Apr. 2—Beginnings don't get much more humble than a Bynum vape shop with no air conditioning.
Just three years after pastors Paul and Traci Goodwin founded One Church with cofounders Jason and April Shuler in a former storefront, the little nondenominational church has grown beyond holding outdoor services at night to escape the merciless heat, and the Oxford strip mall where it moved just after.
Now it's based in the former Church of the Good Shepherd in Golden Springs, a former Presbyterian church that closed in 2019 after years of decline.
Thursday afternoon, big-bearded Paul sat on a pew in the sanctuary beside a power drill and a set of coat hangers he planned to mount in the kitchen, which will become an open-to-anyone "coffee shop" next week (the pastor noted that the coffee and conversation are both free).
He said that before COVID, the church had gotten big enough to need a second location. Church leaders heard about Church of the Good Shepherd, learned it was too expensive for their budget, and after some divine inspiration decided to make an offer anyway. To their surprise, the Presbyterian leadership accepted.
"So you basically have this band of gypsy Christians, invited to have our church in this beautiful sanctuary and beautiful place," Paul said. Much of the congregation was comprised of young people before COVID, high school kids who didn't know how to drive but were enthusiastic about nontraditional religious settings. Now there are about 70 regular members, but visitors sometimes round the Sunday attendance up to 100 or so.
The process of founding the church has been a whirlwind, he said. Paul, 45, was born and raised in Calhoun County and became a pastor at 15 years old, eventually traveling the country as an evangelist, he said. In 2002 he left the church lifestyle behind and moved to Costa Rica, where he lived a wild life as a stock broker, he said.
"It was the craziest 'Wolf of Wall Street,' drugs and rock and roll lifestyle," he said. "I should have died so many times."
He said he moved on to Amsterdam, and found his way back to Christ through the songs of a woman who stood outside Centraal Station, the city's main train depot. "She would stand out in the snow, and it was cold, minus 2 degrees, snow up to your knees, and she would sing in English, with a Dutch accent, 'Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?'
"And I tried to ignore it," Paul said. "I went to my office in March 2017 and God asked me, 'Why don't you come home and work for me?'"
He returned to the U.S. shortly after. By then, Traci, 43, had been a nurse for almost two decades, and had long attended church with Paul's mother. At her request, Traci would participate in prayers for Paul to help him see his way home.
Traci said she had been leery of drugs, and was clear she wouldn't tolerate drug abuse in a relationship.
"I had laid down the law," she said.
The Goodwins said that nondenominational churches are growing. Paul attributes part of that growth to a longing for "something real," opportunities to worship that cut out many of the niceties of typical church experiences.
"Our motto is 'Come worship how you want,'" Paul said.
The congregation is diverse; teens with hair dyed blue and pink, recovering addicts, social classes both rich and poor. There are more Black than white attendees, Paul said.
Nondenominational churches are growing nationally; a study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in 2010 found that, if counted together, nondenominational churches would rank third in American church groups, trailing behind the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention. A new study was commissioned in 2020, though results won't be available until next year, according to the institute.
Recent studies indicate diminishing attendance in traditional churches, however. A Gallup poll released Monday shows that church membership has fallen below the majority for the first time in the study's history. Only 47 percent of American surveyed considered themselves part of a church, synagogue or mosque, Gallup says, down from 73 percent in 1937, when polling was first conducted.
'There are a lot of empty churches out there'
Traci said that visitors often come with preconceived notions of what a nondenominational church actually is.
"We'll hear things like 'That kind of church is, like, spooky,' or 'They do weird, crazy stuff,'" she said.
One Church activities seem to skew away from weird or crazy. There's a Tuesday Bible study class for adults and senior citizens. Eight members of the congregation, including the Goodwins, are online students of Valor Christian College in Columbus, Ohio, who mostly work on course material at the church. There's a substance abuse recovery program every Friday night, and a marriage health ministry that meets once a month.
Paul said that the key to keeping faith alive is to keep in touch with young people.
"If you stop pouring your energy into the next generation, the church dies as you die," he said. "Some churches weren't willing to change ... but there are a lot of empty churches out there."
The church is open Tuesday through Friday, with services on Sunday. Paul said there's usually something going on Saturday, too, but it changes from week to week. Keep up with One Church at facebook.com/our1church or at 1-church.com.
Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.