By Riley Manning
The little white church of Elvis’ childhood will get a breath of new life this year, as a strong Assembly of God congregation in Southaven makes plans to form a church plant in Tupelo. The effort will revitalize what is currently East Heights Assembly of God Church on Briar Ridge Road.
“After Elvis’ time, the church grew and built new facilities in East Tupelo, but over the course of time, it has dwindled,” said the Rev. Greg Davis, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Southaven.
The initiative was begun by two native north Mississippians, Jeff and Shari Robbins, of Shannon and Tupelo, respectively. Shari’s father actually pastored the Tupelo church through 1989, at the height of its numbers. From its 200 or so members then, less than a dozen remain, Davis said.
Jeff and Shari have pastored together for 16 years, the past six of them as associate pastors at Cornerstone. The church draws over 600 on a given Sunday, and about twice that on Easter and other holidays, Jeff said.
In addition, Jeff has pastored congregations in Florida, and worked in the Memphis public schools for 10 years.
“We’re a very service-oriented church,” Jeff said. “We’re not one to send press releases when we’re going to do something. We just do it. That’s what we feel like our role is.”
While being extremely fulfilled by their work at Cornerstone, Jeff said, he and his wife have felt a growing burden for Tupelo over the past few years. When the couple returned home to see family still in the Tupelo area, they would feel moved to tears by the time they left.
“A year ago, we finally approached [Davis] about the idea, and he was open to it,” Jeff said. “When we reached out to the leadership at the church in Tupelo, they invited us to come in and help them out.”
Jeff said as part of what’s called a PAC (Parent Affiliated Church), Cornerstone will sink the money and staff into the existing church to help replenish their congregation and ministry.
Unbeknownst to Jeff, Davis said God had been working on him, too, in the way of church plants.
“Before he ever walked into my office, I’d had two pastors of smaller churches come to me a few years before. Their churches were struggling, and they asked if we would take over the ministering of their churches,” Davis said. “One circumstance wasn’t a good fit, but the other one, we probably should have done it.”
It was the fear of the unknown, and the obligation of finances, he said, that caused him to turn it down.
“I had a check in my spirit months later. I felt like the Lord was telling me not to be afraid of the opportunities he puts in front of me,” Davis said. “In my mind, I made the decision that if a similar situation came along, I would be prayerful and see if the Lord is in it.”
The timeline for the church plant is what Jeff calls “aggressive.” With renovations underway, he hopes to hold the first Sunday service there in the fall.
“Cornerstone is healthy, known in the community, and has great children’s programs. We want to take that same DNA and plant it here in Tupelo,” he said.
The key, he said, will be in forging relationships within the church, as well as outside of it. In Southaven, Jeff said, Cornerstone has earned the trust of the city, and has been entrusted with providing the Fourth of July entertainment for the past several years.
“Also, we have cookouts and other activities that help congregants find friends in each other,” he said. “We’re very intentional about that, because if you’re not, it doesn’t happen.”
The other piece of the puzzle, is introducing the church to the Tupelo community. To do so, Jeff and Shari are hosting monthly “vision meetings” open to the public to further explain the church’s mission in Tupelo.
“Some people already have a perception of the Assemblies of God, and some may not have any idea,” Jeff said. “Someone might ask, ‘Tupelo has plenty of great churches. Why does it need another one?’ And that’s what we try to answer in the vision meetings.”
The next vision meeting will be April 24 at the Link Centre, beginning at 7 p.m.