Church moves from downtown to field of dreams
McAlester United Methodists officially closed the doors on their downtown church Dec. 16 and opened doors of potential that same day. They moved into a new building on 10 acres on the city’s south side.
The new facility already is attracting new and younger people, said McAlester-First Senior Pastor Charles Neff.
"For the first time in 130 years, we have a playground and a gymnasium," he said, "and a parking lot."
The project secures the key points of the church’s Strategic Plan: program, build, and staff for growth. "We have programmed, built, and staffed. We are primed to really take off in 2013," said Neff.
Now offered are an open gym night and an after-school program. A preschool program is being explored. A multipurpose facility—an education building/family life center, totaling 22,000 square feet—has replaced the grand but aged church on Grand Avenue.
"We saw the need for ministries that Grand Avenue just couldn’t accommodate," said Dr. Neff. "Grand Avenue was excellent for worship and study, but you couldn’t do much else.
"We built a multi-use space. You can always worship in a gymnasium, but you can’t play basketball in a sanctuary."
The gym includes a stage area. Two worship services, traditional and modern, are held. "We have heard our bishop’s call to offer multiple services; fellowship dinners and other monthly events bring everybody together," Neff explained.
Construction cost about $2.6 million, a wise choice made by the membership after a proposed remodel of the downtown building was estimated at $7.5 million.
McAlester-First looks ahead to adding a new sanctuary within a few years, at a cost of about $1.7 million. Massive stained-glass windows and other items from the downtown church were placed into storage until then.
A local entrepreneur bought the downtown property; the sale closed Jan. 29. The buyer plans to reopen the building as a community center and restaurant, Neff said.
The transformation of United Methodist ministry in McAlester began long before Transition Sunday.
In 1924, Grand Avenue Methodist Church was built after a denominational merger. In 1963, Wesley Methodist Church was planted by Grand Avenue in south McAlester.
In 2008, both congregations began discussing a merger. Grand Avenue members saw the Wesley location as an ideal place for growth. One reason: a busy sports complex and schools abut the property.
Wesley members "saw their church as being just a couple of funerals away from closing and saw (merging with) Grand Avenue as the best opportunity that United Methodism would be continuing on the Wesley corner," Neff said.
The two congregations united Jan. 1, 2009, as First UMC of McAlester. That year, worship was held on both campuses. In September 2010, the former Wesley church was decommissioned, then razed to make way for today’s new facility. Groundbreaking was in December 2011.
A year later, the First UMC church family posed for a picture outside the downtown sanctuary on Transition Sunday.
The people said goodbye with a special service and lunch before traveling to the new site for an open house and consecration service.
Memories of Grand Avenue’s long service will continue. Neff said the downtown church hosted three annual conferences, in the 1920s and following World War II. Yet the time has arrived to move forward, he reflected.
"The church is people," he summed up. "The building is just the facility that facilitates the ministries of the church, which is the people."—Holly McCray