Churches come into existence in various ways. Some begin as a parachute drop, meaning that when church planters arrive in a community, they know almost no one else. Others begin as daughters of an established church. Still others may be planted through the cooperative efforts of multiple congregations.
In the Western Pennsylvania District, church multiplication has been simmering quietly for the past several years. But now it is about to boil over, resulting in a variety of new congregations as well as revitalized established churches. Veteran District Superintendent Rev. Randy Swink provides overall district leadership, and he is encouraged by the new and growing fellowships.
NEW LIFE IN THE "CHURCH GRAVEYARD"
There was a time in the history of the United States, if passengers wanted to travel west, they went through Altoona, Pennsylvania. Trains that converged on that area had developed a way to get over the mountains.
Trains are no longer as important to the economy of that region, but God has not forgotten Altoona. When Richard and Tonya Cox moved there three years ago, they knew only four other people. Richard became involved in Leadership Blair County, an arm of the County Chamber of Commerce. The connections he developed put him in touch with countless people in the area.
Some called the city of Altoona a “church graveyard,” since more than a dozen churches had closed in the past decade, including one with a 1,000-seat sanctuary.
Richard and Tonya spent the first fifteen months living as missionaries, focusing on building relationships and sharing the story of Jesus with those who would listen. In the months preceding the grand opening of Overflow Church in October 2013, fifteen district churches sent more than 200 volunteers who enabled them to begin reaching their city. The launch team comprised people from three district churches as well as people from the community. One congregation that had closed sold their building to Overflow Church for one dollar.
Fifteen district churches sent more than 200 volunteers who enabled them to begin reaching their city.
Since the grand opening, 60 people have made decisions for Christ, with 30 publicly declaring their faith in Jesus through baptism. Some had never before stepped into a church or heard the story of Jesus.
With the district’s blessing, Overflow is forming a network with district churches for the purpose of partnering together for multiplication. They are on target for their first daughter church to be launched in the fall of 2016.
FROM A MINE BUILDING TO A "CHURCH-RAISING"
One of the churches partnering with Overflow is Beech Creek Wesleyan in north-central Pennsylvania. The church has a rich history. In 1928, a new church plant purchased an old mine building, moved it off the mountain to the valley, reassembled it as a church, and used it for the next 80 years.
By the early 1990s, worship attendance had dropped to about 15. District leadership sent Rev. Luther Nelson Jr. to Beech Creek with the instructions, “Get it going or we’ll come in and close it.” When Rev. Nelson was called elsewhere in 2000, the church averaged 55.
The new pastor, Rev. Alan Eckenroad, was determined with God’s help to grow the church further. When they reached 120 in two services, the adjacent 4.5 acres became available. A Brethren in Christ Church in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, heard about their building plans and offered to bring 100 builders from their congregation to do a church-raising, similar to an Amish barn-raising. Beginning on a Monday morning with a foundation that had been prepared, the building was under roof by Saturday, saving $200,000 in costs. The new facility, seating 300, opened in February 2012.
At one time, Beech Creek had three churches, with the Wesleyan church being the smallest. By 2015, it was the only church left in the community of about 1,000. Now worship attendance averages 150. Recently, the church’s neighbor indicated he and his wife felt God wanted them to donate 6.5 adjacent acres, bringing the church’s total to 11 acres.
Meanwhile, the church is reaching out. A Community Connection Day features free food and games. An annual Thanksgiving dinner, in which the church takes over a local restaurant, ministers to about 200 people. For the past four years, the church has given a Christmas gift to each of 260 inmates in the Clinton County prison.
Now Beech Creek is partnering with Hyde Wesleyan and Altoona Overflow to plant a new congregation in Holidaysburg.
YOU CAN'T OUT-GIVE GOD
When Rev. Bob Croft assumed the pastorate of Hyde Wesleyan Church in north-central Pennsylvania 30 years ago, the church was almost ready to close. Humanly speaking, he did not want to go there.
Hyde Wesleyan was a challenge. For the first seven years, attendance did not rise above 35. His father, also a minister, suggested that he adopt the faith- promise method to raise money for missions. Bob was reluctant. After all, the total contributions averaged only $14,000 a year.
Today the congregation of 265 has a facility valued at $1.6 million. Annually they give close to $100,000 for missions.
But the congregation took the challenge and set a goal of $1,000 for missions, which seemed like a big stretch. The response totaled $3,600. “From that point,” Pastor Bob said, “our church began to turn around.” When they needed a new sanctuary, he told the congregation, "We will build as long as we don't short-change missions." As they raised money for the building, missions giving also increased. Today the congregation of 265 has a facility valued at $1.6 million, on which they owe only $16,000. Annually they give close to $100,000 for local and foreign missions. They found that you can't out-give God.
