By Allen Quist & Tim Robnett
Above all things keep in mind the Lord and handle everything in love.
It was a cold afternoon in north Portland, Oregon, compounding the sadness of a group gathered around the dying body of a friend. The word “friend” failed to capture their feelings, for this one was more than a friend, more than a neighbor, and in many ways more than family. This friend was the foundation of stability in their unsteady world, a source of strength when they grappled with forbidding helplessness, and an anchor in their times of storm.
As they all stood around their friend, all they could think was “why?” Why was this happening? How did the condition get this bad? How could they have missed the symptoms? Perhaps if they had paid more attention they could have done something. Was there anything they could still do to save their friend?
Try as they might, the group could not answer those questions about their friend, the Central Evangelical Church, and no one could deny the end was likely near.
I (Allen) was at that meeting with Central’s leadership team when I asked, “When do you think you’ll have to close your doors for good?”
“What do you mean close our doors?” someone responded.
“How many people do you need to keep doing ministry?”
“Wow, that’s a tough question. I guess if we cut it back to the bare bones we would need at least thirty-five.”
“What was your average attendance each of the past three years and this year?” I asked.
“It was seventy-nine, seventy-one, sixty-five, and fifty-six.”
“Given that rate of decline, when do you think that you will you reach thirty-five?”
“About three years—maybe less,” was the reluctant response.
“Once you drop below thirty-five, what impact will that have?”
“I suppose it means then we will have to close our doors and pass this building and land on to some other church or nonprofit.”
We paused as the leaders contemplated their situation. Then I asked, “How do you feel about that?”
One of the leaders, Willis Krieger, responded with anguish in his eyes, “This is the obvious conclusion, but it can’t be possible. This is the only church I have ever known.”
In its infancy, the Portland church burst with adventure. It began on June 22, 1913, when a group of German immigrants, Georg Hohnstein, Conrad Wacker, Ludwig Deines, and Christian Baecker, founded the Second German Congregational Church with the help of the fiery gospel preacher Reverend Heinrich Hagelganz.
Not realizing the prophetic nature of his words, Hagelganz wrote in a church journal, “We advised the brothers, above all things, keep in mind the Lord and handle everything in love.”
The Reverend Hagelganz agreed to be their “spiritual adviser” as long as he could continue to serve as pastor at his Beaverton congregation as well. He traveled to Portland every second Sunday.
“From all sides there was opposition to reckon with,” Hagelganz wrote, “but none [of the organizers] reneged about continuing with the project. At all times, thanks to the strength of the brothers working together, the Lord soon allowed us his honor to celebrate the victory.”
Believing that God would bless their efforts, later that summer the small group stepped out in faith to buy a lot on Northeast 8th Avenue and Skidmore Street, agreeing to spend four thousand dollars to build a new church. To highlight their faith they placed an inscription at the front of the sanctuary, words that spoke from their heart: We Preach Christ and Him Crucified.
Hagelganz wrote, “For the collection to finance this building, the members supported the project very well and so the work of the Lord continued to be blessed. Since the number of members increased all the time, God’s house quickly became too small.”
In 1921, responding to the needs of a rapidly growing Sunday school, once again this young congregation ventured out. They added thirty more feet to the main sanctuary and built a basement under the entire building.
Like all fledgling churches, they faced many challenges, including the generational conflict between older German-speaking adults and the English-speaking younger generation, and a conflict between German and American cultures. However, fire for God fueled a growing church. By 1927, the next generation of leaders was not only serving Second German Congregational Church, but also ministering in other Portland churches. They were a forerunner to the church plant and church help movements of today.
As the once adventurous group adjusted to changing conditions both within and outside their congregation, seasons of growth mixed with seasons of decline. Through the years, the church gave birth to pastors, missionaries, and spiritual leaders in the community. They embraced the Christian Businessmen’s Association, the start of the Portland area Youth for Christ, and more.
By January 1961, they found themselves pinned into a box. They needed a much larger church building because the location that had given them so many wonderful years now prevented them from expanding. Always willing to take risks for God, they ventured outward to northeast Portland and bought a two-acre piece of ground on which the men built the larger church, where they remain today, while changing their name to Evangelical Congregational Church.
