This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Virus delays Nebraskans’ relaunch

Through prayer, discernment and the congregation’s unanimous affirmation in February, Beatrice (Neb.) Mennonite Church was not supposed to exist right now.

But COVID-19 halted plans for a relaunch celebration on Easter Sunday with a new identity as Summit Street Church. Pastor Tim Amor said it’s a reminder to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, which sometimes demands flexibility.

Dressed as Star Wars characters, Beatrice Mennonite Church Pastor Tim Amor and his wife, Jen Peth Amor, with son Gus, hand out candy at the congregation’s trunk-or-treat community engagement event last year. — Bethesda Mennonite Church
Dressed as Star Wars characters, Beatrice Mennonite Church Pastor Tim Amor and his wife, Jen Peth Amor, with son Gus, hand out candy at the congregation’s trunk-or-treat community engagement event last year. — Bethesda Mennonite Church

He acknowledged COVID-19 had been disastrous for households and churches across the country and around the world while leaving many Midwestern small towns relatively unscathed. While the pandemic has delayed the relaunch, there is a silver lining.

“If anything, it’s helped us let go of what was,” he said, noting the congregation is now looking to a relaunch in the fall. “What it’s given us is a more natural wait period between what was and what could be. Truthfully, this will be hard financially until we can relaunch. Otherwise it’s probably good for us.”

Beatrice Mennonite had ­declined to such a degree that attendance was no longer being taken when Amor arrived about five years ago. It dipped below 40 last year as a result of age or people moving. Something needed to change, so Amor began looking at strategies used to launch church plants.

“We’ve been looking at the idea, and the church has been hooked on being missional,” he said. “A transitional pastor said, ‘Things aren’t working here. You could close and join the other Mennonite church, or make some changes.’

“They said, ‘We’ll go with not closing.’ ”

Amor and others in church leadership developed a proposal that blends elements of church plants and renewal movements. A letter is being sent to church members, who numbered 133 in 2015, to recommit to the new entity to maintain their membership.

Community-engagement events will seek to pair people in the community with opportunities to take a step of faith.

Last fall’s Halloween trunk-or-treat event in the church parking lot exceeded expectations as more than 500 people came through.

“We were doing hot dogs, and we had 100 with discussion about what to do with the leftovers,” Amor said. “A half hour in, someone had to go buy 100 more. We have these things that kind of work.”

The pews at the back of the sanctuary are being replaced with tables for coffee and snacks. The stage at the front will be remodeled and refreshed. Hymnals will also go.

“We’ll still do hymns, but it will sound like Mumford & Sons,” Amor said, referring to the British folk rock band. “It’s changing all these things to be faithful to the call of Jesus.”

Why no ‘shoppers’?

With an eye on engaging the community, Amor concluded something else was holding the congregation back.

He recalled how one of Be­atrice’s many churches imploded, leading former attenders to go church shopping.

“We saw zero visitors in our church. We are close by to churches that saw visitors, and we did not,” Amor said. “And that tells me about our name in the community. It tells me we are not welcoming.

“This is about how we remove barriers we have so people can come and participate and learn. . . . People are thirsty and looking for Anabaptist churches and don’t know we exist.”

He cited research indicating church names that include a denomination remind people of conflict. The name Summit Street Church focuses on putting the location up-front.

“A name doesn’t bring people to church,” he said. “All a name can do is continue a conversation or cut people off.”

Starting — and continuing — a conversation goes back to Be­atrice Mennonite’s beginning more than a century ago. People from First Mennonite Church, which is located outside town, thought it would be useful to start a church in town. The congregation was organized as Second Mennonite Church in 1926.

Amor is not interested in hiding or diminishing the congregation’s Anabaptist identity or Mennonite Church USA affiliation, which will be mentioned on the church’s website.

“We just won’t lead with that,” he said. “You don’t lead with the things that are confusing, you lead with what shows who you are. Names can do that, but ‘Mennonite’ can often be an ethnic tradition instead of a radical way of following Jesus.”

While the relaunch’s success could be measured in attendance and baptisms, Amor said even one or two new households will make a difference and suggested such metrics miss the point.

“If it means more people engaging in our church in our community, that’s great,” he said. “But we’re not called to be successful, we’re called to be faithful.”

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. Read More

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