A new home for the unchurched

The Gills talk in front of the former nursing home they've converted to house their ministry.
The Gills talk in front of the former nursing home they've converted to house their ministry.

Thick weeds that crawled up the walls were pulled away. Graffiti left by vandals was painted over. Mildew-covered furniture has been hauled out.

But for Bernard and Frankie Gill, the real work is just beginning.

The husband-and-wife pastor duo are turning an abandoned nursing home on Rock Hill's India Hook Road into a nondenominational church and Christian day care they call Taking the City Ministries.

They're among a growing number of ministers searching for new ways to reach people turned off by mainline churches.

"A lot of traditional churches are limited," said Frankie Gill. "Denominations have gotten so much into their comfort zones that God can't move freely. It does put a cap and a limitation as to what you can do, what you can and cannot say."

For three years, the Gills rented the Union Hall on Celanese Road for twice-a-week worship services. Using donations and their own savings, the couple bought the old nursing home for an undisclosed price.

The facility was once home to Sonshine Village, an assisted-living center for Alzheimer's patients that closed in 2001.

Around the time of its closing, the center was sued by Arlene Cline, whose 75-year-old mother, Iva, died a year earlier when she climbed out of her bedroom window and got into a car parked in a nearby driveway. Iva Cline died from being exposed to extreme heat for five to six hours.

For the next six years, the empty building resembled a ghost town, with vines growing toward the roof and paint chipping away on the outside walls.

A new start for center

Now, the Gills are giving it new life. They've spent about $100,000 on renovations, including new paint and floors in nearly every room.

Worship typically attracts between 50 and 60 people, but the Gills hope to grow as word spreads about their new home.

At the start of worship services, youth groups perform praise dances. Adults are encouraged to stand up and share what God has done in their lives. Sometimes, Bernard Gill plays the bongo drums during songs.

"It's a different type of experience," said 15-year-old Malik Williams, who attends with his mother, Cassandra. "It makes you feel like you're loved by somebody. You don't feel the same when you leave."

Reaching the unchurched

The Gills hope their style appeals to those who don't worship anywhere else.

That's a large audience. One out of every three adults in the United States is classified as unchurched, meaning they have not attended a religious service of any kind during the past six months, according to the Barna Group, which tracks America's religious behavior and beliefs.

But another trend also is playing out: Those who do worship are gravitating toward smaller, nontraditional congregations that operate independently, the Barna Group found.

They often pop up in unusual locations. In Rock Hill, community churches have opened in a storefront building on Cherry Road, an old convenience store on Green Street and a former girls foster home on South Jones Avenue.

To some ministers, the trend isn't necessarily positive.

When the Rev. Walter White retired from Rock Hill's Flint Hill Baptist Church in 1995, some of his most loyal congregants urged him to start a new church.

"I refused to do that because I felt like, 'What's the use of starting another little church with a few members?" White said. "I don't see any changes that are occurring in the community because of all these little churches."

White believes pastors can reach the unchurched by strengthening their own programs -- rather than breaking away to form new ones.

"My contention was, let's invite those folks to come to us ... in a more stable congregation with more ministries," White said. "You don't have to start a new group to reach people."

But the Gills say they don't feel called to be part of a larger church.

"The vision God has given to us over the years is to have the day care with the church," Bernard Gill said. "This is a facility that allows us to do both under one roof. It's like a vision come to pass."