New Beginnings: Two Churches Launch to Serve Communities, Offer Hope

January 19, 2023
(Kara Witherow for the AWFUMC) - Out of death comes new life.

That’s at the heart of every Christian’s story, and it’s also at the center of the story of two new Alabama-West Florida faith communities.

In the small town of Cottondale, Fla., United Methodist roots run deep, but for the past three years, there’s been no United Methodist presence in the community. Cottondale First United Methodist Church, once a small but dynamic congregation, wasn’t able to survive the devastating double whammy of Hurricane Michael and COVID.

The church closed, the remaining members dispersed, and the building and parsonage sat empty.

From his vantage point about 10 miles down the road, Dr. Nathan Attwood, senior pastor of Marianna First United Methodist Church, saw Cottondale as an important town with a future.

“There’s a need for a United Methodist church in every community, certainly one the size of Cottondale,” he said.

With the support of Marianna-Panama City District Superintendent Rev. Jean Tippit and after several years of years of praying, dreaming, planning, and lots of hard work renovating the church building and parsonage, on Jan. 1, Restoration United Methodist Church was launched in the sanctuary that formerly housed Cottondale UMC.

This new church is a sign of hope, said Rev. Rebecca Rutherford, a deacon appointed to Marianna First UMC who serves as both associate pastor there and also as lead pastor at Restoration UMC.

“Life comes out of things we assume are dead. The Lord is not finished with Cottondale. The UMC has not forgotten you; we have not forgotten you.”

The 100-year-old building has been repaired, updated, and given a new name and preacher, but the message being preached inside hasn’t changed, Rev. Rutherford said.

“Restoration is our name and our mission. My hope is for the church to be a place of restoration for those who have called it home in the past and for those who don’t yet know that it’s a safe place,” she said.

The name of the church was born out of the desire for it to be a haven, somewhere people can find renewal and revival. One of the last groups to meet in the building before it closed was the Christian 12-step program Celebrate Recovery, and Rev. Rutherford plans to start a similar recovery ministry soon.

“I think people are starving for some hope,” she said. “I feel like we will be a missional church and a place of restoration and recovery, a church not just for Sunday mornings, but during the week, too.”

Rev. Mark Lilly’s prayer for the new church he’s launching is that it, too, will be a church focused on hope, healing, and serving its community.

Open Door United Methodist Church held its first service Dec. 4, 2022, just a few months after Rev. Lilly’s former church, Pace United Methodist Church, disaffiliated.

Temporarily worshiping on Saturday afternoons at The Way United Methodist Church in Pace, Open Door UMC’s services are a casual blend of traditional and contemporary worship. Communion is celebrated each week.

What makes Open Door UMC unique, Rev. Lilly said, is that he and the congregation are actively reaching out to those who have felt unwanted, excluded, and alienated.

“Part of the community we’re targeting has been shut out of churches. They’ve been run off or made to feel unwelcome,” he said. “Too often the Church has neglected or overlooked certain groups of people. I want to make sure ours is an inclusive church where everybody will know they’re welcome.”

While still officially in its “soft launch” phase, Open Door UMC is already serving the Pace community through children’s events, family events, and by donating Christmas gifts.

A permanent home is being sought, but for now, Rev. Lilly and the Open Door UMC congregation are making connections in the community and offering hospitality, grace, and Christ’s love to all.

Wherever they end up – whether in Pace or in a neighboring city – Rev. Lilly said the church’s mission will remain: to love and serve Christ together to all people.

“My prayer is that Open Door UMC continues to be a light into the community. Every pastor wants their church to grow, but more importantly, I just want it to continue to make disciples and share the love of Jesus.”