Monday, December 19, 2005

Old churches, new ideas

Jordan Cooper referred to an article about growth in older churches in Leadership Journal. It caught my attention because we've been blessed to be part of older churches that don't fit the conventional wisdom about such congregations -- that they're closed-minded, set in their ways, not likely to grow. Since most of the churches I've been a part of have been older, established congregations, I know there's truth in that. (Now that I think of it, the phrases I just used to describe older churches can apply to people over 40, too!) But, as the article says, churches over 40 can be effective for the Gospel. I think this can especially be true in small towns and rural areas, where church growth is often limited in the traditional sense, but where there are still lost and hurting people in need of God's grace.

Let me tell you a little bit about the two churches I'm thinking of: Brantford Evangelical Covenant Church and Clay Center Evangelical Covenant Church.

Brantford is the first Covenant Church we were members of. It's a church with a long history in north central Kansas, with its roots firmly planted in the Swedish heritage of the area. (You can find out a little more about the denomination here.) It's never been a huge church -- attendance runs pretty consistently around 100-120. It also sits out in the middle of nowhere -- it's probably 8 miles from the nearest town. But we were welcomed into fellowship and found a solid church home for five years. It continues to minister to families in the area through a Mother's Hour program, an active youth group, men's fellowship and other ministries. Young people have gone out from this congregation to serve in ministries and missions around the world.

When we moved to Clay Center, more than 12 years ago, we joined the Covenant Church here, and it, too, defies the stereotype of older churches. Members who have been part of the congregation for many years like to tell the story of how our church has grown because it is such a great testimony to the power of prayer. You see, by the mid-1970s, the church was nearly dead. There were almost no families with children and the congregation hadn't had a full-time minister in many years. But many of the ones who were left began to pray for families with children to come. And, gradually, they did. And as the church looked for ways to reach out to the community, they started a Mother's Hour program, which led to further growth. About 1985 or so, they called a full-time pastor and by 1990, the congregation had outgrown the old church building. A new building was built that year and we added on in 1999. We have two worship services on Sundays with a combined attendance of around 300 or so.

But the numbers aren't nearly as important as what those numbers represent -- lives changed because of Jesus Christ. Of course, many of the members moved into the community (as we did) and came looking for a church home; others came from other churches. But there are many who came as new believers, or people who had wandered from the faith of their youth and now come back. We have effective children's and youth ministries that touch many families; members of our church regularly go on mission trips or do service projects in the community. Our church is committed as a body to helping hurting people -- those in prison, those who are sick, those whose families or marriages are struggling.

We are not perfect, but when I hear stories about other churches, I realize how blessed I am to be part of this church. The petty divisions that haunt so many churches don't seem to take root here and I believe a lot of that is because the prayers are still going up for our church and our ministers. And I think that's maybe the most important factor in whether an older church can live -- the prayers of God's people for renewal. It's a prayer God answers.

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