A Burlington church that
drew closer to the grave with each member’s funeral is enjoying a rebirth after
it merged with a young church.
The former Hocutt Memorial
Baptist Church that was down to 15-18 senior adults on Sunday mornings is
humming with new life and the patter of 40 children after it joined hands with
Life Fellowship, which was meeting in temporary quarters off the interstate.
The newly formed New Life at
Hocutt developed over several years. Pastor Jimmy Nickelston, 72, watched
Hocutt Memorial succumb to the inertia that overwhelms an aging congregation in
a changing neighborhood to which members do not relate.
In 2003 he asked Mark
Stewart, pastor of a new, intentionally multi-cultural church in Burlington,
about the possibilities of his church meeting in the Hocutt’s large, but nearly
empty facilities. Nothing came of the conversation until 2008 when they met
again at an associational meeting and suddenly the idea took root.
Nickelston, who has been
pastor at Hocutt 11 years, said he knew everyone needed to tread softly. New
Life Fellowship’s members were there in part because they did not want to be in
a traditional red brick church. Hocutt members needed time to adjust to a big
change in identity.
“We took a year and shared the vision little by little,”
Nickelston said. “They trusted me, knew I wouldn’t abandon them. Mark and I met
and prayed. He shared with his people.”
The pastors exchanged
pulpits, and then the churches shared a meal together, building relationships
at each step.
Put a ring on it
After “courting” for over a
year, Nickleston said it was “time to make up minds to get married or not.”
Hocutt voted 100 percent to
merge and New Life approved with 93 percent. The churches started meeting as
one in February, under the name New Life at Hocutt.
With the strength of a
congregation 10 times larger, the church has been renovated with new carpet,
heating and cooling systems, sound and roof.
Where silence reigned now
the happy noise of children resounds.
There have been some “bumps”
Nickelston said, with music being the primary issue.
“I could not stand the
thought of closing this place down in this community,” Nickelston said. “It
would have been the worst thing possible.”
Most of Hocutt’s members are
still coming. Stewart, who is the pastor, with Nickelston his associate, said
he lost several members of New Life Fellowship, which he understands.
The new church is
multi-cultural and transgenerational, reflecting the county’s population:
predominantly white and about one-fifth black. Stewart is black and Nickelston
“Our heart in planting the
church was to be cross cultural,” said Stewart, 38, who was featured about
eight years ago in North Carolina Missions Offering materials, as he and white
friend David Gordon were planting a multi-cultural church in Burlington, which
became New Life Fellowship.
Gordon has since started a
new prayer ministry, and is a member of New Life at Hocutt.
The interstate location of
New Life Fellowship was not conducive to growth, or to community. Stewart
sensed they had to move and the renewed offer from Nickelston was a godsend.
“To be real, you have a
72-year-old white pastor to ask a black pastor to lead a church in Alamance
County?” Stewart said. “I had to believe God is in this.”
Stewart said the process was
“right out of the book of Acts, where young men see visions and old men dream
While leadership carefully
picked their way through potential land mines, the clincher, Stewart said, was
when Nickelston shared his vision at a New Life Fellowship deacons meeting at
“Our deacons just wept, and
expressed a desire to be mentored by senior adults,” Stewart said.
He admits some of his church
was concerned about the change, asking why they would want to go back into a
traditional church. He said New Life already has a tradition and an order of
service: “We just don’t write it down.”
When asked if they were
going to sit in pews, Stewart said, “Folks, we sit in chairs that are bolted to
Is Hocutt just trying to
save their church? Stewart said Hocutt humbled themselves and if New Life would
do the same, God might do something mighty. “Who are we to be proud?” he asked.
“We have nothing except what the Lord Jesus Christ gives us.”
“Our church was almost
dead, now it’s come alive,” said Nickelston.
So New Life at Hocutt is more
than a name; it’s a description.