By Gary and Lauren Bernhofer and Pastor HartmutÂ
We live in an era when not just our church laments stagnant membership growth â€“ or even decline â€“ but many other mainline churches with us in the Western hemisphere. Sometimes it appears even miraculous how long some of our smaller congregations can, indeed, survive under these conditions.
However, not everything in this regard is just miraculous. Some of it is also very intentional and the result of many helping hands. Church partnership is one of our logical responses to the fact of dwindling membership. We here at First Reformed are blessed through the friendship of another and quite similar church, the First Reformed Church of Astoria, Queens, and its pastor, Rev. Dwayne Jackson.
Last spring, members of our church spent a weekend in Astoria visiting with FRCA during our annual pilgrimage. The Astoria church is an urban church that faces many of the same problems we face. During our visit, we toured their neighborhood, shared meals and worship, discussed our common challenges and built relationships. Our church extended an invitation for a reciprocal visit on the Sunday when Marlin and Sally Vis would be speaking about their mission work in Palestine.
Our two congregations may have different ethnic backgrounds, different customs and different foods â€“ but we both have an extremely committed membership, beautiful historic buildings (and all the problems that come with it), as well as a heart for the diversity and the challenges an East Coast inner city church can offer.
Yes,Â â€œextremely committedâ€: just consider the early hour at which about a dozen of the Astoria members had to get up on Sunday, Dec 9th, in order to have breakfast with us here at First Reformed. Or talk about the courage of Astoriaâ€™s Childrenâ€™s Choir. Its delegation to us consisted of Briana,
Â Penelope and Julia, supported by tiny Jada who suddenly was Spirit-led in joining the three. To be so young and to face two congregations, two pastors, and a missionary from Jerusalem! Extremely committed, indeed! And we do not want to leave unmentioned Kenyata who helped Briana and Allison in lighting our Advent candles that day. If you look at all these children, you will share in the sense of hope that is still very much prevalent among our churches.
The Christian Ed Committee organized a continental breakfast for the visitors and the Hospitality Committee prepared a hot lunch luncheon (thank you, Joan, Ethel, Margaret, Janet, Erie, and everybody else who was so diligently involved behind the scenes).
We were also blessed that day by a very engaging sermon from Pastor Dwayne on the subject of peace and how it can be promoted. While preaching in his lively and engaging manner, Dwayne created quite a dialog within our combined assembly. It built something new, a momentary church greater than our two particular congregations, a vision to linger among us. Several of the children from FRCA sang two contemporary songs from their upcoming Christmas Pageant. The Astoria children had a fun time in Sunday school acting out the story of the birth of Christ with our children. After the lesson, Allison and Ahjani led a Christmas ornament craft project.
After worship, members from both congregations listened to Rev. Marlin Vis from Jerusalem (see the Pastorâ€™s Corner on page 1). The luncheon offered ample opportunity to make plans for the year to come. The relationship between our congregations is growing stronger. Some members of each congregation were heard to be discussing opportunities to come together in the future and work on projects to serve our communities, especially the members of the Property Committees of both churches who took a liking to each other. Exchanging volunteers and experience in preservation matters may be one way of fostering our partnership. Thank God that we are not alone!