A lot can change in the span of 130 years and members of the Sterling United Methodist Church are celebrating those changes as well as looking toward the future. With September marking its 130th year, the congregation kicked off its celebration at its place of worship, the Sterling United Methodist Church located on East Church Street, Sterling.
While the church and adjacent facilities are impressive in size, the congregation did not always have it so nice.
"Originally the church met in people’s homes," said Pastor Randy Duncan, the 58th pastor in the church’s history.
IN THE MID-1800S before a church was erected, mobility prevented large groups of people from travelling to one location for worship. Thus, there were a handful of pocket communities that would hold worship in their own homes, occasionally being visited by a pastor who made the rounds to the communities. By 1875, that all changed with the creation of an official church in a one-room facility that also acted as the local schoolhouse. Although the building is no longer there — after burning to the ground — the general location remains the same.
Even more impressive is that in place of the original structure, a new building was erected in 1897, which remained the same until its closing in 1983.
"It was an old country church," said Debbie Jacobus. "we watched it [membership] grow and then we outgrew it so we moved in the '80s."
A resident of Sterling Park since 1964, Jacobus recalled some of the inconveniences of worshipping in the old building. On many occasions during the cold Virginia winters, services would be stopped so that the congregation could return home to layer themselves in heavier coats and blankets before finishing their worship. Without heat or air-conditioning and a fast-growing congregation, the move to the current location just down the street became a necessity.
"Because of growth, we have new members but still a number who have a strong tie to the old church," said Duncan.
In fact, the old church still stands today — a little bit worse for wear but still a testament to the strength of the congregation.
In a tribute to the old location, the church bell was removed and relocated to the new building.
"This is the only portion of the original church that is still in use," said Steve Merserve, the church historian.
DUNCAN BELIEVES THAT there are two major themes that can be traced throughout the years of the church’s existence. The most obvious of the two is growth.
Starting as pocket communities worshipping in homes, the congregation now totals more than 1,000 people. In fact, in just the last 15 years the membership has doubled in size. Such remarkable growth even tested the limits of the new church, paving the way for additions to the building.
The first phase was built in the early 1980s. A second phase of additions to the new church, including another sanctuary and more classrooms, was needed 12 years later. While plans have not been drawn up, there is talk of expanding the building into a third phase for family-life facilities. This would provide additional classrooms for the Sunday school and youth ministry.
"The challenge we face now is how do we continue to respond to change and growth in our backyard," said Duncan.
The second theme for the church over the years is community involvement.
"We’ve always had a lot of youth and an awesome staff," said Gina Gallihugh. "We’ve always tried to reach out into the community."
With preschool programs like Kids Under Construction, mission projects and community dinners, common opinion seems to hold that the outreach activities have been the hallmark of the church.
In the coming weeks, the Sterling United Methodist Church will continue to celebrate its birthday in a series of events. The pinnacle of the celebration will be Sept. 25 at the official birthday party for the church. Featuring old-fashioned birthday games and lots of food, the celebration is cause for lots of preparation. Gallihugh is currently involved with preparing a photo album that includes key pictures of the church and former ministers.
IN AN EVER EXPANDING, and sometimes transient environment, it can be surprising to hear that something has been in existence for 130 years. Yet, the congregation seems unfazed by the number, as they look toward the future of things to come.
"It seems strange in a community so new, that the church has been around since this was all farmland," said Duncan. "While the people have changed, the spirit of them has stayed the same."