Over 100 people have gone on mission trips. More than a dozen of their teens have gone into the ministry. A children’s “penny march” occurs every Sunday morning, in which each child grabs a cup, circulates through the congregation, and collects loose change. In the past ten years, the “penny march” has netted $52,000, which has gone to an orphanage in Swaziland, Africa.
MULTIPLYING CONGREGATIONS & DEVELOPING PEOPLE
Sandy Lake Wesleyan is a church that wants to multiply. When Rev. Jesse Pratt became the lead pastor in September 2013, he knew that former pastor Shawn Cossin had prepared the congregation to launch a daughter church in the near future. So Pastor Jesse was prepared to lead the church forward in a multiplication process.
50 people from the mother church were encouraged to help start Oasis.
By September 2014, Nate Alsdorf, a staff pastor at Sandy Lake, became the lead planter for a new congregation called Oasis in Meadville, Pennsylvania, a half hour away. Sandy Lake gave away one of their most gifted leaders. "And because he was on staff already, people knew and trusted him," Pastor Jesse said. Approximately 50 people from the mother church were encouraged to join Nate to help start Oasis.
The borough of Sandy Lake is a community of some 1,200 persons in northwestern Pennsylvania, but the church considers the school district to be its target area. So it is something of a regional church, with attendees coming from as much as 45 miles away. They are making the transition from a regional church to a missional church. Instead of expecting the region to come to them, they want to multiply churches in the region.
Usually new churches grow faster than established ones. In its first year, Oasis Church held four baptismal services.
Pastor Jesse says that one of the exciting things is to see the transformation taking place among those who left Sandy Lake to plant Oasis. “It is awesome to see them grow and excel and to see God use them in ways they never realized,” he said. “Pastor Nate feels he has been set free to do things he didn’t even know he could do.”
A "DRIVE-IN" CHURCH
A unique congregation in western Pennsylvania is Armbrust Wesleyan Church, located at a crossroads that was the end of the line for a trolley that used to come out from southeast Pittsburgh. A camp meeting was held in the area in the 1920s, after which a Sunday school class started. It became the congregation that is now Armbrust Wesleyan.
The church has a history of long pastorates. The two pastors preceding the current leader, Rev. Tim Stradling, served a combined total of 45 years. Rev. Stradling has been at Armbrust for eleven years.
In the 1970s, former Pastor Jay Clark began a Drive-In Church, in which cars drove into the parking lot facing the church in the summertime. It began by using loudspeakers. When neighbors began to complain about disturbing the peace, the church switched to an AM transmitter, by which worshipers could hear the service on their car radios.
The mission of the church is often better accomplished by moving out and ministering outside the walls of their churches in their communities.
When asked why the church continues a ministry that was something of a fad several years ago, he said, “We usually have 50-70 people in the outdoor drive-in service each Sunday morning and at the end of the summer season, we usually have some new families who begin worshiping with us year-round. It’s hard to argue with what is helping us reach new people.” The total worship average attendance is about 250.
“We’re a family church,” the pastor said, “with a strong emphasis on discipleship for all ages.” The church also conducts a Christian school, preschool through twelfth grade, with an enrollment of 60.
The church sponsors a community meal every Wednesday evening, providing free food for anyone, including some low income families in the community for whom the free meal is very meaningful. “It’s also a great way to connect with some of our neighbors,” the pastor said.
The Western Pennsylvania District has discovered what so many other Wesleyan districts have learned, that the mission of the church is often better accomplished by moving out and ministering outside the walls of their churches in their communities. And they are working together with other churches to multiply and accomplish things that one church can rarely do alone.
BUILDING "THE BRIDGE" TO THE COMMUNITY
Another church plant in western Pennsylvania is The Bridge, located in Penn Hills, a northeastern suburb of Pittsburgh. Upon returning to the States after working as Africa area director for Global Partners, Rev. Rick Cox had a strong desire to plant a church. Dr. Wayne Schmidt encouraged him to consider a multi-ethnic plant in Pittsburgh.
In January 2010, he and his family moved to Penn Hills and began to get acquainted in the community. They launched The Bridge a year later and are now beginning to see the multi-ethnic aspect occur.
The have attracted young families, their target group, and some older people as well. They have a strong children's program called Bridge Kidz, which meets during the adult worship service. They currently worship in the ballroom of the 3 Lakes Golf Course, which will seat 250-300.
Several attendees have come to know Christ for the first time. Others who had been de-churched have started attending. On Pentecost Sunday, many heard for the first time about being filled with the Spirit. On that one Sunday, three persons received Christ, two were baptized, and 26 were filled with the Holy Spirit.