The name changed but their mission for Jesus Christ did not. For years, the church poured itself out into northeast Portland, continuing to touch families for our Lord. They were productive years, writes church historian Joanne Green Krieger. She called them, “years of vital ministry.”
As we look to the past, our hindsight is excellent. We wish we could go back and advise the leaders to beware! Prosperity opens the door for self-reliance, the risk of stepping out of a dependency on God. Our thoughts would echo the prophetic advice of Heinrich Hagelganz, “… above all things, keep in mind the Lord and handle everything in love.”
Two large dangers loomed over them. First, the next generation of leaders was stepping into leadership, and second, the new community around them was rapidly growing and the makeup of the population was changing. Church leaders needed to “keep in mind the Lord,” staying sensitive to what God’s Spirit may ask them to do to adapt to the change in the community.
Sadly, as leadership transferred to the third generation, everything started downhill. The church lost touch with their neighbors and with what God wanted the church to do with his good news. While they did not mean to, sharing their faith dissolved into a good intent for someday soon. Too many other things got in the way—jobs, families, hobbies, cars. We have discovered that believers will pursue what or whom they have the greatest affection for. Sadly, affection for God often takes second place to affection for the things of this world.
Willis Krieger has his story of pain and disappointment, watching the slow death of the only church he had known. “In the early years,” Krieger says, “we had revivals and growth. People were committing their lives to a lifetime walk with Jesus, which was obvious in their everyday lives. People worked and were successful because God made them successful. However, my generation just did not have the fervor. They did not have a commitment. They were into their own careers and houses and vacations.”
Willis goes on, “I was part of a group of fifteen young families, and today my wife and I are the only ones left of that fifteen. Much of the decline was from people pursuing their careers and not knowing how to do that and still walk with Jesus. We were just sort of keeping on.” For those families, affection for God became second place behind the affairs of life, despite the apostle Paul’s warning, “No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer” (2 Tim. 2:4).
Heading into the 1970s, as the new leadership assumed a greater influence, the church fell deeper into a “keeping on” lifestyle and “doing church” the same week after week. New people seldom visited; if they did visit, they did not return.
Please keep in mind that these are good people—they did not intentionally put the church into this decline. They unknowingly fell into the trap of not noticing what was happening around them, or if they did get a hint, it was not strong enough to make them do something about it.
You can imagine what it was like. Over the years, everything was the same, only getting smaller—smaller Christmas programs, fewer children, fewer adults, and almost no visitors. Potlucks and worship services all stayed the same. They put on the same bake sales selling the same stuff to the same people to raise money for the same missionaries.
People call it routine—and it is deadening. Habits and traditions take over, and people slide away from a sensitivity to the passion of our Lord. The unpredictable Spirit-led life filled with adventure for God gives way to the comfortable, and few think twice about it.
Sadly, no one questions whether all this “church stuff” is what God wants. No one compares what God has said to what the church is doing. How easy it is to turn extra-biblical tradition into something that people believe God would never change.
Through the eighties, during the years when John Schneider was pastor at the Evangelical Congregational Church, some young families came, at least enough to offset the loss of the elderly members. However, with the young people came tension between the two age groups. The younger members wanted to make changes in areas such as the music, outings, and neighborhood use of the building. The older members who held the purse strings liked it the way it was. The gulf within the church was beginning to look like the Grand Canyon. This condition could not continue and it did not.
In 1994, the pastor left, followed shortly afterwards with the exit of the young families, leaving the older generation to keep on “keeping on.” If there was going to be an eye-opening experience for these good people, this would have to be it. However, it was not.
Because it was hard to find a pastor to lead them, for nearly two years they made do with interim pastors and pulpit supply. The church continued to get smaller—only now more rapidly than before. These older saints were feeling more and more desperate.
What could they do?
What they did not do was go to God, expecting that God might teach them about the cause of their problem. What they did do was look only at the two symptoms, the declining number of attendees and the empty pulpit, and make what many people would have thought was a reasonable decision.
