Ministry Redirection Risky Move for Small Town Church

Post a Comment » Written on May 27th, 2009     
Filed under: News
By Stan Friedman

OSAGE CITY, KS (May 27, 2009) – “It is hard to imagine a church more courageous than Community Covenant Church in Osage City, Kansas,” says Dave Benedict, associate superintendent for the Midwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church.

That is because within the span of three years, the church, which was facing stagnant growth, made the decision to move from its building eight miles outside the community into the small town’s local high school building; suffered the loss of half its membership as a result; constructed a new building; went to an entirely new worship plan, which it based on the Covenant’s exponentially larger; changed its name from Stotler Covenant Church; and now has an attendance exceeding its previous numbers.

“My desire is that we will be an inspiration to churches in other settings,” says Pastor Jim Harrelson.

It all started when Harrelson and several members from the 130-year-old church attended one of the Covenant’s trainings for church planters in 2005. The congregation also had worked through Rick Warren’s book, Purpose Driven Life.

“We realized we were not being missional,” says Harrelson, who has been pastor for 10 years.

As a result, the congregation, which had an attendance of roughly 80, began to “test the waters” as it considered selling the 25-year-old building. Eventually, the congregation voted to move into town regardless of whether or not they sold the building.

It was a controversial decision, Harrelson says, “but most of the people agreed that we’re not here for us.”

The congregation began renting space in the local high school building in April 2006. It worshiped there for two and a half years.

Worshiping in temporary locations can be difficult with the constant set-up and teardown. “Worshiping in the high school commons area was a far cry from the comfortable sanctuary and familiar routines they had known for decades,” Benedict says. “And, it was discouraging to see people who made the move into town lose their energy and drop out as the months crawled by.”

In early 2008, the person leading worship left. With no other musicians to lead, Harrelson says, the congregation had to sing along to recorded worship music.

“I can’t tell you how depressed I was,” Harrelson says. “It was just awful.”

Still, the church had begun to construct a building on a site that once had belonged to a Covenant church no longer in existence. In the meantime, the conference had provided the church with a “bridge loan” and put it on appropriations, just like a church plant.

The 6,000-square-foot building cost $240,000 to build. Members did most of the work other than putting up the shell, contracting out the work requiring higher skills.

“People put their heart and soul into doing the building,” says Harrelson. That passion enabled the congregation to make another tough decision that would greatly impact its future. Just before putting up the indoor framing, the members changed the entire configuration.

Several teams had traveled to to get ideas for reaching younger people—“To learn lessons, not to do exactly like them,” says Harrelson.

“We came back and we realized we had set up a church for 60 year olds,” says Harrelson, who is approaching that age himself. “We just totally undid that.”

Rather than construct traditional classrooms and other meeting spaces, the congregation put in stadium seating with video capability in one room. The entrance included an area in which people could sit and have coffee.

Harrelson says he knows that may not sound like much in city or suburban churches, but adds, “In a little church in a town of 3,000 people in Kansas, this is pretty radical.”

The new building opened on August 17, 2008. Members were diligent to invite friends and neighbors, who they also asked to take part in a survey after attending two services.

“We knew we were going to have to change our format in a major way,” Harrelson says.

“We wanted them to tell us exactly what they liked, and exactly what they didn’t like.”

The first day, Harrelson and several other members stood in the doorway and nervously wondered whether anyone would come. So many people came, Harrelson says, “We didn’t have enough parking.”

He adds, “The next Sunday, we didn’t know what to expect—and we didn’t have enough parking.” They filled the building with 100 people.

More than 200 people attended on Easter. Last Sunday, 125 people attended.

“It’s been years since we’ve had that many people,” Harrelson says. “Many of them had never gone elsewhere. Many of them are people who would not set foot in another church.”

The church that sang to CDs earlier in 2008 now has almost more musicians that can fit in the front. Most of the musicians are still in school. “The keyboardist is in eighth grade and plays like she’s in college,” Harrelson says.

The room for children’s church, which has a slide, already is near overflowing.

The church now uses videos of sermons preached by’s pastor Craig Groeschel most Sundays. The videos are provided free by the larger congregation.

Harrelson still preaches once every six to eight weeks, but says many of the attendees are inviting friends, using the video sermon to pique interest. Harrelson will preach several consecutive weeks this summer, when Groeschel will be preaching about his congregation’s vision.

During that time, Harrelson will preach on Community Covenant’s vision. “So I still get my licks in,” he says, laughing.

Harrelson says he can see God at work, even on the sale of their previous building. On the day the church was supposed to pay the conference its first installment on the loan, “Out of nowhere came this other little church,” Harrelson says. The deal to purchase the previous property closed last December 31. “They paid cash.”

As a result, the church was able to be free of any debt related to the construction of the new building.

Congregation members who stuck with the church despite their own skepticism have changed their mind. Jim Rudeen, who initially did not like the idea of moving into town, told the Midwest Conference Annual Meeting, “This is the best thing we’ve ever done.”

Another member who told the meeting he was glad the church made the change was Steve Melgren, whose great-grandfather, C. P. Melgren, was one of the town’s original settlers and the congregation’s first pastor.

That doesn’t mean that continual change is easy. “Every day is exhilarating and frustrating in the same moment,” Benedict says. “The former stable, routine life as a church has been replaced with energy and chaos, forward steps and backward steps, stories of changed lives and reminders of how hard change can be.”

Benedict adds, “This is the pathway for any church that would seek revitalization—courage, risk, perseverance, and faith. Community Covenant is a living example of this pathway. I am so proud of them.”

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