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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Two struggling churches triumph together

 

God makes a way

October 10, 2021

The challenges of hurricanes and a pandemic haven’t stopped the congregations from First Presbyterian and Gracepoint Christian Fellowship from moving forward in building a new house of worship. Courtesy of Angie Kay Dilmore

Like many churches across America, First Presbyterian Church of Lake Charles, Louisiana, had long been on a downward spiral, struggling with an aging congregation, declining membership and dire financial concerns.

When the Rev. Chandler Willis came to the church as pastor in 2011, he knew something had to give. Clearly, the church could no longer afford to maintain ministry in such a behemoth of a building. The pastor quickly realized his role would be that of “helping the congregation face reality and make decisions that were necessary, and encourage them to take action, not just talk about it.” A year into his pastorate, First Presbyterian made the agonizing decision to sell their building in 2012. After a decade or so of denial or reluctance to recognize the reality of the situation, it was not surprising that emotions ran high.

Founded in 1888, the church had thrived in the city for over a century, historically with hundreds of parishioners crowded into the pews each Sunday. Though it took three years to find a buyer for the building, the congregation began the arduous process of seeking a new place to worship in 2015.

As this was happening on the same street just several blocks south of First Presbyterian, a Disciples of Christ denomination, First Christian Church, had been experiencing a similar fate as First Presbyterian, but with even fewer members and resources. Their congregation had become so small, they worshiped in their fellowship hall rather than their sanctuary.

The two small, needy churches in the same neighborhood had one big God at work bringing them together through two longtime friends. George Swift of First Presbyterian and R.B. Smith of First Christian had known each other for years, and when they came to realize the predicament, their respective congregations were in, they began to broker an arrangement. First Presbyterian would pay First Christian rent for the use of their sanctuary and one wing of the building.

First Presbyterian had intended to share space with First Christian only until they could either purchase an existing space or build a new worship facility. This plan proved to be more of a challenge than they expected. Despite a building fund coffered from the sale of their former property, they found few viable options. As a year passed, members of both congregations became comfortable with the two churches, one building arrangement. They even became friends.

While they remained distinct and separate churches, they would sometimes worship together on special occasions, such as Christmas Eve.

The Rev. Vince Endris arrived at First Christian soon after First Presbyterian moved in. Initially, he was confused by the arrangement. But then he realized it was not so odd after all. “This partnership between churches is exactly the kind of partnership that Christ prayed for when he prayed ‘that they might all be one.’ We are different, but the same.”

As the two congregations got to know one another, they soon discovered that both aspired to relocate from the current neighborhood.

Swift and Smith once again brainstormed and devised a plan they thought just might work. The two churches agreed to move forward and continue to share worship space in a new facility. They formed a corporation called First Churches United that would own and manage the building, attend to legal and financial matters, and allow each congregation to focus on mission and spiritual aspects of their separate congregations.

The next step was to purchase property. In 2016, a new developing residential community in Lake Charles called MorganField expressed an interest in having a church established in the heart of their neighborhood. They liked the two churches, one building plan and offered a good deal on the land.

After purchasing the property, the churches made efforts to connect with the residents of MorganField well before the doors of the new building were opened, let alone built. They expanded a reading tutoring program at the elementary school near MorganField. They offered a public Ash Wednesday service, including “Ashes to Go” on the empty church lot, hosted an Easter event for the children of the neighborhood and went Christmas caroling.

Angie Kay Dilmore, member of First Presbyterian Church of Lake Charles

Revised Common Lectionary Readings for Sunday, October 10, 2021, the Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

First Reading Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22:1-15
Second Reading Hebrews 4:12-16
Gospel Mark 10:17-31

Today’s Focus: Two churches and one building plan

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Jeffrey Arnold, Executive Director, Association of Presbyterian Colleges & Universities (APCU)
Molly Atkinson, Administrative Assistant, 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray

Jesus, who worked in a carpenter’s shop and understands what is needed to turn rough-hewn wood into objects of beauty, bless those who use similar skills to bring out rough lives the beauty of your image. Amen.