The Spirit Driven Church


Chapter 1

From Death to Life Above all things keep in mind the Lord and handle everything in love.

--Heinrich Hagelganz

It was a cold afternoon in north Portland, Oregon, compounding the sadness of a group gathered around the dying body of a friend. The word "friend" failed to capture their feelings, for this one was more than a friend, more than a neighbor, and in many ways, more than family. This friend was the foundation of stability in their unsteady world, a source of strength when they grappled with forbidding helplessness and an anchor in their times of storm.

As they all stood around their friend, all they could think was "why?" Why was this happening? How did the condition get this bad? How could they have missed the symptoms? Perhaps if they had paid more attention they could have done something. Was there anything they could still do to save their friend?

Try as they might, the group could not answer those questions about their friend, the Central Evangelical Church, and no one could deny the end was likely near.

I (Allen) was at that meeting with Central's leadership team when I asked, "When do you think you'll have to close your doors for good?"

"What do you mean close our doors?" someone responded.

"How many people do you need to keep doing ministry?"

"Wow, that's a tough question. I guess if we cut it back to the bare bones we would need at least thirty-five."

"What was your average attendance each of the past three years and this year?" I asked.

"It was seventy-nine, seventy-one, sixty-five, and fifty-six."

"Given that rate of decline, when do you think that you will you reach thirty-five?"

"About three years --maybe less," was the reluctant response.

"Once you drop below thirty-five, what impact will that have?"

"I suppose it means then we will have to close our doors and pass this building and land on to some other church or nonprofit."

We paused as the leaders contemplated their situation. Then I asked, "How do you feel about that?"

One of the leaders, Willis Krieger, responded with anguish in his eyes, "This is the obvious conclusion, but it can't be possible. This is the only church I have ever known."

How It Began

In its infancy, the Portland church burst with adventure. It began on June 22, 1913 when a group of German immigrants, Georg Hohnstein, Conrad Wacker, Ludwig Deines, and Christian Baecker founded the Second German Congregational Church with the help of the fiery Gospel preacher Reverend Heinrich Hagelganz.

Not realizing the prophetic nature of his words, Hagelganz wrote in a church journal, "We advised the brothers, above all things, keep in mind the Lord and handle everything in love."

The Reverend Hagelganz agreed to be their "spiritual adviser," as long as he could continue to serve as pastor at his Beaverton congregation as well. He traveled to Portland every second Sunday.

"From all sides there was opposition to reckon with," Hagelganz wrote, "but none [of the organizers] reneged about continuing with the project. At all times, thanks to the strength of the brothers working together, the Lord soon allowed us his honor to celebrate the victory."

Believing that God would bless their efforts, later that summer the small group stepped out in faith to buy a lot on Northeast 8th Avenue and Skidmore Street, agreeing to spend $4,000 to build a new church. To highlight their faith they placed an inscription at the front of the sanctuary, words that spoke from their heart: "We Preach Christ and Him Crucified."

Hagelganz wrote, "For the collection to finance this building, the members supported the project very well and so the work of the Lord continued to be blessed. Since the number of members increased all the time, God's house quickly became too small."

In 1921, responding to the needs of a rapidly growing Sunday school, once again this young congregation ventured out. They added thirty more feet to the main sanctuary and built a basement under the entire building.

Like all fledgling churches, they faced many challenges, including the generational conflict between older German-speaking adults and the English-speaking younger generation, and a conflict between German and American cultures. However, fire for God fueled a growing church. By 1927, the next generation of leaders was not only serving Second German Congregational Church, but also ministering in other Portland churches. They were a forerunner to the church plant and church help movements of today.

Caution! Danger Ahead

As the once adventurous group adjusted to changing conditions both within and outside their congregation, seasons of growth mixed with seasons of decline. Through the years, the church gave birth to pastors, missionaries, and spiritual leaders in the community. They embraced the Christian Businessmen's Association, the start of the Portland area Youth for Christ, and more.

By January 1961, they found themselves pinned into a box. They needed a much larger church building because the location that had given them so many wonderful years now prevented them from expanding. Always willing to take risks for God, they ventured outward to northeast Portland and bought a two-acre piece of ground on which the men built the larger church where they remain today, while changing their name to Evangelical Congregational Church.

The name changed but their mission for Jesus Christ did not. For years, the church poured itself out into northeast Portland, continuing to touch families for our Lord. They were productive years, writes church historian Joanne Green Krieger. She called them, "years of vital ministry."

