My testimony which I read at a meeting of four area churches who were looking for direction in October of 2013.
I participated in a Bible study this past summer. One of the exercises was to come up with a time-line of a significant faith journey in your life. As I contemplated this, what stood out to me was my time at Hessel Valley Lutheran Church. I'd like to share this with you as an encouragement to fellow Christians.
Around 1990 in my early 30's having belonged to Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Lakewood my whole life, I came to a Sunday morning worship service at HVLC. And I felt God telling me that I was at home here. The congregation was small and I invited friends to come as if it was a club I could fill with hand-picked friends ...other than my sister’s family, no one stayed...
I soon became a board member and we met with the bishop's assistant to help us find pastoral leadership...we told him all we wanted was Sunday morning worship service. Then we had a period of many years languishing...the congregation became smaller and smaller...all my efforts at growing the church seemed to backfire...I see now that I was more concerned with growing Hessel Valley Church than God's Church, my primary focus was not on serving people and having their salvation the highest priority.
In 2004, Hessel Valley's 150th anniversary year, everything came to a head when we could see we were running out of money and it was just a matter of time. After church one Sunday there was a vote on whether we should close the church. The vote was 5-7.
With the help of the bishop, we found new pastoral leadership (someone who would cost less) but during the interim we had our first Thanksgiving Day Dinner for the community, something we had talked about for years, but had never done. We then focused on how to grow God's Church at Hessel Valley. As part of the plan for "a pastor that would cost less", one week out of each month we did our own church service, a lay person from our congregation would lead the service, there were 4 of us taking turns. Several of us were trained to distribute communion. The people who were left grew closer.
Our new pastor told us many times over the course of time that God's Church was not a club...this convicted my heart
...we started an adult Bible study and started having dinners to raise funds to help with expenses...soon the new pastor told us we should start giving the money away to area people in need (he said God would bless us)...it was hard for me to do this at first...we needed this money! But when we started to give it all away the hearts of the congregation seemed to change...we focused on others, not ourselves.
After a few years, when that pastor had to leave, we were very worried about what would happen. We had made progress, but there was still a long way to go. Attendance had increased a little, but the main change had been in everyone's attitude. And God then blessed us again, with the pastor we have today and we have grown. Most of the new people jump right in to help with whatever the current project is and we are open to the new ideas they bring to us.
I feel God did tell me I belonged at HVLC and that He knew he could use me to further the Kingdom...but He also knew I was not ready at the onset and HVLC was also not ready.
I was much too self-centered... and the congregation couldn't let go of past hurts and thought of the church as if it were a museum...that their mission was to be a monument to when HVLC was the mother church in the area...instead of a vibrant member of the body of Christ, charged with serving others in need and leading people to Christ. The whole museum attitude drove me crazy, but I didn't have my heart in the right place either.
Now instead of just being filled with Swedish descendants who were raised in the Lutheran brand of Christianity and insisting on doing things the way they've always been done, we have become a place for people to come from all backgrounds. Our current pastor calls us the church of misfits in a very loving way. We seem to be a place for people to come who did not feel at home where they were. They are loved and nourished with the Word of God and a very welcoming congregation who accepts them as fellow sinners on the road of salvation.
It seems as though it took a long time, but God's time is not our time, and in looking back, I can see God working through the situation, bringing us where we needed to be. We are still on the road though...we must recognize that we haven't arrived and strive forward set on doing God's will in order to grow His Church.
Below is my email follow up to the meeting participants which I wrote on 11/10/2013:
I lift up my eyes to the hills -- where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker
of heaven and earth. (Psalm 121)
I've been thinking about the meeting with the four churches held Oct. 23rd. and decided to send you "My Testimony" which I have attached (what I read at the meeting). Feel free to share it with others.
My words are meant to be an encouragement. All things are possible through God. I'm not saying Hessel Valley has all the answers. We have 36-49 on a typical Sunday with 2-8 children, but sometimes we're over 50 and we are growing.
I'd like to explain a few things in my testimony because at the meeting it seemed as if some of the points were misunderstood. When we told the bishop's assistant that all we wanted was Sunday morning worship, it was not a good thing. You need to want more. We became drawn into ourselves. We lost members and not just through death and people moving away. Did you notice that there were only 12 people who took part in the vote of whether to close the church?
We didn't become a healthy congregation until we started to focus attention outside of our walls. It was also important that we started an adult Bible Study that's well attended. Pastor Jacobson wants us to learn to tell our faith stories. Last week there were 16 people in our adult Sunday school. We only got through one page of our book because everyone joined in with their faith story of what the current topic meant in their life this is what usually happens. It's wonderful. We also include prayer, something else that I think is critically important.
When we were first trying to decide what to do to turn things around, Shirleyanne, (our organist at the time) told us about the wonderful after-school program at Saron and how it brought so many children and young families into the church. (Maybe St Paul should have an outreach to the Skate Park?) We decided that this wouldn't work for us because of our location among other things. So we tried something else. Besides the fund raising dinners that soon turned into benefit dinners where we now give all the money away, (not even taking out for expenses) we started a once a month "outreach luncheon" geared mostly to the elderly of the area.
To get started, we called everyone we could think of in the area who might want to come and personally invited them. We encouraged them to invite others. The senior center in Sugar Grove had recently stopped operations, so this helps to fill a void. People from our congregation bring soup, sandwiches and desserts which they donate. We don't ask anyone to pay for their meal. But when people want to give, we tell them we will give the money to St. Joe's soup kitchen and we do.
As a small congregation once a month is all we can handle, but when two other area churches heard about it, they decided to have a similar luncheon on two of the other weeks of the month. It is so good for the area churches to work together in this way.
After worship service each week we have coffee and refreshments that people from the congregation bring to share. This is a great way for people to get to know each other and feel welcome, often staying an hour or more. A lot of casual planning of events can take place here so there is less need for special meetings. However no one is made to feel obligated to stay.
God has blessed us and is blessing us richly. The Spirit is moving in us. Some of the keys:
• Prayer - of praise and thanksgiving, for direction and for ourselves and for others
• Bible Study - and giving the glory to God
• Being willing to do things ourselves, not expecting a pastor to do it all
• Trusting each other enough to open our hearts to one another - truly caring for everyone making them feel at home
• Reaching out to the community with the focus on helping others not just gaining new members
• Giving all the money away and trusting in the Lord to bless us
Blessings to you all,
Adult Sunday School
10:00 am downstairs
166 Hessel Valley Road
Chandlers Valley Pa. 16350