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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

New Beginnings—First Church at Benton Heights!

You can’t say that without an exclamation point! These two weeks have been days of excitement and glory as God powerfully touched lives. Many so touched are totally new to our congregation, First Church of God, St Joseph/Benton Harbor, Michigan. God is blessing big time and as Pastor Mary said for all of us, “I am so blessed and privileged to be part of what God is doing here.”

Hundreds have given uncountable hours cleaning, repairing, re-building and beautifying this wonderful old temple under the leadership of Pastor Greg Gordon and his marvelous voluntary crew. Dozens more joined Outreach Ministry Director Jenny Fry in creative and joyful ways to tell the community God loves them and so do we.

It all started when Benton Heights lay leader Brother Jim Benson called me, an associate pastor at First Church to ask if I could help Benton Heights by preaching for them until they got a pastor. As we talked I agreed to meet with them and see what we could do to help. I knew State Pastor and Overseer for the Church of God in Michigan, Reverend Bill Jones had been working with them and knew they were struggling to survive.

I also knew that for the past two years or so, First Church had been praying, dreaming and planning to begin a satellite ministry to Benton Harbor and all Berrien County. The question was where to begin. As soon as Lead Pastor David Colp heard about the Benton Heights request, a light came on in his eyes and he said excitedly, “Maybe this will be our first satellite site!” With Pastor Colp’s encouragement and blessing I met with Brother and Sister Jim (Lisette) Benson. They were very positive about the possibility of becoming a satellite ministry of First Church and assured me the congregation would whole-heartedly accept it. A subsequent meeting with the congregation’s leaders, Pastor Colp and other First Church staff, as well as Advisory Council Chair Jim Schueneman, affirmed that assumption and the process began in earnest.

Pastor Colp shared first with the Advisory Council, then with their enthusiastic blessing, with the entire congregation, and our new phase of outreach ministry began to take shape. The decision was made that regardless of what Benton Heights decided, this was the direction God was leading First Church. The First Church congregation enthusiastically supported the concept with their words of encouragement, prayers, financial support, time and talents. It was a small beginning that quickly became a total church effort.

The first day I talked with Brother Jim Benson was a Wednesday and that night I shared with my Wednesday night prayer group and asked them to pray for Benton Heights Church of God and for God to lead in what He wanted to happen there. That prayer mandate was enthusiastically accepted and it soon spread to the congregation as Pastor Colp began to share the vision, asking the church to pray for God’s direction.

For the first few weeks in November, 2009, I preached at Benton Heights and Lead Pastor David Colp arranged meetings between the leadership at First Church and Benton Heights. The fellowship was good and it seemed good to all to seriously consider joining our ministries to more effectively reach our communities. Instead of doing all the praching, I arranged for Pastors Bob Confer, Mary Shawl-Ranke, Bill Shepard, and Ryan Carrell to preach at Benton Heights, share the vision for their ministries, and tell how each of them and all our pastoral staff would cooperate to help the Benton Heights congregation move ahead. State Pastor and Overseer Bill Jones joined some of those meetings and encouraged Benton Heights to join forces with St Joseph First Church. He also explained how to handle the merger so we didn’t break any laws (or hearts) and so God would be glorified. His leadership, encouragement and expertise were invaluable.

On Sunday, February 7th, we held the last service as Benton Heights Church of God. It was a strange mixture of sadness and excitement. We knew something beautiful was ending, but something wonderful was also being born. Southwest Michigan State Pastor James Sparks came from Battle Creek, Micihgan to preach and encourage the congregation—thanking them for their sixty years of ministry, but also for their willingness to make drastic changes so they could continue to serve God effectively. Then for three weeks the congregation at Benton Heights joined First Church in St Joseph to, as Pastor Colp expressed it, “Experience the DNA of First Church at St Joseph”. That’s when Pastor Gordon’s voluntary crew of hundreds descended on Benton Heights to get it ready for the new normal. It was an amazing transformation and joyful prayer-filled labors as the two congregations worked together to renew the building for a new era of ministry.

Then Sunday, March 7, 2010, Rev. Mary Shawl-Ranke preached her first sermon as Campus Pastor to eighty persons (the Benton Heights Congregation and the “Core 50” from First Church). The next Sunday Pastor Colp preached on video (which will be the norm) with live preaching every six to eight weeks by Pastor Mary, sometimes Pastor myself, and ever so occasionally Pastor Colp. These first two services were a “soft opening” so we could learn to do church together as a congregation, before inviting the community to join us for worship.

And join us they did! A house full—158 people gathered for the “Grand Re-Opening” Sunday, March 21st! About ninety were new to the Church of God. Most were seeking a church home, but unsure they were welcome. Like a united nations of Berrien County many white families, a significant number of African-American families and several Hispanic families joined our warm fellowship. It was beautiful!

Brother Art Gift and the worship team led us in joyful, praise-filled worship of God, then Pastor Mary introduced Lead Pastor Colp (live no less) to preach his first sermon at the new First Church at Benton Heights. The congregation gave him a warm and welcome applause. The message was powerful and many responded to his encouragement to let God help them be the people He created them to be.

Thirty three children had their first experience at the new Benton Heights that day, led by First Church Children’s Pastor Bill Shepard (or Mr. Bill!), FCBH Ministry Director Ellen Russell, and their loving staff of children’s workers.

For our second Sunday, and the new normal First Church at Benton Heights, more than ninety people gathered. God has answered the prayers of his people—from both congregations, now one congregation meeting in five (count them) five different venues—Saturday night worship at 6, Sunday Sanctuary worship at 9:30, two 11:00 worships, one in the Family Life Center and one at Benton Heights, with the Young Adults, who gather at the Old Box Factory on a monthly basis to worship God and find warm fellowship. How good it is when God’s people worship together in unity, even when it is in several different locations!

I'm Rick Blumenberg . . .
and that's My View from Tanner Creek.


Brian Brown, Ph.D. said...

It was pleasing to read something good from the Benton Heights "hood" for a change.
I knew the Bensons well at one time (Lisette worked in our family business for a couple of decades).
May God richly bless all of you in your endeavor!
Brian Brown, Ph.D.

Rick Blumenberg said...

Thanks for your comment Brian. And for the blessing! God is good and He seems to be working in a special way in the congregation at Benton Heights. We've just begun, but we are praying we will be a blessing to the community and increase God's Kingdom.

Allie said...

Sounds really exciting....our church bought property 12 years ago, but it never seemed the right time to build. Our board decided about 6 months ago, that it seems like the time is right. We have seen miracle after miracle come through the last few months, confirming that it is God's perfect time. Does your church ever sing, "God of this City"? Greater things are yet to come......

Rick Blumenberg said...

Thanks Allie,
It is really exciting because we see different ways that God seems to be orchestrating rather than it being by human effort. We're all excited to see God at work.

I love the song "God of this City". I would say it is my favorite song. I actually don't think we've sung it at Benton Heights yet, but often at First Church's St Joseph campus.