Back from Death: A New England Church’s Story of Revitalization
The West Springfield Church of Christ has been in existence for 50 years and has demonstrated a typical life cycle of emergence, growth, consolidation, and decline. During the years of decline, the church exhibited serious signs of dying: a weekly Sunday morning attendance of fewer than 50, a limited number of young families with children, a lack of financial resources, and an aging facility that needed extensive repair and upgrading. Despite the tenuous situation, however, there has been a rise in hope, fueling creativity and putting the church on a path to revitalization.
The rise in hope occurred from an unlikely event. In June 2011, an uncharacteristic tornado landed in the area, devastating property and taking the lives of two town residents. We received a call from Churches of Christ Disaster Relief (CoCDR) in Nashville, and we swiftly decided to accept their help. An ambitious strategy emerged to assist town residents in their hour of need. Two days later, the first of eight fully stocked semi-tractor loads of relief supplies were offloaded into the church building. Dozens of volunteers were mobilized including church neighbors, faith-based groups, and town agencies. The old, underused church building became a bustling distribution point for supplies. One neighbor commented, “I was so surprised when I saw that big truck pull up to the church. I had thought that the church had closed its doors.” This was the beginning of new life and vitality for the dying congregation. The church was experiencing missional activity like never before. Partnerships with local businesses; faith-based groups; federal, state, and local emergency management agencies; and with CoCDR enabled the church to serve the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the community.
Hope continued to rise as we engaged with new people in the community. What we did not realize was that the majority of the displaced families were recent refugees and immigrants. God had brought globalization to our door. Their greatest need and want was to improve their communication skills. So we began a partnership with Let’s Start Talking (LST), the Bible-based ministry to help internationals improve their conversational English skills. LST began to send teams of FriendSpeak workers during the summer months (two to six weeks) to help us address our neighbors’ needs and to share the gospel of Jesus. During the past five summers, we have had over 75 readers from at least 20 different countries. We have been able to train five of our members so that we can have 15-18 weekly readers during the course of the year. Again, hope rises as God provides the open doors.
Other new people started to come into focus for us as well. We are located next to an elementary school, and we approached the school to ask if we could provide “good neighbor” support to them throughout the school year. The superintendent and principal were eager for our participation and invited us to promote any family/student-friendly activities directly to the students (unheard of in this area). So we host two activities per year: a school supply giveaway and interactive games held in our building prior to the start of school, and a family-friendly Trunk or Treat. We have had well over 100 students and their families as our guests.
Another group of new people has entered our world. These are the mothers and children of a special place called Christina’s House (CH), a faith-based, transitional home for single mothers and their children. Overlooking the city of Springfield, the large house is home to four families. The church began their partnership with CH before any families took residence, and we continue our active involvement to this day. One of our sisters and I have led a weekly Bible study with the moms for over three years. We have baptized two of the mothers and three of the children. With the partnership of our members and others, we send nine children to Christian camp; and this summer we will provide an intern from Harding University to work with the children.
Hope began to rise as we started to see how our old building could be used effectively for both community and church. Ironically, it took a major water leak in the basement to motivate us to remove this hindrance to the church’s vitality. Several partnerships (physical labor and financial) allowed us to completely modernize this area and do major roof, plumbing, and furnace projects. We have learned that it is important to intentionally create environments that foster a culture of excellence and expectancy; our facilities can become sacred spaces where people can experience a strong sense of belonging and spiritual vitality. These changes communicate to members and neighbors alike, “We’re on the move.”
We believe God is working and continues to use the West Springfield church to accomplish his mission. There are system hindrances, growth areas, and inherent strengths that produce a mixture of success and failure. I get discouraged as the growth areas show little improvement; yet I compare it to my golf game. That one sweet spot swing that sends the ball onto the green, inches away from the cup, motivates me to continue enjoying the game. Our growth areas may outweigh our strength areas, but there is hope. When we live with the reassurance of God’s steadfast love for us, we build on strengths and exercise in our growth areas so that they can become stronger. God has called me to leadership for such purposes.