — Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal. It doesn’t matter. We are in decline. We are not making disciples. We’re not getting new people in. We’re not bringing young people in and we’re going to sit there and die,” he said.
Shewey didn’t want Salem UMC to die.
“Even though the church here was starting to grow two years ago and was even a leading congregation in the district, I knew we could do more,” Shewey said.
But he didn’t exactly know how to do more. He says the answer came to him one day while mowing his lawn.
“I always like to mow my yard with a push mower because that’s the time that I can drown out everything and I can meditate. Sometimes I mow twice a week and that’s when I have my best sermons,” he said, laughing. “But about two and a half years ago while I was mowing, the Holy Spirit spoke to me and I heard these words, ‘Start a 1:30 service.’ I heard it so loudly that I turned the mower off and looked around because I actually thought someone was standing over my shoulder. But no one was there. I thought about it and I said, ‘Lord, that’s kind of an unusual order. It’s difficult enough to get them here at a regular morning service. Who’s going to come in the afternoon?’ So, I started my mower back up, and I pushed it a little further and a second voice came and said, ‘Feed them.’”
And this is how, two years ago, Salem UMC’s very contemporary and spirit-filled 1:30 p.m. Joy service — complete with a praise and worship band — was born, said Shewey.
“The target of this 1:30 service is non-church people — people who have never been to church. But we have all kinds of people of all ages who come. One of our greatest fans is an 86-year-old lady. This is a very lively service with drums, a keyboard and a guitar. You’re up on your feet jumping up and down,” Shewey said. “In the 1:30 service, sometimes I preach, but we also have lots of testimonies and guest preachers. I believe in order to have successful worship, in the future, we have to go to alternate times and spaces.”
Between the 10:45 a.m. service, which Shewey said typically lasts about an hour and 45 minutes, and the 1:30 p.m. Joy service, Shewey’s best friend, John Nagy, prepares a lunch to serve anyone who wants to eat.
“John loves to cook and he loves doing parties and I mentioned to him about what the Lord said to me about ‘feeding them.’ John said, ‘I would love to do that!’ He’s found his place. For over two years, he alone caters a meal. It started out with 23 people and now we feed between 60 and 80 every Sunday between 12:30 and 1:30. We have three ladies from the church who help provide rolls and desserts a couple of times a month, but other than that John does it all. Jesus fed the crowds; he fed the people. The Spirit really said to me, ‘Feed them.’ So, we are,” Shewey said.
Shewey says he’s heard a lot of people say they don’t want to go to church because they want to sleep in on Sundays.
“So, in answer to that, you can roll out of bed at 12. Come here at 12:30 with your hair uncombed — all the services here are very casual — eat and then stay and worship with us at 1:30. It’s a welcoming congregation. I want everyone to know that as long as I am a pastor of any congregation, it will be an inclusive congregation. Everyone is welcome,” Shewey said.
Fogleman said the congregation at Salem UMC is thankful for Shewey and his style of ministry.
“Will has taught us a lot about faith, of just reaching for things that you never thought possible. And that through prayer and trust he’s helped us see that things can be accomplished that you never thought could. We had wished for things, but had never sought them out exactly the right way. He has taught us a lot about faith. He’s taught us to ask for and just believe,” she said.
Fogleman said she hopes Salem will continue to be thought of as the loving and caring church she has always known it to be.
“We have a love that actually comes through our heavenly Father. It is from the heart, and it is real. If we can just keep that love for God in our hearts and let the Holy Spirit be our guide in making decisions, making further steps farther ahead, but not getting ahead of him, staying in his will, I think if we can continue to do that, he will continue to pour out his blessings on us,” she said. “We’ve been through some decline, but we’ve climbed back up and have continued to grow to the church that we are now. We are thriving today. We just want to keep that momentum and keep our growth, not only in numbers, but in our spiritual growth in both our community and the world.”
In addition to the 10:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. services on Sundays, Salem UMC also offers an 8:30 a.m. service. Life Study Groups begin at 9:45 a.m. on Sundays and several different Bible studies are available throughout the week.
For more information, visit the church’s Facebook page or call (423) 323-7848.