Rev. J.R. McAliley, left in robe, and worship leader Wayne Stafford, center, serve communion to Center Congregational Church member Duell Gilstrap, 82, who grew up in the Buckhead church.

Center Congregational Church differs from many of its neighbor churches in Buckhead.

For one thing, it’s small. In a community filled with ever-growing mega-churches, this little congregation claims just 33 members.

“It’s a little country church,” said Rev. J.R. McAliley, a former U.S. Navy chaplain and Methodist minister who serves as the church’s minister. “I have folks that are there from age 2 up through age 88.”

But the boxy, steeple-topped church differs from other Buckhead churches in a more fundamental way. The sign in front of the little brick church building on Moore’s Mill Road promises “a traditional New England service.”

On a main road through a decidedly Southern community, Center Congregational happily sets itself apart as a direct descendent of the church of the Pilgrims. Members still sing hymns from the “Pilgrim Hymnal” on Sunday and proudly point out the church’s history of battling slavery and of promoting independence.

“Traditional Congregationalism comes from New England,” said Wayne Stafford, who served as service leader one Sunday. “That’s really what we are.”

In fact, at least one Center Congregational member traces his family back to the Mayflower. “Our family has been congregational since at least 1651 – that we know of,” said David Noble, who grew up in a Congregational Church in Michigan.

He’s proud of the group’s contribution to the development of the country. “In the early colony of Massachusetts, you were called a ‘free man.’ Every man in the church could vote. From that, they made the town councils. That was the tradition of ‘one man, one vote.’”

Center Congregational may be different, but it is no newcomer. It’s been around a while. The congregation was organized in the 1880s, when the area was farm country and members met in one another’s homes, McAliley said. The church was formally established in 1894 and “has been on that spot since 1895,” he said.

Duell Gilstrap, who’s 82, grew up in the church. “It was just the community church,” he said. “We all grew up here.” He’s one of the boys wearing slicked hair and long pants in a photograph taken of the congregation in 1941.

Rev. J.R. McAliley closes the main door as he prepares to start the weekly service Sunday, July 31 at the Center Congregational Church in Buckhead.

That’s the year the original, wooden church burned. The only thing salvaged from the fire, members said, was a scorched wooden lectern. The congregation rebuilt the church on the same site. Rebuilding took 15 years. The congregation held services for years in the only part of the building that was finished, the portion intended to be the church basement, members said. In 1957, the church opened a new, brick building, McAliley said.

But by the 1960s, the congregation had grown so small that members decided to close the church, according to the church website. A small group met once or twice a year. They leased the building to Methodist congregations or businesses.

Then, in the 1990s, a small group of church members decided to revive Center Congregational. “Those first few Sundays, we had about seven people, that’s all,” said Joyce Nelson, wife of the minister signed on to lead the group.

The group started inviting any and everyone to join them. They held “homecomings” to entice former church members to return, she said. Congregationalists from across metro Atlanta started attending. “We live in Kennesaw. It’s 24 miles down here,” Stafford said. “We have two families that live in Stone Mountain.”

In 2006, Center Congregational split from its national organization, the United Church of Christ, over gay marriage. The national group supported same-sex unions; McAliley protested. Center left the UCC and joined another association. A couple of years later, UCC sued over ownership of the Buckhead property. Eventually, the congregation won the lawsuit because of the history of local autonomy, members said.

The Center Congregational Church in Buckhead promises “a traditional New England service.”

The church welcomes new members, should any happen to stop in.

“It’s like dandelions,” McAliley said. “People can get reoriented to their faith and go back to their home churches. We think of ourselves as a seed-planting kind of church.”

But staying small doesn’t bother him. After all, most churches are small. The big churches may get the attention, he said, but most people attend churches with 200 or fewer members. And Congregationalists always have centered on small, community churches, he said.

“Even if you go back to New England,” he said, “you’ll find small community churches.”

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.