Pastor Tom Lyman explains, “They reached out to the Central Free
Methodist Church, an aging church like theirs only with a young pastor. They merged their two churches, accepting the Free Methodist pastor as the pastor of the new church, now called Central Evangelical Church. That way they could solve both problems at once. But still they did nothing differently in how they did church.” In other words, they kept on “keeping on.”
If “insanity” is doing nothing differently, but expecting change, then Central Evangelical Church must have been getting close to it. Rather than aligning their hearts with God’s heart and allowing the Holy Spirit to lead them out of the decline, the downward slide continued.
They were forgetting God’s passion for lost people and for the growth of his followers, and unintentionally becoming an unattractive place for unbelievers to seek God. They were unattractive to those who wanted to be in an environment that encouraged a closer walk with God. When you are in a rut, it is hard to recognize what is happening.
Peter Drucker writes, “Nonprofits are prone to become inward-looking. People are so convinced that they are doing right, and are so committed to their cause, that they see the institution as an end in itself. But that’s a bureaucracy. Soon people in the organization no longer ask, ‘Does it serve God’s mission for us?’ They ask, ‘Does it fit our rules?’ And that not only inhibits performance, it destroys vision and dedication.” These words describe the condition of Central Evangelical.
However, Central Evangelical Church was not a typical body of aging members. They had a heritage of a God-loving, God-dependent people with a passion for God’s passion. Unfortunately, at that time Central Evangelical was merely living in the memory of their heritage.
This brings us back to the scene at the beginning of this chapter. As the leadership team stood around their dying friend, unable to figure out what had gone wrong, no one could deny the end was likely near.
After looking around the room, Willis added, “This is frightening.”
“Willis, this is not an unusual story,” I said. “Win Arn wrote that four of five [churches] are either plateaued or declining. Your situation has become an epidemic in many American churches today.”
Willis asked, “What could we do?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I suggest all of you ask God. Why not take your future to God, but with the clear understanding that everything—all that you have been clinging to in how you ‘do church’—is on the altar for God to change.” George Barna wrote, “The successful churches we studied had no sacred cows.”
Resolving to get rid of sacred cows was exactly what the leaders of this elderly church did. Pastor Tom Lyman met with the congregation immediately the following Sunday service, presenting to them the prediction that they would likely have to close their doors within three years if they did not make some drastic changes.
The congregation committed a whole month to prayer. They held a month long prayer vigil combined with evening corporate prayer times. People prayed for God’s mind and leading, and they prayed for a listening heart, willing to let go of whatever was holding back Central Evangelical. Of course, they realized it would not be easy. The decision to step out for God does not lower the temptation to be independent from God.
George Barna writes, “In most of the churches I’ve worked with or studied that have plateaued or are in decline, certain of the church’s ministries are off-limits for review or discussion. Perhaps it is the quality of the pastor’s preaching. Maybe it is the appearance of the buildings and grounds. Sometimes it is the nature of the worship service, or the productivity of the staff.”
It was a strong wakeup call!
To make no change meant the church would close its doors and that was scary!
Yet to stop the death of their church meant a major change had to take place. They could no longer think that somehow, without doing anything differently, everything would get better. That was equally scary!
On June 6, 2002, immediately following Central Evangelical Church’s month of prayer, Doug Frazier, the pastor of Northeast Community Church, abruptly startled Tom with a simple question during a lunchtime discussion, “What if our churches were to unite?” Northeast rented the church on Saturday nights, so it seemed like God had been pulling the two together. Could this be what God had for them? Tom knew his congregation and how big an impact this would have. This was not like the merger they tried in 1996 that fell short of refocusing Central Evangelical. These were young people with young ideas and a young pastor fully backed by his young congregation.
There were so many decisions. How would God want each church to adjust for the two to come together? Both churches understood the struggle between walking in the Spirit and following the desires of the flesh; living God’s way instead of “my way” (Gal. 5). Both churches had to come to grips that they might be forming a new body much different from what either church had been. Were they willing to accept that much change?
This was no small issue. It was the same issue that Joshua and God’s people faced as God led them across the Jordan and to the walls of Jericho and on through the many battles they would have to fight. Would they believe God and would they let God lead the adventure, or would they try to keep control, staying self-dependent?
