A milestone in a 175-year-old church’s history

A few years ago I wrote frequently on this blog about North Liberty Christian Church and its journey after being forced to sell its building, on land they’d occupied since 1839. At last, this congregation’s new building is complete. It was a long time coming.


The backstory: in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the church suffered two destructive splits, and members left in large numbers. By 2009, the offering no longer covered expenses, most of which involved heating and cooling an enormous building. I was an elder in this congregation by then, and I learned that we were burning through savings at an alarming rate. I wrote about our difficult decision to sell our building here. We got a great deal on a parcel of land on a main thoroughfare  around the corner from us, and signed a contract with a builder to erect a small, simple building on the site. And then we ran into roadblock after roadblock, which I wrote about here, which depleted our cash to the point where we no longer had enough to complete the project.

Meanwhile, we worshiped in various hotel rooms until a church that had been our neighbor for more than 150 years, Bethel United Methodist Church, allowed us to use their old sanctuary (read about it here). We never imagined it would be three more years before we could move into our new building. I use “we” loosely, because a few months after moving to Bethel, my sons and I left North Liberty Christian Church. I wrote about why here.

I didn’t keep in touch with the people of North Liberty as well as I promised I would, but I did hear from them often enough to know that they walked a difficult road trying to find the funding needed to finish their building. The money slowly appeared and bit by bit the building was finished. This past Sunday was the first service, and they invited me to join them.


It was bittersweet to see everyone again. I loved the people of that congregation and leaving was difficult, which is part of the reason why I’d not kept in very good touch. I also felt some guilt about not walking that difficult road with them to this milestone. God had different service in mind for me, and I’m doing it now (read about it here). But I never quite shook the feeling I left business unfinished at North Liberty. Yet everybody welcomed me warmly and was glad I came.

God taught us a lot as we lost our home of 171 years and wandered unsure of whether our new building would ever be built, and indeed if we would even survive as a congregation. I’m sure God taught the people of North Liberty much more after I left, just as he has taught me much as he shared the mission he had in mind for me. What I’ve learned, and what I hope the people of North Liberty learned, is that there are milestones (such as new buildings) along the journey, but it remains a journey and frequently you can’t see what’s around the next bend. So we have to keep remembering that God is in control, and not worry.

Faith, Stories Told

Moving on is a simple thing; what it leaves behind is hard

When I measure the health of North Liberty Christian Church in terms of key external indicators, things don’t look good. I’ve been writing about this church’s challenges for two years now, chronicling its story of a dying congregation, of leaving the land it called home for 170 years, of delays and cost overruns in building a smaller and more affordable building, and of worshiping in space rented from a neighboring church. In the months since I last wrote about the church, it has been unable to raise funds to cover the overages, no further progress has been made on the new building, the pastor has resigned, and an elder has stepped down and left the church with his family.

If this church were a football team, I’d say it was down 30 points at the two-minute warning.

Inside Bethel

But a remarkable thing has been happening that shows that this congregation has a future. The church has been slowly growing. Six months ago, half the chairs in the rented sanctuary were empty every Sunday. Today they’re all full, as are many more chairs that have been added. The church regained several members who left years ago in sadness while the church was riddled with strife. Even better, several newcomers have started attending regularly. I think it’s because the congregation has healed from its wounds and has emerged united and hopeful. You can feel it during worship – the Holy Spirit is free to dwell among the people because they are able to receive. Returning members and newcomers are responding to that, and they’re staying.

But my sons and I are not. I’m the elder who stepped down; it is my family who has left.

During 2010 circumstances in my sons’ lives required more and more of my time and attention. My role in the church as a teacher and elder took a lot of time and energy, and so did my job, and soon I was stretched too thin. I quit teaching – which I miss, by the way – to try to gain some balance. It wasn’t enough. Additionally, as the year wore on I increasingly found myself disagreeing with the other elders. We weren’t fighting; I just felt God was leading the church in one direction, and they felt like he was leading it in another. By late last year my competing pressures had pushed me to the edge of exhaustion, and I knew something else had to give. It was clear to me that my time as an elder needed to end, for my health and the congregation’s.

I served in that church because I thought it was God’s mission for me, and without that service I was at loose ends for several months. But as my spirit was restored and I gave more time and energy to my sons, I began to see that they are the mission God has in mind for me now. It changed my focus. My sons were the only youth their age at North Liberty and I had known for some time that they wished it were different. Now I see that they need interaction with others their ages who are also seeking God. And even though the church is growing, it is attracting people whose children are grown. It seems unlikely that my sons will find friends there any time soon. When my older son recently joined the youth group at his mother’s church, I knew we had to find someplace where he and his brother could plug in.

Still, I dragged my feet. I love the people at North Liberty Christian Church. I was honored to serve them and blessed to be in community with them. Also, they stood by me as my marriage ended, which was the most difficult time of my life. Many of them know how I contributed to my marriage’s end and loved me anyway. A few of them were on my short list of people to call, and talked me off the ledge time and again when I despaired the hardest. It is hard to leave behind these people who showed such Godly grace to me.

