Historic Methodist church undergoes rapid growth

SUWANEE -- One of this city's most historic churches is reshaping itself to what it hopes will be an identity different from "the church with the cemetery out front."

Level Creek United Methodist, which traces its roots to the 1790s, is experiencing a level of growth that's caused it to add a service, expand its children's area and eventually make facility upgrades. Pastor Jeremy Lawson, who joined the church in July 2009, said some church members were skeptical of the direction he might take the church.

With a wife and three kids under the age of 5, those members wondered if Lawson would go in a contemporary direction.

"There's nothing about this church that screams modern or contemporary," Lawson said. "What we're going to do is do traditional worship the best way we know how. We're going to make it relevant, excellent, and we think that will be the driving force, and it has been."

Despite the recent trend of contemporary and mega-churches drawing crowds, Lawson said the new parishioners appreciate the traditional approach.

"We get a lot of young people who have been to the North Pointes and the 12 Stones, and all these places," he said. "There's just something about hymns in the way we do it in the traditional setting that they're drawn to. There are so many churches going in another direction that this has become our niche."

In the last two years, Lawson said Level Creek has added 120 members and doubled worship attendance. Just in 2012, attendance is up by 20 percent. Those figures make it the second fastest-growing Methodist church in north Georgia, Lawson said.

"We are literally out of room, everywhere you go," he said.

In the midst of the growth, the church added five staff members; a children's minister, an audio/visual technician, a music director, a church administrator and a financial administrator. (The church previously had a volunteer music director.)

The church converted the pastor's office and choir room into a children's wing. Lawson said the church averages about 15 kids in the elementary room each Sunday, and double digits in the nursery. It's also added middle school classes.

"There was an enthusiasm behind it that said, 'We haven't invested in our kids in a long time,'" said Lawson of the $10,000 children's wing addition.

To accommodate the growth, Lawson said the church added a "Kids at the Creek" worship service during the 11 a.m. service, which he described as a vacation Bible school feel, with arts and crafts and games.

That brought a request Lawson hasn't heard before.

"Dad, can you preach longer?," daughter Anna, 5, asked. "We didn't get to finish in kids worship."

With growth comes decisions to make about how to handle the larger crowds. Lawson said he is somewhat worried about Easter Sunday, mostly because the Christmas services had 125 people per service, which is at capacity.

Lawson admits there are big decisions ahead, but while he's in the moment of growth, he said it's gratifying to see how the church has been remade.

"We were constantly identified as the church with the cemetery, and now our identity is growing past that to a church people are really excited about inviting their friends to," he said.