At the height of the Civil War during an army revival meeting, two brothers from Atlanta committed a solemn prayer to God: “If you spare our lives in this war, we ask that you would provide pastors to every generation from these loins.” They both survived, and in the following decades they and their descendants planted many of the churches in Atlanta that still exist today. Five generations later, Buddy Hoffman was born into the same bloodline. He grew up, went to Bible college, and, upon graduation in 1976, married his sweetheart Jody. Two weeks later they drove to Boise, Idaho to plant a church because Buddy had heard it had the fewest churches of any place in the U.S. His plan was simple: teach the Bible and make disciples. For the next seven years, that church grew steadily beyond its humble beginnings as Buddy taught from the Scripture and discipled leaders. While there, Buddy and Jody learned that Boise had once been the home to many flourishing churches, a failure to engage the next generation had led to significant loss of influence in the valley. For the Hoffmans, this only underscored the biblical principle that every generation has the responsibility to reach the next generation.
Return to the Neighborhoods of Atlanta
One night in 1983, God woke Buddy with what he describes as a very clear calling: “Buddy, I want you to go back to your hometown to start a church.” So they handed the Boise church to its leaders (it continues to meet today) and drove back to Georgia. That fall, Grace Fellowship Church held its first meetings in a daycare center in Tucker, a suburb just outside Atlanta. But even though the location had changed, the strategy had not: Buddy taught the Bible every Sunday, and the church mission statement was “Making disciples beginning with my neighbor.” Within a few years, Grace purchased a small building in the town of Lilburn very near Parkview High School in order to work with students and families there.
Slowly but steadily, the church grew in size until, in 2000, space limitations precipitated a relocation to a new building six miles away in Snellville. This new land was adjacent to Brookwood high school, and those connections coupled with the increased space and the help of the Holy Spirit resulted in rapid growth.
The Nations: 9/11 and the Muslim World
Grace’s engagement with the nations was, from the beginning, a work in progress. The leadership team committed 15% of the total budget to missions from the church’s inception, but Buddy’s vision for local church engagement with the nations was primarily financial. In 2001, however, the events of September 11 deeply impacted Grace’s priorities among the nations. A team made up of staff, elders, and various members of the church was quickly assembled to travel to New York city and minister to those affected by the attack. A core conviction at Grace has always been that “doing something is better than doing nothing,” and this “something” proved fruitful as many responded for prayer in the streets. While in New York, again God called Buddy clearly, but this time it was to engage the Muslim world. This initiated an amazing journey of failure and fruitfulness that has become significantly integrated into the core of our calling to people from all nations.
Multiplying Grace: New Churches, Same DNA
In 2005, the cornerstone Grace emphases of neighborhoods, nations, and next generation converged when a very small church in Atlanta located between Georgia Tech University and the Southeast’s largest mosque approached the leadership with a request that we help replant a vibrant, growing community in their building. Though the initial years were challenging and growth was at first slow, faithful discipleship resulted in a flourishing community of worshippers at Grace Midtown in the heart of the city. Another opportunity emerged in 2010 to start a third Grace church in the historic cotton mill in the small town of Monroe. In 2013, we planted again in Athens in an effort to engage the mass of students at the University of Georgia. The congregation of students and young families is drawn to the Bible teaching, worship, discipleship, and international emphases of the larger Grace movement. These college students also participate in a larger network of college house churches scattered across the Southeast and anchored from Grace Midtown. Finally, in February 2014, we planted again in another church building that had become unsustainable to the original congregation. When they asked us to plant in their facility, we agreed, and so Grace New Hope began. Buddy himself felt called to pioneer this plant, and so he is currently leading and preaching at the newest location. This significant change has only increased the sense that each church in the network is unified yet indigenous to its place, whether urban, suburban, or rural. Though the Grace Family of Churches shares a common elder board and central service team, each campus has its own local leadership, live preaching, and is (mostly) independent financially.