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Something old ... something new

Written By:  Dorothy Schrader
Special to the Independent Tribune
Independent Tribune
Friday, August 28, 2009

Pastor's goal: Implement modern style, retain 258-year-old church's historic charm

"We're trying to blend the old and new in a way that can meet the needs of the families that have been here five generations but still be upbeat"

Jay Smith
pastor of Poplar Tent Presbyterian Church

Jay Smith, pastor of Poplar Tent Presbyterian, can be found sitting on the front steps of his church early on Sunday mornings.

The 35-year-old come to the church four years ago.  Orginally from Pennsylvania, Smith has been the catalyst of the church's growth in recent years.

Smith, who began his career in the radio industry recording tab lines for commercials, has a wife and three children that accompanied him on the move to take over the old church.

"We really felt like God was calling us to come here." Smith said.

Four years since moving south, Smith now describes his church with a famous pop culture phrase.

"It's like the wedding phrase." he said, "something old and something new."

Poplar Tent Presbyterian was founded in 1751.  The 258-year-old church is in it's third building.

One of Smith's main goals has been to update the church, while still retaining its historic charm.

"Our sanctuary was built in 1851, but we put (Microsoft) PowerPoint and drop-down screens in.  We're trying to blend the old and new in a way that can meet the needs of the families that have been here five generations but still be upbeat." he said.

Old and new are juxtaposed throughout the sanctuary, namely in the positioning of a 125-year-old piano directly beside a new drum set, both used for worship ceremonies.  History, however, is inescapable when at the church, for the balcony of the main building used to be reserved for slaves to watch the service.

"Upstairs was a slave gallery and slave entrance," Smith said.  "After the Emancipation Proclamation, the freed slaves created Cedar Grove Presbyterian, which is still on Odell.  This church assisted them in buying the property."

The pews of the balcony are handplaned, and the graveyard behind the church dates back to 1720.  The author of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was even a pastor at the church for some time.  Such deep historic roots have not stopped the changes that have occurred in recent years, though.

"We're trying to break the mold of an old church only open one hour on Sunday mornings." Smith said.

"It's really become a neat blend of old-time Concord and transplants.  And we've been trying to keep it from becoming two separate churches by having lots of social programs."

Progressive dinners at the houses of church members and dinners after contemporary services are just two of the new programs that are becoming poplar at Poplar Tent Presbyterian.  Another program implemented is monthly kickball games to get younger families and kids involved, as well as the older generations.  None of these programs could be classified as radical change.

"We just have to change slow and let God move this at his own pace." Smith said.   "We've been here 258 hear, we don't have to change it today."

As a pastor of a church with deep-rooted traditions, Smith has not been completely free of resistance.

"Change is difficult," he said, "and weh there's change, there's resistance."

While resistance has been minimal - most has simply been the desire to get more information - the biggest concern of both longtime church members and the local community has been in regard to the Poplar Tent Prebyterian barbecue the church has hosted for 60 years.

"People were concerned that I would mess with it," he said, though he said he has no intention to do so.

Overall, the growth the church has seen in the past four years since Smith joined is tremendous.

"Since I've gotten here, our worship attendance has increased 50 percent, our membership is growing 10-12 percent annually, and we're not losing people on the other end," he said.  "So, it's steadily growing at a positive rate."

The steady growth has helped him and other leaders in the church create a clear vision for the future that they can be excited about.

"We hope to get over 300 people by the end of this year.  When I started it was 180 people," Smith said.

Along with a weekly contemporary service, other results of the church's growth include the desire to build a new campus across the street from where the current buildings stand.

"We have about 12 to 13 acres to develop a campus with a new worship facility, maybe a day care, a gym and a multiuse community center directly across the street from where we are now," he said.

Plans also incluse working with residential and retail developers that aim to create a horseshoe-shaped condo and retail complex.

The development would provice walking traffic and community partners for the church and the church's property is directly in the center of the future complex.

"It's really an exciting time for us," Smith said.

Smith takes no credit for the growth.  Instead, he give it to God and his church members.

"I think the reason this church has survived all this time is because it's always been made up of people with strong morals and family values, hard-working, blue-blooded, patriotic people," he said.

The transition he has seen in recent years is the neatest thing in his eyes.  The church even has it's own Facebook page.  They are also working on a new Web site design where sermons and music can be uploaded.

"If you stop and look at it from a worldly perspective," Smith said, "the church shouldn't be growing, but it is."

Smith and other members of the church can only be excited to see what is in store for the church to come.

"It's a church with a rich history and a bright future," Smith said.