First Presbyterian Church in Blue Ridge grows to serve God and neighbor

Faith Presbyterian Church in Blue Ridge, Georgia — a recent 1001 New Worshiping Communities Walton Award winner — began in 2000 with just eight members. The congregation chartered with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Cherokee Presbytery in 2004 and has since grown to over 130 members.

Rooted in the community while worshiping and providing ministry from rented locations since its founding, the members of Faith Presbyterian have ministered to their neighbors with a summer lunch program for local students, support of a women’s shelter, care for girls removed from their homes by Child Protective Services, a day program for adults with disabilities, tutoring programs, the “healing waters” ministry for veterans and serving other needs in their region. “All this work takes around 70 volunteers each week,” said the Rev. Jim Simpson, First’s pastor. “So that demonstrates the heavy percentage of the congregation that’s serving in these programs.” Ordained in the Church of Scotland in 1987, Simpson came to Georgia on a pulpit exchange in 1993. Three years later, he was called by that church and has remained in the U.S. as a pastor in the PC(USA) since then. He’s excited about the work the congregation has done and what is possible in the surrounding area as it plans for a new facility that better fits the needs of worship and service to the community.

“We have good visibility [in our current storefront location], but we have the hope that if we can secure our own facility we’ll be able to control the congregation’s destiny and to make a statement, in an earthy and Celtic way – owing to their Scottish pastor – that by having the building we put in roots,” said Simpson “We say we’re here to stay, we’re here to serve and making a commitment to the community and the people. This building will allow us to better serve and expand what we do as a witness to our faith in Jesus Christ.” Located in southern Appalachia on the northern border of Georgia, the congregation is geographically unique – located 10 miles from Tennessee and 12 miles from North Carolina – and was the first Presbyterian church chartered in the region. Fannin County has a population of 2,500 and nearly 100 independent churches, many of which, Simpson said, are family chapels. “Our Presbyterian heritage tells us we ought to have a public faith, it’s not just for the insiders. Through education and care for the poor, our forbearers taught us our faith is for everyone in the community. When we say all are always welcome, that’s a thing we try to follow.”

In addition to the Walton funds, the church launched a capital campaign last October and raised commitments of $930,000. The Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program loan will add $1 million to that total to complete the building project. “We’re reasonably unique in a time when denomination-wide our numbers have not been going in the healthiest direction,” said Simpson “Here we have a church with twice the participants than it had five years ago.”

The church has already engaged an architect and is planning a multi-use facility on the nine acres it purchased alongside the main highway into town. The building will have the capacity for 200 people in worship and will allow the congregation to offer space for groups to share in the work they’re doing in the community. It will have showers in the men’s and women’s restrooms, allowing the congregation to host 10-12 students or adults engaged in local mission projects or assisting with the church’s existing ministries.

“Almost every week we welcome someone here for the first time. I could definitely see us being 250 members being in the new building and building on the things we do,” said Simpson “We have 28 people practicing for the Christmas cantata. If you like a more traditional experience and like experiencing music and faith together, Faith Presbyterian is the place to come.” And what’s attracting newcomers? “People see that the congregation actually goes and does what they talk about by their service in the community,” said Simpson “We’re not subscribers to some church growth theory. Our church mission says our church continues to grow by serving our neighbors – and we’re experiencing the fruits of that faithfulness.”