Congregations evolving to meet community’s ever-changing needs
By PAT CROSSLEY
Lycoming County has always been known as a community of churches.
Recently, several churches have celebrated milestones of 100 years or more in existence. Christ Church, at the corner of Mulberry and Fourth streets, is set to mark its 150th anniversary.
The beautiful craftmanship of the churches is in itself a testimony to the importance that congregations in the past placed on giving their very best to God.
Today in the county, 240 congregations are worshiping, according to the Rev. Gwen Bernstine, of the United Churches of Lycoming County. That figure also includes the interfaith group, Bernstine noted.
With constant changes in society, many of the churches are responding to needs in the community.
Some are more driven by numbers, to reach out to do things that will bring people into the congregation, Bernstine said.
“For some congregations, that means being socially active,” she said.
Some congregations are seeking to move beyond the walls of the physical church and others are not, she noted.
“A lot of them are doing the blessing boxes, the meals, opening the church for people who are homeless at night who are cold. People are aware, or maybe social need is presenting itself as neighbor, a little closer,” Bernstine said. “They are seeking to reach out into the community in different ways.”
Another trend that she sees is that many churches are working together.
“Almost all churches that I know of are working together with somebody,” she said. “Building relationships with other brothers and sisters in the faith. I’m seeing some participation in different things by different folks together.”
She cited a new congregation that is holding a revival featuring area pastors as speakers.
“They have been able to make relationships. They are coming together for this three-day revival,” she said.
Bernstine said she also sees a spirit of revival in the faith community in this area.
“A lot of churches are looking at numbers and looking at ways to draw people in. Another way to say that is revival or evangelism. Looking to reach out to people who have left the church or who have not connected to the church,” she said.
She shared a conversation she had with a representative of a campus ministry 20 years age who said that the students she was reaching out to represented a fifth generation of unchurched people.
“That means that their grandparents were unchurched. Their grandparents had not been taken by their grandparents to church,” she said. “So, they had probably not even gone to church for the funeral of a grandparent.”
Reaching out to people who don’t have any experience in the church is something that is definitely needed in our community she said.
One trend in the church has been the rise of megachurches, which Bernstine sees a means of learning initially, but the means to go deeper into the faith is usually carried out in a different setting. Some churches turn to small groups or house churches to accomplish this.
“Definitely a lot of churches have small groups. It’s the only way to build community,” she said.
There are churches that have not succeeded in drawing in new members and the remaining congregation is faced with the tough decision of whether to stay open.
“Why did my church close?”
According to Bernstine, that’s the question many people pose when the church they’ve known all their lives reaches a point where it can no longer survive.
The problem, she noted, is that some who complain, have not participated for some time in the life of the church that is closing, even though they might still consider it their home church.
Now, as some churches close from lack of membership, those members who remain in the congregation have the difficult decision of either closing the church or consolidating with another congregation. Some have assumed new life with a new congregation.
Examples of this are Liberty Church moving into the building once occupied by First Presbyterian at the corner of Mulberry and Third Street and Center City Alliance now worshipping at the former First Baptist Church on Fourth Street.
Many have created what Bernstine called “hospice churches.” The term refers to churches that are in the process of dying and are making plans for their eventual demise.
Whether a church has forty or 100 members, Bernstine asserted that the important thing is not the building, but the sense of community created within the congregation.
Many congregations are turning to non-traditional “churches”, such as meeting in coffee houses or movie theaters, which led Bernstine to insist that church happens in all those places.
“A new church, a hospice church or a house church–church isn’t dependent of any one building,” she said.
“A church is dependent on God.” she said, adding that, even though churches may fail, “God’s purpose doesn’t fail.”