Neighborhood church looks at new challenges and big ideas

Betty BeanKnox Scene

Churchwell Avenue Baptist Church has been around for almost 80 years and was built during the early days of World War II using salvaged and surplus materials that hadn’t been gobbled up by the war effort. It became a neighborhood hub, one of many such thriving places of worship and community.


But times changed, and so did the neighborhood. The congregation dwindled and aged and the building aged, too. Maintenance got postponed and was only done on a patchwork basis necessitated by emergency. At one point, the city shut the building down after a partial roof collapse and the congregation met at Christenberry Jr. High School (now an elementary school) while repairs got done.

Kedra and Pastor Ken Link

Dr. Ken Link has been pastor there for the past five years, and is an energetic, friendly guy whose signature line includes the exhortation, “Be encouraged!” He reaches out to his neighborhood and sometimes parks his motorcycle out front of the church to bear witness to his non-traditional approach to the ministry. Several years ago, he let it be known that his congregation was interested in helping neighbors who couldn’t afford needed home repairs, and soon volunteers wearing “Doing Church Well” T-shirts were hammering and sawing and sprucing up homes. They do Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets and stay on the lookout for ways to serve.

Recently, however, the condition of the old building has gotten impossible to ignore. The roof leaks again. There’s a compromised wall and sinking stairway. Fixing what’s broke will be so expensive that the congregation faces life-changing decisions.

In mid-September, as part of the decision-making process, Link shared the situation on the Oakwood Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association page:

“Our church family has reached a crossroads. Either we invest a large amount of money and energy into our building – nothing cosmetic, strictly maintaining the structure – OR we relocate out of the neighborhood. That is the reality we are faced with. We have no desire to leave our current location. We love the neighborhood and value our witness there. However, we cannot make the investment without an increased involvement from the community.

“This is not about money; instead, it is about our impact and relevance to the people here.

“So, I just ask a simple question: what can Churchwell Ave. do for you and your family?

“Thank you in advance for your honest response.

“Be Encouraged!

“Pastor Ken Link”

He got 31 public responses and a fair number of private ones ranging from serious suggestions about tackling homelessness and bigotry to a request for a breakfast burrito. He shared the list with his congregation when he presented a range of options to them at a Wednesday prayer meeting. He polled the membership the following Sunday to see whether they wanted to try to repair the building’s structural problems and find new ways to reach out, or simply find another space for rent and continue what they are doing.

Repair (within the limits of their financial ability) and reach out won the day, and the following Sunday, Link made a formal presentation featuring a bold new vision that he said God had given him at 3:30 a.m. a few days earlier.

“I asked, do we want to reach this neighborhood, or do we want to find a place to just worship? And the answer is, we change our goal, and our goal is now assembly,” he said.

He called his idea Ironworks Assembly and explained that he’d toured the thriving new breweries and businesses springing up along Central Avenue and in the Old City. He was inspired by the industrial décor and proposes taking the pews out of the sanctuary and transforming it into a workshop where people can work on tangible community issues. (Watch Pastor Link’s Ironworks presentation here.)

“We had a choice forced to the forefront by the building issues,” he said. “Do we find a small place to exist until we fade away OR do we change our character and make sure we have a building that allows ironworks to function? … The overwhelming answer from the church family was, ‘We are not ready to fade away and we still feel called to the Oakwood / Lincoln Park community.’ With that said I will not pose that question again. It has been answered.”

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *