Churches Begin, Die and Live Again
The story of Christ is the story of birth, death and resurrection.
That's also the story of some selfless churches.
You gotta love New Orleans. Following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, some people thought the city was finished, but no way. Energy and love still abounded.
So much so, that mostly white First United Methodist Church and mostly black Grace United Methodist Church came together and birthed a baby – First Grace United Methodist Church – a thriving, racially diverse congregation.
It wasn't a simple courtship, but neither was it an arranged marriage. The two churches spent time together, learned about each other and finally decided to become one.
Grace had more than 150 years of tradition and First Church was even older when Katrina hit. First, located on Canal Street, a major thoroughfare, had been in a steady membership decline since the 1970s. Although damaged, its building survived the storm. Grace's structure was heavily damaged; its 100 or so members scattered.
The Rev. Shawn Anglim had been a campus minister at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge for six years when now retired Bishop William Hutchinson appointed him and three other clergy to eight storm-damaged churches in New Orleans. Hutchinson's instructions to Anglim were simple: Start working where he felt the Holy Spirit leading.
When Anglim began working with First and Grace, they were still meeting separately in their damaged buildings. Following a lot listening and prayer, Anglim approached each with a question: "Don't you think we can do more for this city as one body of Christ rather than as two bodies of Christ separated by one long mile?"
At first, the two congregations, each with its own identity, shared space in First's large building.
They decided to begin a mid-week meal there. The Dollar Dinners brought together Katrina volunteers, people in the neighborhood and the homeless and working poor.
Working together, members of both congregations began to get to know each other. After a few months, it became clear that it was time to merge. They began worshipping together in June 2007. In October, First Grace UMC was born!
The church continues to expand its ministry to New Orleans. It opened Hagar's House, a residence for homeless moms and their children where women can stay as long as they need to. Project Ishmael is a free immigration center providing direct representation for children.
The church hosts a Spanish-language worship service and classes for students learning English and Spanish.
They also provide space in the building for a school for children with autism. "These kids see the love of Jesus when they are here," Anglim said. "I think Jesus would be glad to walk these halls."
"It's funny to think that God could use an event as horrific as Katrina to bring about so much good, but he has," he said. "There are never-ending ways for us to connect to the city. It's all right here. Everywhere you look, God has given us an opportunity."
Anglim said his people know that well.
The last thing the Rev. Sam Geyer ever thought he would do was to be the last pastor of a church that closed. Nevertheless, it happened in 2015.
Kahlotus, Washington, is a town of fewer than 200 people. Early pioneers there founded what became Kahlotus Community United Methodist Church in 1906. For its first 16 years, the church had no pastor. Occasionally a visiting preacher would come, but by and large, the congregants took care of themselves and did ministry in the community.
Kahlotus Church was a faithful and fruitful congregation. Generations of families and friends shared faith, hosted annual hunters' breakfasts, organized Easter egg hunts and offered vacation Bible school to all the community's children. They also managed a food bank used sometimes by half the town's population. Eventually, each of these ministries ended.
"The church faced closure multiple times," Geyer said. "Each time they faced it, they remembered they were tasked with being the light of Christ for their community and kept going. One thing we did when I was appointed their pastor in 2014 was to engage in an intentional and holy discussion about what the future held for them."
While the remaining members had many ideas, they lacked the energy to do the work. They had the desire, but didn't have the people and the means to keep going. With that reality, the best option was to close the church. They gave themselves a year to end well.
Geyer and the church members soon met with Kahlotus Mayor Patti Hamilton, the Rev. Juli Reinholz, district superintendent, and Pacific Northwest Conference treasurer Brant Henshaw. Geyer and the congregation wanted to discuss options for further use of the church building, hoping to find a way to allow it to continue serving the community. It was a good structure.
At that meeting, all parties agreed to sell the church building to the city. The mayor and city council envisioned a new city hall and library there. They also wanted to bring the food bank back to the church location. The almost 4,500-square-foot building would have a second life of service.
"Closing the church was a time of sadness and a time of joy," Geyer said. "I have to admit, it does feel like a close friend died. But, I know that with death comes resurrection, so I trust that although the church ceased to exist, God continues to be with the good people of the church and community as they continue to use the building for the benefit of everyone.
"It's sad the church's life came to an end, but during its life it brought joy, peace and love to the people of Kahlotus. Its life was well lived."
St. Croix Valley United Methodist Church in Lakeland, Minnesota, had been a good church for a long time. It still was. Its members were family to each other. But churches have a life span, and St. Croix's was ending. It was dying.
"The vision of the church has always been to know Christ and to make him known," said Dave Deming, then-council chair at St. Croix. The question became how to continue to make that happen?
"The reality was, we were dying," Deming said. "As the number of young families diminished, we just didn't attract other young families."
Remarkably, in the face of death, the church embraced resurrection. Embrace Church, a United Methodist congregation in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was thriving. Its weekly worship attendance increased a whopping 1,437 percent between 2009 and 2014, making it the fastest-growing United Methodist Church in the United States.
Embrace wanted to start a new campus and decided Lakeland, about 15 miles east of St. Paul, would be a good location.
The Rev. Clay Oglesbee, district superintendent, and the Rev. Cindy Gregorson, director of ministries for the Minnesota Conference, approached the Valley leaders and said they had a big, audacious, take-your-breath-away proposal. They said, "It is going to turn your life upside-down, but we believe God is in it. Will you consider it? Will you give over your building, your identity, your way of being church to Embrace so they can start a new campus in your building?"
And, they added, we want you to do this in three weeks.
Deming said, "We heard God knocking – and not softly – he was kicking the door down! Here is an opportunity."
St. Croix made the selfless, brave and bold decision to give over all it had to allow Embrace to start a new campus there.
There were no ashes in this death, only new life.
"Seeing something altogether new grow and blossom as another church plants itself here, well, if that's not resurrection, I don't know what is ," said the Rev. Jeff Utecht, Valley's then-interim pastor.
The Rev. Adam Weber, Embrace lead pastor, praised the St. Croix congregation for its sacrifice and vision.
"Here is a congregation at the table because they do love the Lord and have a vision for something greater," Weber said. "They are saying, ‘We want to reach our kids and grandkids.'"
In September 2015, St. Croix closed its doors. Almost everything about it ceased to exist.
But, in November, it came back to life! Embrace St. Croix launched with two services and 438 people attending.
"We have stories of people from all walks of life who are coming and seeing their lives changed," said the Rev. Austin Walker, campus pastor at Embrace St. Croix.
Weber added, "This is not the story of Embrace. It's the story of a church body setting aside what they prefer for the sake of the kingdom, for the sake of seeing people come to Christ. That's the story of Embrace St. Croix."
Polly House is a freelance writer and editor living in Nashville, Tennessee. Information in this article was based on reporting from the Louisiana, Pacific Northwest and Minnesota annua