And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)
When I travel I explore new congregations on Sunday mornings. At the recommendation of a friend, I found a gem on my recent Ohio visit. Peace Lutheran in Gahanna is one of the oldest Lutheran churches in central Ohio, having been founded in 1838. Only a couple of decades short of a 200th anniversary, this congregation is still going strong. It’s impossible for me to know, after only an hour with the community, why it is doing so well. But the vitality and positive energy was palpable. It may be in part due to the philosophy of a Will Rogers, Jr. quote on their web site: “We exist temporarily by what we take, we exist forever by what we give.”
We so often hear about declining worship attendance and churches closing due to a lack of people and resources. It was refreshing to find a congregation this old that is not only not declining, but apparently thriving. The worship area is large, beautiful, and modern yet maintains a traditional feel, complete with stained glass windows. I know the church is not a building. I also know, being physical beings, we are affected by our surroundings. Label me old fashioned, but I appreciate sanctuaries that look like places of worship more than auditoriums. I’ve worshipped in all sorts of settings, so this isn’t a deal breaker at all. It’s merely a preference that I personally feel more like I’m in a place of worship when surrounded by items created to point us toward the grandeur of God or remind us of the old, old stories of God’s love.
Several elements of the service impressed me; but the one that impressed me most was the emphasis on ways the congregation is engaged in the greater Columbus community. The Sunday I visited there was a push for people to participate in an upcoming citywide job fair effort through HOPE (Homeless. Outreach. Program. Events). This organization works to help homeless folks get a job, which then enables them to find better living conditions and a better way of life.
The Rev. Dr. Kai Nilsen has been pastor at Peace since 1993, which likely accounts in part for the vitality I experienced. A long-term pastor cannot guarantee a church will thrive. Sometimes pastors who stay too long are part of what keeps congregations from living up to their full potential. However, congregations often do better when a pastor is there long enough to accompany individuals and the congregation through some of the milestones of life.
Peace Lutheran has grown through three locations and multiple building campaigns. Gahanna, now a Columbus suburb of about 35,000, was out in the country before the town of Gahanna was established in 1849. The name Gahanna comes from a Native American word that means three creeks joining into one. Referring to the three creeks that are now called the Big Walnut Creek, the city seal bears the inscription, “Three in One.” That is certainly an apt slogan for a church community that keeps growing and serving under the faithful guidance of the Three-in-One Lord who established the church universal.
Each phase of the church’s history required adapting to change while retaining a focus on providing “opportunities to expand our horizons and support our robust ministries of our church within our community.”
It’s not easy leading a congregation these days. People’s expectations seem to increase as motivation and time available to contribute to the mission of a congregation decrease. Yet, the church stands – decade after decade, century after century.
Pastor Nilsen’s sermon focused on how God expresses passion and concern for us via the Holy Spirit, aka the Comforter, the Advocate, or the Helper. Too often God is described as the judge looking for reasons to accuse and condemn us. Jesus teaches that God, through the Advocate, is standing next to us as we face the various trials of life. I was in the midst of several family May milestones. That sounded like good news to me.
People come to or avoid faith communities for myriad reasons. For all its challenges and flaws, the church in all its variations, is still God’s preferred way to connect with people. The church is still called to be a source of comfort, consolation, celebration, and community, not condemnation and criticism.
Finding a congregation where people experience the love of Christ through ancient rituals and the fellowship of believers is like finding a great rest stop on a long drive. Society has changed dramatically since the earliest Christians gathered in homes and catacombs. Our ancient faith ancestors wouldn’t recognize the world today. Yet, some things have not changed at all. God still reaches out to deliver the ancient message, “Do not be afraid. I am with you.” Not as judge and jury, but as guide and protector. Peace Lutheran in Gahanna delivers that message well.