South Charlotte

April 28, 2010

Seeking spirituality? Elm Lane beckons

Elm Lane in Ballantyne has become a one-stop shop for those seeking spirituality.

Elm Lane in Ballantyne has become a one-stop shop for those seeking spirituality.

From Catholicism to Messianic Judaism, more than half a dozen worship centers have cropped up or expanded on the Ballantyne street in the last couple of years.

Charlotte is a city with over 700 faith communities, and clustering of sanctuaries is not unusual.

But the recent flurry of activity suggests the community has matured from a magnet for houses and retail to a place to worship as well.

Typically churches go where the population goes, Garet Johnson, assistant director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department

"Churches are like retail in that they try to locate where there's growth," she said. "They go where there's a need and where there's need, there's people."

But when Covenant Baptist became the first church to build on Elm Lane in 1985, most of the surrounding area was rural. The growth of faith centers has continued south onto connecting Bryant Farms Road.

"We built here when it was a small but growing population," said Pastor Chad Gullion.

Since 1990, the population within a 2.5 mile radius of the church has exploded, increasing by 422 percent - from 6,000 to 53,000 - according to a report from the Metrolina Baptist Association.

Gullion said the church plans to expand soon to meet the growing population's needs.

South Mecklenburg Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has already expanded five times since it built its first facility on Elm Lane in 1993.

At that time, the church was hard to find because there was no I-485, Rea Road extension or Stonecrest shopping center, said Nancy Metzler, a church employee.

"But since that time roads have been built...they've all grown up around us," she said.

The most recent addition is the Light of Christ United Methodist Church, which was dedicated as a mission church in 1999 but didn't have a permanent space until now.

The church's grand opening at 9212 Bryant Farms Road was April 25.

Despite the number of Christian churches on the road, Pastor Kyle Thompson of Light of Christ said there is a spirit of cooperation among church leaders.

The church recently partnered with South Mecklenburg Presbyterian Church to support a church and school in Bayonnais, Haiti.

"Together we have been able to do more to feed, clothe and educate our friends in Haiti," he said. "We think that serving together, rather than against one another, is pleasing to God."

But the transient community has also proven welcoming for non-Christian religions as well: a Messianic Judaism congregation recently broke ground for a worship center.

The diverse community has also meant a stronger connection among parishioners seeking to feel at home in a new town, said Matt Brown, senior pastor at South Mecklenburg Presbyterian Church.

"A community of faith offers them the opportunity to establish roots and develop relationships that are as significant to them as their blood relationships," he said.

And some parishioners believe that while the economic boom in years past is what helped support the growth of churches in the area, it's the current recession that's driving people back toward the church.

"People come back to their faith when they're distressed," said Maureen Regele of St. Matthew Catholic Church. "I'm just glad people are seeking out their faith again."

Still, data from the Pew Forum suggests the contrary: while the Dow Jones Industrial Average's value was halfed between October 2007 and February 2009, there was no increase in weekly worship service attendance during the same period.

Whatever the effects the economy might have on faith, church leaders along Elm Lane appear confident their flocks will remain strong and healthy in the coming years - as evident by all the new construction signs.

"As wonderful as life appears to be in Ballantyne, there is a lot of anxiety and worry," Thompson said. "We have the good news that triumphs over both, and we want to share it with everyone."

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