STARRSVILLE, Ga. — The church may be two centuries old but some leaders are working to make sure it serves as a center of community worship for a third century.
Starrsville United Methodist Church on Dixie Road in the Starrsville community of southeastern Newton County recently celebrated its 200th anniversary of its founding in 1821 — making it as old as Newton County itself.
The Rev. Michael Stephens said the anniversary celebration and homecoming event encouraged the largest group in recent memory to attend its annual homecoming celebration.
The event drew a crowd and filled the historic sanctuary with the sounds of a generation much younger than what the church draws on a typical Sunday, the pastor said.
He said he has worked hard to bring new enthusiasm to the church he has pastored for about a year.
"It was great for them to see the sanctuary three-fourths full," Stephens said. "It's been quiet for a long time."
"I said, 'Let's open up our door and be alive,'" he said.
"They were excited. They got to see what God can do," he said. "For them, God is doing amazing things at Starrsville."
Retired Superior Court Judge Sam Ozburn, a former longtime member and youth group leader, and Dalton Knox, who grew up in the church, returned for the event. Both are now elders of Eastridge Church. Knox spoke and recalled meeting his future wife at Starrsville UMC.
County school board member Trey Bailey, who is executive pastor at Eastridge Church, helped Starrsville members celebrate the church's landmark day by speaking words of inspiration to those working to keep the historic church alive, Stephens said.
Attendees at a post-service luncheon stayed until 3 p.m. rather than the usual 1 p.m. or so, he said.
A group of church members who each had attended Starrsville UMC for more than 50 years posed for photos with a cake decorated for the occasion, he said. They included Jane Anderson, Jim Anderson, Jimmy Bonner, Zelna Ewing, Anne Jacoby and Walter Savage.
Another longtime church member — who has attended services at Starrsville all his life — serves as the youth group leader.
Ronny Cook said he is the seventh generation of his family to live on the same property in the Starrsville community and attend the church. Cook's great-great-great-great grandfather was Silas Starr, who is credited as being one of the founders of the community.
"We had a good crowd," he said. "It was a good service."
Cook also is the church's unofficial historian and created a number of displays of historic documents and photos for the 200th anniversary.
The church's historic cemetery was featured, along with names of many buried there. Old roll books of church attendees and church bulletins were in one display Cook built. Some enlarged, historic photos were on display and were left over from a celebration of the 100th birthday of the church's sanctuary in 2001 — the same year historic memorabilia from each Newton County community was on display at the former Cohen's Men's Shop on Monticello Street, he said.
Starrsville is often described as a "generational church," meaning one generation attend services and volunteer in the church but the congregation gets small as subsequent generations go elsewhere.
Cook said the current group of church leaders was working to bring new energy to the church, which has seen a gradual decline since the early 2000s — coinciding with the growth of megachurches that emphasize contemporary Christian music and more casual approaches to church services in Metro Atlanta.
"We've stuck with a little bit more of a traditional service ... a choir ... choral music," Cook said.
He noted his youth group has been active enough to send out 600 flyers asking for food donations for the Salvation Army's food pantry. A Girl Scout troop also meets at the church which exposes a new generation of your people to the church, he said.
And the pandemic actually helped keep members involved because they could watch services and attend Bible study groups online without having to leave home, Cook said.
"I think we've got some ideas (to use) to grow some," he said.