And so I felt little joy on Sunday as we worshiped elsewhere for the first time. I hoped that singing to God would put me into the spirit, but I didn’t know any of the songs. I was in a funk most of the day. But I also feel hopeful because I’m sure that God has excellent service in store for us with our next congregation. Perhaps the way I thought I saw God leading North Liberty might instead be the kind of church God is leading me to find for my family. I hope we find it soon.

Faith, Stories Told

In God’s house

North Liberty Christian Church and Bethel United Methodist Church have been neighbors for a very long time. For more than 150 years, the two churches stood about three quarters of a mile apart on the same road in Pike Township, Marion County, Indiana. Check out this section of an 1855 plat map that shows both churches.

I know that North Liberty Christian Church met in a succession of log cabins in the 1800s; I assume Bethel’s history is similar. Bethel built its brick building first, completing it in 1905. North Liberty built its brick building in 1909. Both churches later built larger, more modern buildings. While North Liberty’s 1909 building was razed to make way, Bethel’s 1905 building still stands.

Bethel UMC

When officials at Bethel learned that we at North Liberty had sold our building and were worshiping in a couple cramped hotel conference rooms, they offered to rent us their old sanctuary plus a room for our children’s ministry at whatever price we were paying for the hotel. We took them right up on their offer. It was a win-win for both of us, giving us much more room for our services and helping them pay for a family life center they had built. Here we are inside, preparing for worship on a recent Sunday.

Inside Bethel

This little sanctuary is remarkably bright inside for being lit by only four meager lamps. The stained glass windows, especially the large ones on the west and south sides, let in a lot of light.

Inside Bethel

Except for those stained glass windows, this room is understated. None of the details call much attention to themselves.

Inside Bethel

Even the pattern in the tin ceiling is gentle and quiet.

Inside Bethel

It all conspires to make the stained glass windows stand out even more.

Inside Bethel

When we left our old building last February, we thought we might be in our new building by now. Much has been done, including clearing trees, laying hardpack for the parking lot, and doing considerable drainage work. But while this was going on, we were getting quite an education in how the city works. They’ve placed several barriers in our way, and clearing them has cost us time and money. When we started this project, we had enough money to cover it. These unexpected expenses have caused us to seek financing. That has led to more delays. Now it’s too cold to lay the building’s foundation. The soonest our builder will do that is April. The soonest we could be in our new building is August.

The delays have been frustrating. But the time we’ve spent as nomads has been good for us, helping us to gel as a group and, for some, to heal from past difficulties in our congregation. We are starting to think that in God’s eyes, the building project that really matters is done. We are starting to think that we shouldn’t wait for our new building to resume our outreach. God has given us everything we need right now to do his work in our neighborhood.

My church has seen it over and over again – when God wants something to happen, it happens. Like the time we had a rock concert.

Faith, Personal

Finding joy in service

A year ago my church was still in our building on land where our congregation was founded in 1839, but we were dying. Six months ago we sold the building, bought some land, and prepared to build a smaller building, one we could afford to heat and cool while still paying our pastor. Today we’re still worshiping in a hotel room, though a sign on our new property announces us.

I have really struggled with the building project. Not only have there been endless delays and red tape – we haven’t even broken ground yet – but we have bumbled and stumbled our way through almost every step. It’s easy to say, “Do your best and trust God to bring the rest,” and I suppose those of us in leadership are doing the best we can. All four of us have day jobs and families, limiting the time and energy we can give. We’ve reached out to others in our congregation for help, but our bench is too shallow and much still falls to leadership to handle. It’s not like the project needs us to commit to it full time, but when it needs us, it demands all of our attention and more. I can’t always tear myself away from work and family at these times.

Part of my struggle is personal. I manage projects for a living. I see things that need to be done to successfully manage this project that we’re not doing. The other leaders are good men, and I look up to their spirituality, but I’ve had only occasional success getting them to see what I see. Maybe I’m worrying over nothing, because things always seem to work out, but until they do my anxiety shoots through the roof.

And so this project has been extremely frustrating and stressful. I have found no joy in this service. Frankly, on a couple occasions I’ve prayed to God that he release me and send me somewhere else.

When the building project isn’t consuming us, which isn’t often, we dream about reaching out to the neighborhoods around our new location. We’ve talked about some things we’d like to do, but soon we realized that we don’t know what our neighbors need. Sure, they need God if they don’t know him already. But Jesus sent the disciples out in his name with the instructions to heal them of their illnesses as they told them about the Kingdom (see Matthew 10, Mark 6, Luke 9). After all, why would someone who’s sick or otherwise in need care at all about the Kingdom? They are focused on their need.

So we decided to have a cookout on our new property and invite our neighbors. We would begin to get to know them and to learn about their needs. And so on a recent Saturday we set up picnic tables and gas grills and laid out a spread. Many of our neighbors came and we shared a good time.

I love to hear stories of how God powerfully answers prayer. I can recount a time or two when God’s done that for me. But for the most part the answers to my prayers have been like whispers in the breeze, and I’ve had to learn how to listen for them. I think perhaps I heard God whispering to me at the cookout, as I felt joy in my service for the first time in months. It was great to connect with our neighbors, sharing smiles and laughs and learning a little about them.

