What are the options? Close, merge, and restart are common strategies. Two congregations in close proximity to one another, although in two different districts, tackled this problem last year. One congregation reversed a downward spiral. The other has been unable to do so. This is their unfolding and unfinished story.
New Danville was a rural/suburban congregation with a median age that was rising and an average Sunday attendance in the low 80’s and in slow, extended decline. In January of 2019, the Sunday attendance New Danville Mennonite Church was 181. During the course of 2018, we had as many has 200 during the Advent and Christmas season, and as few as 111 during a summer holiday weekend. Annual worship attendance averaged 149 people for 2018.
New Providence Mennonite Church, a village church roughly nine miles south of New Danville Mennonite Church, has seen the same aging and decline. Despite great efforts at reaching their community, attendance has been hovering around 25. They have wrestled with their ability to stay open as a congregation for a few years. Like many smaller churches they struggle with an aging congregation that invested many faithful years. More recently they struggle to attract young families and families with children.
What makes these statistics of two churches interesting is that six years ago, through the grace of God and a willingness on the part of the congregation to embrace change and engage the community, New Danville has seen the average weekly attendance increase five out of the last six years. This hasn’t come without challenges and, frankly, numeric growth doesn’t always equate to spiritual vitality in the church. It’s not all about numbers.
Yet the reality is the statistics represent souls on a journey, meeting at a church building, hearing God’s Word, and hopefully taking the opportunity to grow closer to, and more like Jesus. New Danville certainly hasn’t “arrived” at its destination. They continue to seek the wisdom of God in knowing how to care for those who have joined their family and how to continue to grow and impact their community.
In the midst of this and with a little prodding from Church on the Other Side, the pastors of New Providence and New Danville came together and asked, “Can New Danville partner in some way with New Providence to find a way forward together?” After a number of meetings and discussion by leadership in both churches, the decision was made to explore new possibilities.
Several possibilities have been discussed. New Danville could simply come along-side New Providence and help in ministry areas where New Providence struggled. Other ideas were more radical, such as both congregations becoming a single, new congregation. The two churches would become one church with two physical locations.
As of February, all of the possibilities are still being weighed, however, it is clear that there is a desire for some form of mutual ministry. A team including people from New Danville and New Providence and also several families from the community jointly planned and hosted a test service on Sunday, February 17, advertised as the Beaver Valley Brunch, named after a local highway and creek near the church. The brunch began at 10:00 am with a worship service immediately following.
Over 60 people attended the service including several families looking for a new church home. The congregation and team members are analyzing how it went and possible next steps.
These two congregations face many challenges. For New Danville, they are still growing and learning to be a church that is double the size they used to be, so they are still short on workers. For worship music they use pre-recorded songs with live singers some Sundays because of a lack of musicians. They also have a hard time keeping up with the number of children’s workers needed since many of the classes are reaching maximum capacity. This partnership could become a distraction, and it could pull resources away. For New Providence, they risk the loss of some traditions in order to attract families with new ideas. They risk inviting new leadership to help shape their future. They are investing in a new way of doing church even though many have served for years and are feeling some fatigue.
Many questions remain to be answered; like, “Can resources be shared effectively?” and “Are there ways for attendees to support both sites?” Despite the challenge of bringing many voices together from different congregations and communities, God can make a way.
There is a bit of precedent for this experiment. Several years ago, the churches of the New Danville District decided to have a combined youth group. There was risk that kids might move from one church to another but that hasn’t happened. In fact what started as a youth group that met at the Pastor’s house and had just enough students to fit on one couch now consists of about 30 students and an active program throughout the year including mission trips, led by leaders from multiple congregations.
The journey to this point hasn’t been perfect. It should be acknowledged that New Danville has seen its share of failures, but that has been part of the process. It may be that this partnership does not last, however, trying at least gives the opportunity for success. As many have learned, even failures handled well can provide new information and learning, and then that leads to new paths, clearer vision and another experiment.
Whether this is the simple renewal of a church or the start of something more has yet to be determined, but it is an opportunity for the church to come together and reach people for Jesus. There are many ways to expand the church and hopefully we will continue to start new churches, but we also have many existing congregations and facilities with great, sometimes untapped resources that just need a little help moving in the right direction. Isn’t it worth the effort to come together and explore those possibilities? It may require looking at new ways of organizing and administering the church, but it can be done.
Church systems are put in place to support the mission. Systems are not the mission itself. If we cling to and idolize a particular way of being the church, we risk turning our churches into museums and our pastors into curators. This is not a call to remove all sacred traditions and things we love, but it is a call to make space for new ways of working together in order to make us effective at reaching others.
2019 will be an interesting journey for these two congregations. All things are possible when partnering with the will of God. Join us in prayer for New Danville Mennonite Church and New Providence Mennonite Church as they seek a way forward together.