Waco’s First Methodist Church, one of the state’s largest Methodist churches, will become a little larger next month when it formally merges with downtown Waco’s Austin Avenue United Methodist Church.

Methodist leaders are calling the move a reunification, given Austin Avenue’s beginnings in 1900 as an offshoot of Fifth Street Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which later became First Methodist Episcopal Church. The original church then moved to its present location at 4901 Cobbs Drive in 1963 as First United Methodist Church.

“These two great churches were once one and are becoming one again,” First Methodist lead pastor Ryan Barnett said.

Barnett has headed the 4,300-member church for the last two years.

The reunification, officially approved by both congregations about two weeks ago, comes after some 16 months of discussions and prayer between the two churches, said Leah Hidde-Gregory, Central Texas District Superintendent for the United Methodist Church.

The combined operation will maintain a presence for Methodist worship and ministry at its Austin Avenue location in a growing downtown Waco.

“We see the same renewal of downtown Waco. It’s very exciting,” Hiddle-Gregory said. “As an annual conference, we want to make sure we are open to bringing in as many people as we can to Christ.”

First Methodist is also absorbing the Robinson Drive United Methodist Church as its South Campus effective July 1, where pastor Gabe Dominguez has been leading a street-friendly Life Church.

First Methodist averages 1,350 in weekly worship attendance, making it one of the top 100 Methodist churches in the nation and the fourth largest church in the Central Texas Conference, which stretches from Fort Worth to just east of Abilene and south to Round Rock. It has three Sunday morning worship services, two traditional and one contemporary, and a Saturday evening service. Austin Avenue UMC currently numbers 100 members, Hidde-Gregory said.

The name Austin Avenue likely will be retained in the merger in some manner, such as a campus or location name, but budgeting, operations and programming will fall under First Methodist’s umbrella, Hiddle-Gregory said.

Worship services, the church’s preschool and other ministries will continue at the Austin Avenue location, 1300 Austin Ave., for the immediate future as leaders determine how best the site can be used to serve the area.

“Austin Avenue has a long tradition of worship and ministry to its neighbors. … We don’t have a concrete plan yet, but we want to become a good neighbor and find out what the needs of the community really are,” Barnett said.

Both Barnett and Hidde-Gregory see the downtown church as a contact point in ministering to the growing number of young people and families residing in central Waco.

In upcoming assignments made by Central Texas Conference Resident Bishop Mike Lowry, Tim Jarrell, Austin Avenue’s pastor for the last six years, will move to Cogdell United Methodist Church in Waco; Steve Holston of Trinity United Methodist Church in Arlington will move to First Methodist’s Austin Avenue location; and First Methodist pastor emeritus Steve Ramsdell will return to lead First Methodist’s South Campus on Sunday mornings. Julia Castleman, Austin Avenue’s director of family ministries, will go to Ovilla United Methodist Church south of Dallas.

The merging of First Methodist with Austin Avenue comes after years of declining membership at the downtown church, once the largest in Waco, Hidde-Gregory said.

Jarrell has led the church for the last six years, during which time a consultant team suggested changes to attract younger members. More than a year ago, the churches started exploring combining their congregations in what was termed “One Church in Two Locations.”

In a farewell to his congregation printed in the church’s June newsletter, Jarrell thanks members for sharing lives and ministry during his time there. He pointed to church accomplishments during his tenure: building improvements including a new sanctuary roof, stained glass protection, organ refurbishing and building renovations; starting the Austin Avenue Preschool; and becoming “Arts Partners” with Waco Ballet and the Youth Chorus of Central Texas.

Efforts to reach Jarrell for comment were unsuccessful, and a church receptionist directed all questions about Austin Avenue and the reunification to Hiddle-Gregory.

As one of Waco’s oldest Methodist congregations, Austin Avenue boasted two Texas Historical Markers, one for the congregation and the other for the building. Former church historian Brad Willis said it was chartered in 1900 as Fifth Street Methodist Church members looked for a roomier space on the edge of downtown Waco, with the 81-member church’s first worship service held the next year.

As Waco grew, the church did as well. Dallas architect R.H. Hunt designed the current building, and it was built in 1925. A year after the 1953 tornado devastated downtown Waco, the church suffered its own trauma when its sanctuary burned. Church members opted to rebuild and add a three-story educational building rather than move. The rebuilt sanctuary welcomed a Casavant pipe organ in 1956.

In 1964, Austin Avenue United Methodist Church members underwrote a Methodist Student Center for the Wesley Foundation church at Baylor University. The church, which numbered around 2,100 members by the 1990s, also supported Meals on Wheels, the Austin Avenue Montessori School and programs for special needs children.

Willis, now a member of First Presbyterian Church, his father’s church two blocks away on Austin Avenue, shared Methodist historian Jean Hunter Traster’s observation that congregations, like individuals, have lifespans.

“The exciting thing is that the church will take on a new life,” Willis said. “This is beginning a new chapter in the history of Austin Avenue United Methodist.”

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