Hutch Garmony's office is in a back room at Guthrie's Chicken
and his parishioners gather on Sundays in a storefront. but that doesn't mean Grace Community isn't as real a church as they come.
If you want to think outside the box, here’s a helpful hint:
Stay out of boxes.
Hutch Garmany denies that that’s the main idea behind the church, Grace Community, he started in Trenton two years ago. “We have a unique style, I’ll grant that,” said the young clergyman. “But style is not the most important thing to us. We didn’t just come here to just do innovative church. We came to share the gospel with people who were not being reached.”
Still, Garmany admits that not having a box—in this case, a bricks-and-mortar church building— is an important element of Grace’s out-of-the-box approach to what he calls “doing church.” “It’s pretty nice not having a building, because, one, it doesn’t cost a lot of money, and two, it kind of forces ministry out into the community and into our homes,” he said.
Grace Community rents space for its Sunday morning services in the old Handyman Salvage building at 4355 Highway 136 West, currently called the Auction House. Garmany’s office is donated space in the back of Guthrie’s Chicken; a class Grace sponsors is taught at Trenton United Methodist; and Grace fosters other initiatives out in the community or from its members’ houses.
“The church is not a building and the church is not an event,” said Garmany. “Nowhere in scripture is the church described as a building. The church is the people. We are the church wherever we go, into our homes, into our workplaces, into our neighborhoods.”
Garmany says that in scripture the church is described as a body or a family, both organic, relational terms; and he and his coreligionists refer to Grace by another organic term: “church plant.” Grace was “planted” in Trenton by parent church Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain. Rock Creek had itself been planted 15 years before by Lookout Mountain Presbyterian. This planting process, says Garmany, is the way early Christianity spread, with the Apostles going out into the world and starting “house churches” or small gatherings.
But before we back up that far, why don’t we start we start with a little more recent history, and make proper introductions?
Hutch Garmany, originally from Chickamauga, graduated from the University of Georgia in 2001. He did not grow up in a religious family, had never considered himself preacher material, and in fact earned his bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture.
But while at UGA, he discovered his spiritual calling through a campus Christian group and made his first forays into the clergy by ministering unto his ostensibly wild-and-crazy fraternity brothers. “They were people that certainly on the outside didn’t look like they were looking for God,” he said. “But on the inside they were really broken and hurting and looking for something more. That had been me.”
This set a pattern for Garmany, who ultimately enrolled in a seminary and attained a master’s degree in divinity. “I guess it’s always been my passion to go after people who are not a part of the church, or think that if they walked into the church they’d burst into flames or something,” he said.
That’s the kind of worshiper he looks for in Trenton, says Garmany, the “unchurch” type, and he tries to make it clear to fellow clergy that Grace is not in the business of luring members away from other churches. “We didn’t come to steal sheep,” he said.
After graduating from the seminary in 2008, Garmany served as associate pastor at Rock Creek Fellowship until, in February 2014, he and his wife, Ashleigh, left with eight other families to “plant” Grace Community. Now he and Ashleigh live in Trenton with their four children, all boys, aged 8, 7, 5 and 1.
Besides preaching at the storefront church, which now has an average attendance of 80-100, Garmany partners with various social services and community groups throughout the week. But on Saturday afternoons, he likes to walk alone except for his dog, Voodoo, on the Sitton’s Gulch Trail of Cloudland Canyon, in search of inspiration for his Sunday sermon. That’s where he ran across The Dade Planet.
The Planet’s orbit has been such as to encompass more hiking trails than houses of worship (or storefronts of worship for that matter). On the other hand, it is perhaps natural that churches without physical churches, but bursting with churchiness, should rouse a certain curiosity in a newspaper without a print edish but that is eat up with newsiness. Let us not beat the comparison to death; but throw in Grace’s unmaterialistic approach to religion, a preacher who seeks inspiration from nature, and a preacher’s dog named Voodoo, and you have to admit the thing’s got Feature written all over it.
Garmany consented cheerfully to be interviewed but discouraged The Planet from reading too much into the inspiration-from-nature angle. Yes, he finds the woods beautiful, he said, but for the real impetus behind his nature walks, look no further than “all boys, aged 8, 7, 5 and 1.”
“Having four boys at home, it’s hard to find somewhere to be alone with God,” he pointed out.
On another subject of The Planet’s interest, the simple, unmaterialistic—one might say early Christian-like—way that Grace “goes about church,” the young preacher was more forthcoming.
“We are saved by grace,” he said. “It’s not about how you look, it’s not about how impressive your life is, it’s not about how religious you are.”
What it is about, said Garmany, is coming to know God and the fundamental change that makes in a person’s life. “The gospel of grace, that’s really our DNA,” he said. “That’s what makes us tick.”
Grace and its two antecedent churches are part of the PCA, or Presbyterian Church in America, explained Garmany, but: “There’s as many little denominations within the umbrella of Presbyterianism as you can possibly imagine,” he said.
The word “Presbyterian” comes from the Greek word for “elder” and refers to a structure governed by church elders, said Garmany. His embryonic congregation is still supported and led by Grace’s parent church, but aside from that, his boss is Grace’s “session,” or board of elders, of which he is a member.
So a number of people participate in ruling the church and Garmany says a number also participate in conducting Sunday services, including children. The style is casual, blue jeans are fine, and people tend to laugh a lot. At the end of his sermon, Garmany opens up the topic for group discussion: What does everybody think?
“This is a safe place to bring questions,” said Garmany. “This is a safe place to doubt. We really try to welcome questions and searching.”
Grace participates in several community initiatives—“We really are not just here to build our church; we want to build a better Trenton”—and Garmany says not having a building allows the church to pour more of its resources into benevolence.
But he also says Grace’s focus is more on poverty alleviation than just handing out alms, and for a church that eschews materialism, its methods are sometimes surprisingly monetary. Grace offers a 12-week Faith and Finances courses each fall that encourages better stewardship of money. As part of that, those who complete the course may participate in a savings program whereby Grace matches every dollar they save up to $500.
The idea, said Garmany, is that participants emerge from the course not just with new budgeting skills but with a $1000 nest egg they can use for emergencies rather than falling prey to the paycheck-anticipation high-interest loans that victimize the working poor. “You can never get out of those things,” he said. “You’re just a slave.”
If that all sounds less divine than pragmatic, Garmany says Jesus talked more about money than he did any other subject. Be that as it may, Garmany has a lot to say about money, stewardship and the value of work himself.
“Christianity has been so reduced to this pray-this-prayer, walk-this-aisle, you’re good to go, now just be a good person and come to church on Sunday and put a little something in the plate,” he said. “All these rich teachings of scripture are just totally neglected.”
Those interested in the Faith and Finances course may call James Ott at (423) 475-9808. And those interested in hearing more of Garmany’s preaching, or more about Grace Community in general, are welcome at Sunday services at 10:30 a.m.. Just show up at the above-mentioned address on 136.
Garmany says visitors are always welcome—and no one yet has burst into flames.