Inside-out: when college students and a country church defy the odds

ATHENS, Ga. (BP) – Try to make a judgment on Cleveland Road Baptist Church from its exterior. Look at its brick façade from 30-plus years ago and tall, classic steeple. Drive around from the road that bears its name and see the parsonage in the back, all of it surrounded by a forest of pine, magnolia, cedar and birch.

Guys Bible Study December 2020
A pre-COVID men’s Bible study in the freshman dorm at the University of Georgia moved to Cleveland Road Baptist Church that fall, growing to more than 20 in attendance. Photo from Facebook.

Make the call on what it’s like inside. Most people, if not all, would be wrong.

In many ways, it’s what you would think. The church has a little more than 80 members. Pews adorn the sanctuary. Pastor Parker Moore preaches in a shirt and tie.

But it sticks out that around three-quarters of the people are college students. You’re part of the older crowd if you remember when iPods were a thing.

The young people are leading the way, and they’re loving it.

When Moore, 30, accepted the call to Cleveland Road it was a homecoming. He and his wife, Audrey, had met nearby at the University of Georgia and attended the church as students. In 2019 he received a call from its remaining handful of members. If there was a church on life support, it was Cleveland Road.

The plight of those who had invested in him as a college student touched Moore.

“I thought about the hospital stays where they wouldn’t have a pastor to visit them. I wondered who would preach at their funerals. And, I wondered who would be there to help them close the church’s doors if it came to that.

“All of those things weighed on me,” he said.

Moore has always been a southerner at heart even though he grew up in Queens, N.Y., where his father, Ed, has been pastor of North Shore Baptist Church for 30 years.

CRBC 1st Sunday
Cleveland Road Baptist Church consisted of 16 members, including new pastor Parker Moore, his wife Audrey and their three kids, on Moore’s first Sunday in 2019.

“I had an affinity for the South and the University of Georgia,” Moore said.

That affinity came naturally. His mother is from northwest Georgia and his parents met at UGA, where Ed was a walk-on defensive end who became a letterman for the Bulldogs in the Herschel era. Moore moved in with his grandparents his senior year of high school for the in-state tuition rate to attend UGA.

His love for the South notwithstanding, Moore is thankful for his childhood of being a pastor’s kid in Queens.

“It was a little piece of heaven,” he said. “There were 35 countries represented in our church and our people were united in the Gospel. Our church had around 300 in attendance and it was an outpost for us.”

The realities of real estate in New York City bring a different game plan for churches outgrowing their space. There are no discussions on adding another wing. Over the years Moore watched as North Shore planted multiple Southern Baptist congregations throughout the metro area.

Still, he had no intention of going into full-time vocational ministry. That changed when he was 19. At UGA he earned a double major in Communication Studies and Religion. Currently, he’s pursuing a Master of Divinity through Southern Baptist Theological Seminary online.

In 2015 Moore and his wife, Audrey, moved to Savannah when he became youth director at Bull Street Baptist Church. Just as important, he entered an intentional mentoring relationship with Pastor Calvin Fowler.

“My official title was ‘youth director and pastoral apprentice,’” Moore said. “We’d meet weekly and I’d sit in on elders’ meetings even though I wasn’t an elder, marriage counseling and other things. I watched and learned, getting a taste of everything that went with senior pastoral ministry.”

Bull Street also supported Moore financially when he was selected as one of six to participate in a five-month pastoral internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Upon returning to Bull Street, he maintained student ministry responsibilities while becoming assistant pastor of discipleship.

Cleveland Road Baptist began in 1988, an effort by several Southern Baptist churches in the area. Clark Ivey, who planted the church, is still a member. It’s technically in the city of Bogart, but most regard it as part of west Athens. In its early years, it was a small, vibrant church, Moore said.

It fell into difficult times prior to Moore’s arrival in late 2019. The only way the church could provide for Moore, his wife and their three children (with another on the way) was to offer him the parsonage as well as the license to get a part-time job if he needed to.

An event months later became incredibly difficult for other churches. However, it actually worked to Cleveland Road’s advantage.

“We met nine times before COVID-19 happened,” Moore said. “We knew the church had enough in reserves to support us for two years, and if we didn’t grow by that point, we’d either have to merge with another church or shut down. We didn’t have online giving nor live streaming set up and wondered if COVID was going to expedite our closing.”

It led the church to assess its needs and make some changes. A new church sign and logo appeared. Rooms were cleaned out that contained puppets, flannel graph boards and VBS registrations from the ‘90s.

“It was a blessing for us to pause,” Moore admitted. “It was almost like the Lord gave us a couple of months to see what needed to be done.”

The local government issued a mandate of no crowds larger than 15. So, Cleveland Road gathered and was able to social distance. Some members still chose to stay at home, which gave space for others in the community who missed live preaching to visit.

Since he arrived, building personal connections has been important for Moore. On his first Sunday, the church hired childcare workers so Audrey could stay in the service and not go to the back to watch the only children attending, her own. COVID led to visitors, but also front porch and driveway visits with church members.

It also opened the door for a new batch.

“During 2020, I had started leading a Bible study in the freshman dorm at UGA with a young guy named Nathan Hales,” said Moore. “About three to five guys would be there. It met for six weeks before the campus shut down.”

The group started meeting again that August, this time at the church. It grew, and by the end of the semester, 20 young men were meeting on Thursdays to study Scripture. There was no music, no food and perhaps just as surprising, no females.

“The only thing bringing these guys to the church building was the Word of God,” said Moore.

At the beginning of 2021, they made it co-ed. On the first Thursday of the year, 100 students attended with the only advertising being word of mouth. The church added 35 members that year, 25 of them college students. Over the last six months, two more families have joined the church. On March 27, Cleveland Road added 25 members to its fellowship.

“We prioritize meaningful church membership,” Moore said, which is something he learned about from his time at Capitol Hill. “As the only elder, I’m doing my best to keep these students accountable.”

Those students sing hymns and lead worship. They’re the greeters and teachers. A renovation project last summer updated the nursery and education wing but didn’t touch the sanctuary. Both young and old were thrilled with the results, Moore said.

An aesthetic once considered old is now appreciated as a connection to something apart from the world, and yet in it.

The spiritual growth has been consuming. Last year Cleveland Road Baptized 12 people, and 11 are signed up for this year. Seven of those have walked forward over the last three weeks.

“That’s the most encouraging part of all this,” said Moore. “The Lord is still saving people.”

This article was written by Scott Barkley, national correspondent for Baptist Press. It was published on baptistpress.com.

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