At a church in the wooded Sandy Springs neighborhood known as High Point, it’s Easter season in more ways than one.
As the congregation celebrates its members’ belief in the mystery of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, the Church of the Atonement is undergoing one of its own. After dwindling to a dozen worshipers in a near-death experience a year ago, the 50-year-old church is attempting a comeback under a new name, Highpoint Episcopal Community Church, and new leadership that puts community above rule-making.
“We’re having a great rebirth,” said Ralph Edwards, a 40-year church member, after a recent Sunday service. “We got roots and we also have buds.”
Part of that optimism comes from the church’s energetic–if still only part-time–leaders. Rev. Ruth Pattison, the day-to-day pastor, has added pop-up art classes to standard Sunday fare. And Rev. Lang Lowrey, the new vicar, is a professor of church leadership at Emory’s Candler School of Theology and recently launched a thousand-member congregation in Smyrna with a start-up sensibility he honed in a long career as a corporate investor.
“When I walked in, it was like that old [novel and movie] ‘The Land That Time Forgot,’” said Lowrey of his first visit to the church at 4945 High Point Road. “The light had not gone out, but it had definitely diminished.”
Atonement is hardly the only church struggling in an era of increasing secularism. But, Lowrey said, it has avoided some real church-killers like debt or religious schism. While the remaining congregation is small, it’s growing again — to more than 40 members —with a closeness that Pattison likens to the Christian church’s early days.
“It has that feel to it … that sense of spiritual energy,” she said.
The church has a big asset, too, that’s reflected in its new name: significant connections to the larger community. It hosts everything from government meetings to a popular community garden.
“We are the High Point community center. We are their town hall,” said Lowrey.
“I’m really glad it’s going to stay as a church,” said City Councilmember Tibby DeJulio, who represents the neighborhood. “It’s a real asset to the community.”
The church came to the community more than a half-century ago, in 1962, as a mission of Holy Innocents’, a church that remains a powerful Sandy Springs institution today. In 1967, the congregation broke ground for its own building on a nearly 8-acre site on High Point Road.
Duffy Hickey, a church member for more than 20 years, recalls the days when the church had up to 250 members and a full-time priest.
“Over time, and probably through demographics … we dwindled. We dwindled way down,” Hickey said.
By late 2015, Atonement was in crisis mode and essentially leaderless, with longtime pastor Rev. Chris Starr moving to an out-of-state church.
In early 2016, the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta sent Lowrey in. His official title there is “Canon for Christian Enterprise,” but he described the hat he was wearing in simpler terms: “I’m the real estate guy for the church.”
“Most bishops would close it down, mow it down [and] sell the land,” he said of Atonement. “We thought it was going to be a lights-out situation.”
From his business career, Lowrey recalled first seeing Atonement from the air as he flew out of DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in a corporate jet and wondering why it was located on a side street, hidden behind trees. In the sheer business point of view, that location helped save the church, because rights of way for a fuel pipeline and Ga. 400 limit its redevelopment potential.
But Lowrey also saw potential in those strong community connections. Pattison noted the diversity of those ties, from a popular men’s supper club to the Capital City Opera performing regularly in the church hall.
There’s also the responsibility of hosting Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Hispanic mission congregation with an active membership larger than Atonement’s. The two congregations sometimes host joint services in Spanish and English, and Guadalupe members provide many of the volunteers keeping the church running.
Bishop Rob Wright, who heads the Atlanta Diocese, agreed to save the church. While the church was stripped of its parish status, it was allowed to survive as a “worshiping community,” which essentially means it operates with a start-up’s lack of hierarchy and usual rules.
Pattison said that makes the church appealing for people who want something more family-like than “modeling on corporate America,” while Lowrey says, “We’re just a bohemian church.”
Part of the rebirth is shedding the old “Atonement” name. Internal church history says the name was chosen partly as a pun suggesting unity — “At-One-Ment.” But in Christian theology, “atonement” refers to Jesus suffering on the cross for all of humanity’s sins. Pattison and Lowrey call that a “dark” interpretation and would rather have the revived church focus on love and community.
“I think the doctrine of atonement is just too dark, especially for a church going through a post-World War II … era of secularity,” said Lowrey, adding that some of his Candler School students say the name is off-putting. “Sometimes a rebranding is necessary.”
The name change is still in the works. Meanwhile, the church is playfully advertising its new initials with a street sign reading, “What the HECC?”
While the church is getting a second chance, it’s not an unlimited one. Lowrey said the diocese has set certain benchmarks and expectations, including a goal of reaching 75 to 100 members by year’s end.
“I don’t know where we are in five years,” said Dickey, the longtime church member. “We may close shop. We may have a hundred members and a full-time priest.”
But, he added, “There is a blessing to [the challenge], in that we’re tighter together.”
Lowrey said that sense of community helps to support the congregation’s faith and hope.
“These are Easter people,” he said.