Grace Presbyterian: A Sending Church
by Grace Mullaney Humbles ’13
On June 5, 2016, Grace Presbyterian Church of Lookout Mountain, GA, (formerly First Evangelical Presbyterian Church and Reformed Presbyterian Church) held a service of celebration in the wake of a congregational vote to close the church. During the ceremony, God’s work through Grace Presbyterian was celebrated with gratitude. Grace Presbyterian graciously gifted the church’s land and building to Covenant College.
The story of Grace Presbyterian Church is a rich testimony of the faithfulness of God through His people. Throughout their 52-year history as a church, the congregation of Grace Presbyterian shed light on racial issues in the church, brought Christian education to the Chattanooga area, and sent missionaries, elders, and pastors throughout the world.
In many ways, Covenant College and Grace Presbyterian Church grew up together. As soon as Covenant moved to Lookout Mountain, GA, in 1964, the men and women at the College recognized the need for an evangelical, Reformed church in the area. On September 9, 1964, the church was particularized. Even before Covenant’s new Lookout Mountain campus was dedicated, a church had been formed. The first worship service and Sunday school were held the next Sunday, on September 13. After morning worship, a congregational meeting was held to name the church. Following some discussion and a vote, the church was named First Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Over time and through denominational shifts, the church was renamed Reformed Presbyterian Church and, most recently, Grace Presbyterian Church.
“There was no denominational presence in all of metropolitan Chattanooga at that time,” says charter member Joel Belz ’62. “The nearest congregation of the sponsoring denomination was in Huntsville, AL. And so, it’s fair to say that the particularization of the Church was expedited because of that.”
Another charter member, the late Collyn Schmidt, echoed Belz’ sentiment.
“There was no Reformed, evangelical church, and we were audacious enough to start one,” said Schmidt. “We just quietly started the church and it was the Lord’s doing, because He pushed us along.”
Gary and Julie Huisman were early members of the church. They were married in the church in 1968, when worship services were held in the enclosed South porch of Carter Hall.
“When you’re in the thick of it, the years go by very quickly,” says Mrs. Huisman. “There have been so many blessings over the years. And there is a sense in which you want to soak it up and from all you have, go and give to others.”
The church’s outreach to the Chattanooga area developed with the founding of Third Street Sunday School in downtown Chattanooga, which would later become New City Fellowship. After moving to Lookout Mountain with the College, Schmidt remembered noticing a laundromat at the bottom of the mountain that had a sign proclaiming, “For whites only.”
“There was a lot of overt racism,” said Schmidt. “So we started a Sunday school class downtown. We made fliers and went down on a Saturday in the spring of 1968 and distributed the fliers in a neighborhood downtown. And it was the Lord’s doing, because none of us really knew what was going on. That first Sunday we had 17 little kids come. Joan Nabors ’71—then McRae—came to college around that time and she started coming and then Randy Nabors ’72 came and Jim Ward ’72 came. We were thrilled. Rudy and I said we would stay down there two years.”
Rudy and Collyn Schmidt never left, and New City Fellowship continues to pursue justice and reconciliation in the Chattanooga community to this day.
Even from those early years, the church was a sending church, giving to the community and birthing new ministries and opportunities among its people.
Lookout Mountain Christian School, which later became Chattanooga Christian School (CCS), was started by a small group of families from the church in 1970. The school met at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church (LMPC). Belz, who was on the founding board of the school and later became the school’s headmaster, points to LMPC’s practical help as particularly essential in the early years of what would become CCS. Today, CCS provides a Christian education to more than 1,000 students from Pre-K to twelfth grade.
With Carter Hall as the only building on the Covenant College campus, the church continued to meet in the South porch until 1971 when the construction of a church building across the street from Covenant College was completed. Belz was chairman of the building committee and he recalls working hard to find a contractor that the church could afford. The committee hired a man named George Getter, who normally built homes, but was willing to construct the building and categorize it as a “home.”
“We worked hard to buy the little piece of property and to build the building so that we could all walk to church,” says Belz. “It’s a place that will always hold special memories for me, partly because of Lookout Mountain Christian School and partly because my wife, Carol, and I were married there.”
The church was, in an unofficial sense, the church of the College. In the College’s early years on Lookout Mountain, nearly all employees and students attended church services in Carter Hall and later walked across the street to church every Sunday.
Throughout the decades, hundreds of future pastors, missionaries, leaders, and servants came through the doors of Grace Presbyterian Church. The more than 50-year life of the church was not without challenges and difficulties. But God’s work through the church was never dependent on the perfection of the people inside its walls.
As more students became mobile and headed to other churches on Sunday mornings, the congregation of Grace Presbyterian began to dwindle, and eventually members voted to close their doors. The decision was made prayerfully and thoughtfully, and the church was cared for till the end by other churches in the area.
“It was very sweet at the end,” says Mrs. Huisman. “So many people came to help. So many churches came around and helped us and we felt very well cared for.”
The church’s last service was a service of celebration on June 5, 2016. The church gave until the very end, giving of their resources to other ministries and churches, and even to the College. At the celebration service, the church gifted their land, building, and organ to Covenant College. The College named the building “The Kirk”—a Scottish word for “church”—and is taking time to consider how best to steward the building that was so graciously given to Covenant.
“The closing of the church is certainly a sad development for that community, and also for the College—which has been nurtured in many important ways over the years by that body of believers,” says President Derek Halvorson. “However, we give thanks to God for the good work He has done through Grace Presbyterian/Reformed Presbyterian over the years and trust that He will continue to use those who have been a part of that body to advance His purposes in and through other fellowships.”
Even more than the gifts of material resources, the people of Grace Presbyterian are now living gifts to other churches in the area.
“I trust that those of us who go on to other churches will continue to be a blessing,” says Mrs. Huisman. “The Lord has been so gracious to us. We have been so blessed to be part of this family.”
Session member Gary Huisman, who had remained at Grace Presbyterian since its very early days, reflected on the celebration as a continuation of the mission of the church.
“Grace is continuing,” says Mr. Huisman. “Our church was always a sending church instead of a growing church. At the end, we all had a sense that we were closing, but we were still sending people out. We were always a sending church, and we closed as a sending church.”