Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Tennessee Church Pursues Future Following Mortgage Payoff
By Carl Stagner
“It is truly wonderful what the Lord has done; glory to his name!” The lyrics of the Barney Warren classic ring especially true for Greeneville First Church of God in eastern Tennessee. They recently experienced a celebration many churches have already enjoyed and others still long for. On October 10, 2021, a historic moment in the life of the congregation capped off an already exciting three-day weekend of revival services with the commemoration of their debt payoff. As the flames consumed the mortgage papers in jubilant ceremony for all to see, the promise that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever served as a reminder that what God accomplished in their midst is only a foreshadowing of what God can do as they turn to face the future with hearts full of faith.
Twenty months ago, about the time the COVID-19 crisis first broke out, Greeneville First Church of God still owed about $475,000 on their mortgage. Looking back at the ominous financial forecast predicted for nonprofits in the early days of the pandemic, it’s hard for many to believe how the church could erase their debt and even dramatically increase the amount in their checking account. But God! The faithful giving of the congregation was surely blessed abundantly, and Greeneville First Church of God retired their debt in July. Celebration would have ensued shortly thereafter, but the congregation was then actively waiting for one more miracle in the making.
Gerald Rudd, former pastor of Greeneville First Church of God, had come down with a critically severe case of COVID. He had led the congregation through a period of remarkable growth and the construction of the beautiful building in which the congregation now gathers for worship several times per week. It only seemed fitting that he should participate in a formal celebration of the mortgage payoff, but his long road to recovery followed three weeks unresponsive on the heels of reports he might not survive the first night in the hospital.
Nathan Leasure, pastor of the congregation for the past six years, explains further. “We were praying for his healing and chose to wait on setting a date so he could be with us. After he made it home, after five weeks of being hospitalized, we set a date that he believed he would be able to meet. He had lost fifty-five pounds and had significant rehab to attend to. It was wonderful to celebrate the removal of the debt, but almost equally wonderful to celebrate Gerald’s recovery.”
Of course, October 10 was no ordinary Sunday morning at Greeneville First Church of God. The Spirit’s presence was especially palpable and the crowd especially enthusiastic. What a joy it was for those gathered in the expansive facility to reflect on the past as they watched a multimedia presentation of images of the construction and dedication of their new worship space! What a blessing it was to witness leaders grace the platform whose investment and stewardship made it all possible! What a blessing it was to hear from a healthy and witty-as-ever Gerald Rudd, post-healing! And, what a thrill it was to watch their mortgage burn!
“The removal of the debt seems to have reinvigorated us to do ministry,” Pastor Nathan explains. “When a church has significant debt, there seems to always be a debate between those who wanted to do ministry and those who want to be fiscally responsible. The pastor seems to be trying to find middle ground. With the removal of the debt also comes the removal of that tension to a great degree.”
While the retirement of their debt it a wonderful event along the timeline of the congregation’s history, it wasn’t the end goal. Ministry has always been the target; paying off their debt was part of the fruit of a healthy, thriving church that has remained faithful to their calling.
“We are a congregation that is unapologetically conservative, contemporary, and evangelistic,” Nathan reflects. “These three characteristics are not often combined in other congregations. Usually conservative and tradition go together, as well as liberal and contemporary. Evangelistic seems to be lost altogether in other instances. Our goal, particularly through the work of Celebrate Recovery, which is our most invested-in ministry, is to see people very far from God come to salvation and live lives of sanctification. Many conservative churches aren’t waist-deep in recovery ministry because it puts them on the front lines of dealing with addiction issues, gender identity issues, legal issues, etc. It can be very messy work, bringing people from the brink of blowing their lives, to a life of holy living. It’s not something, quite frankly, that many holiness people care to engage in. Yet, we feel a special calling to storm the gates of hell and aggressively call people to repentance, while walking beside them on a daily basis.”
In his sermon on October 10, Gerald Rudd spent little time rehashing the past; instead, his focus was the future, and he challenged the congregation to steer their focus to the future, too. Like those who invested in the present worship facility, he noted, “Some of you prepared so much for this. One of these days you won’t be here anymore, but there will be someone sitting in these pews because of you. God will have used you to do something for the future!”
Perhaps it’s time to add a chorus to the conclusion of Barney Warren’s classic hymn. “It is truly wonderful what the Lord will do; glory to his name!”
Learn more about other ways the Lord is on the move in the Church of God at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.
Feature (top) collage: Gerald Rudd was blessed to carry out the burning of the mortgage papers.