I reflected on how, as the building project consumed my available time, I had stepped away from my direct service to others. I realized that I wanted to refocus my efforts more along those lines. I’d been having thoughts about starting a Sunday school class for our teenagers, and about maybe starting a small group or a men’s group. It is time for me to make one of these things happen. The building project will have to do with that much less of me.

I think the church needs not to manufacture false community, but get out into the communities in which they’re planted.

Faith, Stories Told

The time capsule

Faced with selling our church building, many in our congregation grieved. They remembered Grandpa who used to teach Sunday school in the classroom, or falling in love with the one they’d marry while serving together in the kitchen, or seeing their daughter married in the sanctuary. It was hard for them to walk away, and their feelings ran the grief gamut. The elders sure took the brunt of it during the anger phase. I can’t blame our members – they needed someplace to put their anger for the years of splits and fighting and their resentment that it ultimately led to us leaving our land.

Before we knew it, before we were ready, we faced closing on our property. Not only had we not packed a single box, but we were going from a 14,000-square-foot building to renting a conference room in a hotel. The monumental task before us was to pack that itty-bitty subset of our stuff we couldn’t live without, and give or throw away the rest.

Did I mention that we owned a grand piano? An organ? A whole roomful of books, another of seasonal decorations? Boxes of records stretching back almost 100 years? About a million folding tables and a billion folding chairs?

Members seemed to be moving through their grief, but we had to be out in a week, and we had to call on them to do the work. Several of our members took the week off and killed themselves packing and pitching. The rest of us came together that Saturday and finished the job. By the time we were done, we had made, filled, and taped shut ten dozen boxes; filled three forty-foot dumpsters and two 20-by-30 storage units; and helped several other churches load our best equipment onto their rented trucks to be used in their ministries. As the mountains of stuff shrunk and disappeared, so did our grief. When we made one last pass through the building to make sure we hadn’t left anything behind, as we vacuumed the carpets one last time, we all knew that the last of our grief was gone. In its place was eagerness and excitement to move forward along the path God has laid out before us.

John, our lead elder, grew up worshiping in the previous building, a 1910 structure that the congregation was outgrowing by the 1960s. He watched our current building go up in three phases as the 1960s faded into the 1970s. He watched the 1910 building be razed in 1973 and a fellowship hall be built in its place. The 1910 building’s cornerstone was reset in the fellowship hall’s northeast corner.

Cornerstone removed

John was determined that the cornerstone would come with us to be re-reset in our next building. He called a mason to chisel it out and replace it with bricks. The next time I saw him, he said, “When you tap on top of the cornerstone, it sounds hollow! I wonder if there’s anything inside. When everybody’s here on Saturday, we ought to open it and see! Could be nothing, could be something!”

Inside the cornerstone

And so we did. With considerable effort, because it weighs a ton, it was pushed into an empty room. We gathered, and John handed a hammer to his elderly aunt Doris, our congregation’s longest-standing member. She took one whack and broke it open. John reached in and pulled out a Ball jar stuffed with old photographs, bulletins, newspaper clippings, a complete membership roster, a roll of paper signed by every member, and meeting minutes from early-1970s church board meetings leading up to the building of the fellowship hall. We were thrilled! Many of us had come to this church after the building was built, and were excited to catch this glimpse into our past. A few who remembered the old building were happy to reminisce.

About 1963

This photo from about 1963, which was printed on the church’s letterhead, shows the new educational wing next to the 1910 building. The church was still way, way out in the country in 1963 – check out the rural-route address! Indianapolis and Marion County wouldn’t merge their governments until 1970, and the suburbs wouldn’t sprawl this far until about 1985.

About 1970

This postcard from about 1970 shows the church’s spiffy new Unigov address. It also shows the completed sanctuary and the second floor of the education wing. The 1910 building’s tower is visible, but the rest of the building is hidden behind trees.

Gymnasium construction, Sept. 1973

In this September, 1973, photo, the old building has been razed and the fellowship hall is being built. According to the church board meeting minutes, it was financed in part by selling bonds, which earned 7½ percent interest and matured in 1987. The minutes also say that the winning bid to build the fellowship hall was for $137,909. You can hardly build a house in our township for that little today!

As we gathered around to look at the photographs and papers, our pastor asked us to think about what we’d like to put back into the cornerstone when we set it into our new building. “If Jesus doesn’t come first,” he said, “what would you like a future generation to know about us when our next building is torn down?” Nobody had a good answer at the time. Now that I’ve seen how we’ve come through our difficulties strengthened and unified, I think that what we put in there needs to be far less about the building we will build and much more about what God has done in and will do through us, the people of North Liberty Christian Church.

It wasn’t until I drove away for the last time that it struck me: John had to know that Ball jar was inside the cornerstone – he was there when it was set! The stinker!

I’ll miss trying my vintage cameras in our church’s cemetery. Check out some shots I’ve made with a Kodak Retina Ia and a Minolta X-700.


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.

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.

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 one 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:

  • 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.