In the 1996 merger, Central Evangelical did not even consider giving up anything. The thought that God wanted them to rethink what they were doing did not occur to them. They must have known the church life was not well. They did not rethink it in 1996—could they do so now?
I am convinced the answer to that question would have been a big no—if God had not prepared all the parties to this decision.
There were enormous issues looming over them. Both Northeast and Central Evangelical would have sacrifices to make. The first major issue both churches faced was that both were going to move from congregation-led churches to an elder-led church. This meant the control was moving from the people to the elders and they would be relying on the elders to listen to and obey God. This seems simple enough, but it involves people giving up power and control, and few people are willing to do that—unless the Spirit takes over.
Central Evangelical sacrifices
Freedom to make changes quickly
Safety of familiar faces
Completely young leadership
Control of music
An older generation to care for
Control of the kitchen
Loss of predictable routine
The second major issue, more so for Central Evangelical, was dealing with the transitions. William Bridges writes, “There can be any number of changes, but unless there are transitions, nothing will be different when the dust clears.… Transition is different. The starting point for transition is not the outcome but the ending that you will have to make to leave the old situation behind.”
Consider the kitchen. How would we feel if, after living fifty years in a house, a friend moved in and suddenly shared our kitchen? We cannot find the saltshaker because someone put it in the wrong place. There is food we do not like in the cupboard. The ice cream is gone, and we are sure there was some left the last time we had some. It seems trivial, but surrendering ownership to the church kitchen is a huge step.
Are we willing to do whatever God leads for the sake of the gospel at the level the apostle Paul writes about in his letter to the Corinthians?
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Cor. 9:19–23)
A healthy church will abandon whatever Christ calls them to give up for the sake of the gospel.
Though seemingly rare, the leaders of Central Evangelical Church and of Northeast Community Church were willing to refocus their affections away from their own agendas, self-interests, comforts, and safety to the person of Jesus Christ. The congregations of both churches enthusiastically voted, “With God’s help, Yes!” “Yes” on embracing a new work. “Yes” on letting the Spirit lead them into unknown territory. “Yes” on living their lives on fire for God instead of coasting in comfort.
When I first met the leadership team of Central Evangelical Church, discouragement, weariness, and defeat showed in every face. Since their bold decision to unite with Northeast Community Church, these same elderly leaders have a new look. There is life and excitement and anticipation for God’s continuing work in their lives and their new church, Word of Life Community Church.
Look at what God has done. He has taken a group of young families with the determination and courage to start a new work and united them with a group of senior believers with the courage to restart a work for Jesus Christ. Which takes more courage? Which is the greater sacrifice? I do not know. I must admit, however, that when I stop and ponder the work that God has done in the hearts of the leaders and congregation of Central Evangelical, tears come to my eyes. These special saints have touched the heart of God.
“I think that it is amazing,” Doug Frazier recalled. “Here is a group of older people that when I first met them I thought, ‘This is going to be a difficult journey.’ Yet in just a few months, they opened themselves up to new territory, and everything that once provided safety they tossed in the trash.”
“The ‘Self’ had to step aside,” says Krieger. “I know for me and Adam [Bihn] that was not an easy decision because this church was the only church we ever knew. It was the Holy Spirit who worked in our hearts and the hearts of these people.” Back came the words of Reverend Hagelganz, “Keep in mind the Lord and handle everything in love.”
Willis shared at one of our more recent meetings: “I have a new problem. Since we have been listening to God and pursuing his passions, we have been having more guests and those guests have been staying. Now there are a whole lot of people I do not know yet. I guess that is a good problem.”
When leaders and members of a church fall into routine and nonbiblical traditions, tall walls go up that limit the Holy Spirit, whom God never intended for us to limit. Our life in Christ (or as Paul puts it in Galatians 5—the walk in the Spirit) is dynamic and fluid, not locked into predictability or our control. Word of Life Community Church is now learning what it means to be walking in the Spirit.
The rest of this book is our attempt to focus the reader on the relationship of Christian leaders to the person of Jesus Christ, bringing attention to leadership and management implications. These implications center on a dependent love relationship with Jesus Christ and the return to his sovereignty in the real and practical areas of our lives and the life of the church.