Faith

Renewing a 170-year heritage

I’ve written before about how the church where I attend has shrunk to the point where our offering doesn’t cover our expenses. I’ve also shared how God seems to be trying to teach us a big lesson about relying on Him. Then late last summer our treasurer, after untangling a snarl in our books, came to us with alarming news: At the rate we were burning through savings, we would be broke by April.

Our options were few:

  1. We could work hard to stay. Our congregation could increase their giving and aggressively invite others to join us. Meanwhile, we could seal off our unused second floor so we could save on our jaw-dropping heating and cooling costs.
  2. We could leave for affordable accommodations. We could list our building for sale, hope it sold before we were broke, and then rent or buy a space we could afford.
  3. We could give up. We could close our doors for good.

Though I never said so, I liked option 3. I felt like we were a defeated congregation, too apathetic to manage option 1. I thought that our chances of option 2 being successful were nil in this difficult economy.

Not our church's chief cornerstone

But I underestimated the amount of fight left in John, our lead elder. His family can trace ancestry at the church back to the late 1800s, the last such family left in our congregation. 50 years ago most members were related to the original farmers who founded the church in 1839. In recent years, the city has overtaken our land, and we’ve become an urban church. John watched all the changes; he has never been a member at any other church. He was not willing to give in. I think for a while it was only John’s determination that kept us going.

We prayed for God’s leading but we couldn’t discern it. We wrung our hands over what to do for several weeks. Finally, we thought that perhaps God meant for us to walk in the dark to give him the opportunity to light our path. Said another way, perhaps we needed to take some action to give God something to work with. So we decided to do both options 1 and 2 at the same time. We decided that whatever happened – if one or the other of these options worked, or if neither worked and we had to fold – we would consider it God’s will for our congregation.

Although we had not kept our situation from our members, we had never laid it out for them in stark terms. So after one late-autumn Sunday service we explained the three options before us. To my surprise, our members not only seemed behind our plan, but they determined to give option 1 the best they had.

They did leave more in the offering plate, and a few did invite friends and neighbors. It was obvious that they were giving their best, but unfortunately it was enough only to delay the inevitable. Meanwhile, we engaged a Realtor and listed the building for sale. The Realtor warned us that it would take 12 to 24 months to sell the building. I saw option 3 looking more and more like reality.

Six weeks later, another church made a good offer on our building.

Our former building

Things have moved very quickly since then. I wish I could say we handled it with aplomb, but the fact is that this process rather dragged us along behind it. We’re a little shaken up and weary, but it’s over. We no longer own the building. We now worship in a nearby hotel’s conference room.

But it seems clear that God doesn’t mean for us to do that for long. As our sale was in progress, we came upon a few acres for sale around the corner on the main road. Land is expensive on that road as the last couple farmers hold out for big bucks from strip-mall developers. Our proceeds from the building wouldn’t buy an acre. But 0ne owner was in a bind and was glad to sell us his land for a fraction of what his neighbors were asking. We engaged a builder, who proposes a small, simple building for us that will be within our means to operate. The cost of the land and the building is a bit more than we netted selling our building, and will stretch us a little. But we take this as such a strong sign that God means for us to build here that we are stepping out on faith and moving forward with it.

God has taught us some tall lessons through this:

    Our first building, 1841 (artist's conception)

  • A church is not a building. It’s hard to walk away from a 170-year heritage on a piece of ground. But the service God has in mind for this body of believers apparently needs us to be headquartered about a mile away. It confirms that regardless of where we collect our mail, this group of people are North Liberty Christian Church.
  • God wants to light your path. It’s just that very often you have to take some steps in the dark first. In other words, you can’t walk on water if you don’t get out of the boat.
  • God’s path for you will be an adventure. It will take you out of your comfort zone, involving you with things you can’t imagine. It will have nail-biting moments, but things will tend to work out. On the other hand, just because God’s involved doesn’t mean he will erase the consequences of your bad decisions along the way. (See above, about the sale process dragging us behind it.)
  • When you let God work among you, people respond. Our apathetic, defeated congregation found its ounce of fight and its unity of purpose when we got on the path God had in mind for us. More than ten years of factionalism and infighting have ended, and we are eager to move into the future God has planned for us.

I became a Christian as an adult. Read some of the story of how I found God.

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5 thoughts on “Renewing a 170-year heritage

  1. As we say often during a prison ministry weekends, “Who is the church?!?” “WE are the church!!!”. Some church congregations have even been moving away from having permanent buildings so their focus isn’t inside the walls. For some reason, those physical walls have a bad habit of containing our outreach.

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    • One thing this congregation still clings to is the attractional model. “Look! Here’s our building! We’re a church! Come be with us!” This is a large part of what drives us to build quickly. I’d like to see us move to a more missional model, where we go out and let our expression of God’s love and grace win people to Him, and the fact that we have a building and worship there is a necessary, but not the most important, part of our service to God. But I’m not sure this group’s mindset is going to find it easy to wrap itself around a missional model.

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      • The only problem being that must people searching aren’t likely to go to a church, especially a small one where they can’t hide. Frankly, I believe your church will continue to dwindle unless they change their mindset. Nearly all churches are seeing this happen.

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  2. Lone Primate says:

    It’s a hard thing to read this. It’s extremely brave. The disappointment you must feel, after having taken such trouble to find a place like this where you felt accepted and enlightened, must be profound. But the courage of the congregation is admirable. It probably would have been easy to simply drift to like-minded churches around you, but you’re staying a harder course. That in itself is inspirational, even to someone like me who can’t claim to be devout. There’s an important lesson to be learned from reading here, no matter who you are or what you believe.

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    • I had no particular love or hate for the building. Actually, I see this as a real opportunity for us to reinvent ourselves as a congregation that really reaches out. I hope we’re up to that task.

      Don’t think for a minute that I haven’t thought of leaving. This has been very hard and very frustrating. But I feel like I’ve been placed here, and I have not yet been released, much like a soldier in the Army. I feel like I need to serve here until I am sent elsewhere.

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