As we look to the past, our hindsight is excellent. We wish we could go back and advise the leaders to beware! Prosperity opens the door for self-reliance, the risk of stepping out of a dependency on God. Our thoughts would echo the prophetic advice of Heinrich Hagelganz, "… above all things, keep in mind the Lord and handle everything in love."

Two large dangers loomed over them. First, the next generation of leaders was stepping into leadership, and second, the new community around them was rapidly growing and the makeup of the population was changing. Church leaders needed to "keep in mind the Lord," staying sensitive to what God's Spirit may ask them to do to adapt to the change in the community.

Conflicting Affections

Sadly, as leadership transferred to the third generation, everything started downhill. The church lost touch with their neighbors and with what God wanted the church to do with his Good News. While they did not mean to, sharing their faith dissolved into a good intent for someday soon. Too many other things got in the way --jobs, families, hobbies, cars. We have discovered that believers will pursue what or whom they have the greatest affection for. Sadly, affection for God often takes second place to affection for the things of this world.

Willis Krieger has his story of pain and disappointment, watching the slow death of the only church he had known. "In the early years," Krieger says, "we had revivals and growth. People were committing their lives to a lifetime walk with Jesus, which was obvious in their everyday lives. People worked and were successful because God made them successful. However, my generation just did not have the fervor. They did not have a commitment. They were into their own careers and houses and vacations."

Willis goes on, "I was part of a group of fifteen young families and today my wife and I are the only ones left of that fifteen. Much of the decline was from people pursuing their careers and not knowing how to do that and still walk with Jesus. We were just sort of keeping on." For those families, affection for God became second place behind the affairs of life, despite the apostle Paul's warning, "No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs --he wants to please his commanding officer" (2 Tim. 2:4).

Heading into the 1970s, as the new leadership assumed a greater influence, the church fell deeper into a "keeping on" lifestyle and "doing church" the same week after week. New people seldom visited; if they did visit, they did not return.

Please keep in mind that these are good people --they did not intentionally put the church into this decline. They unknowingly fell into the trap of not noticing what was happening around them, or if they did get a hint, it was not strong enough to make them do something about it.

You can imagine what it was like. Over the years, everything was the same, only getting smaller --smaller Christmas programs, fewer children, fewer adults, and almost no visitors. Potlucks and worship services all stayed the same. They put on the same bake sales selling the same stuff to the same people to raise money for the same missionaries.

People call it routine --and it is deadening. Habits and traditions take over, and people slide away from a sensitivity to the passion of our Lord. The unpredictable Spirit-led life filled with adventure for God gives way to the comfortable, and few think twice about it.

Sadly, no one questions whether all this "church stuff" is what God wants. No one compares what God has said to what the church is doing. How easy it is to turn extra-biblical tradition into something that people believe God would never change.

Through the eighties, during the years when John Schneider was pastor at the Evangelical Congregational Church, some young families came, at least enough to offset the loss of the elderly members. However, with the young people came tension between the two age groups. The younger members wanted to make changes in areas such as the music, outings, and neighborhood use of the building. The older members who held the purse strings liked it the way it was. The gulf within the church was beginning to look like the Grand Canyon. This condition could not continue and it did not.

Analysis Time?

In 1994, the pastor left, followed shortly afterwards with the exit of the young families, leaving the older generation to keep on "keeping on." If there was going to be an eye-opening experience for these good people, this would have to be it. However, it was not.

Because it was hard to find a pastor to lead them, for nearly two years they made do with interim pastors and pulpit supply. The church continued to get smaller --only now more rapidly than before. These older saints were feeling more and more desperate.

What could they do?

What they did not do was to go to God, expecting that God might teach them about the cause of their problem. What they did do was look only at the two symptoms, the declining number of attendees and the empty pulpit, and make what many people would have thought was a reasonable decision.

Pastor Tom Lyman explains, "They reached out to the Central Free Methodist Church, an aging church like theirs only with a young pastor. They merged their two churches, accepting the Free Methodist pastor as the pastor of the new church, now called Central Evangelical Church. That way they could solve both problems at once. But still they did nothing differently in how they did church." In other words, they kept on "keeping on."

Time to Stop the Insanity

If "insanity" is doing nothing differently, but expecting change, then Central Evangelical Church...

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