by Lee Berger
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).
It all started with a phone call.
Pastor Gary Schwitz had been noticing a vinyl banner sign that appeared on weekends in front of a small private school. It had the name of a church on it and included the pastor’s name and phone number. Over several weeks, Pastor Gary had thought he should call the phone number, but this day he felt a compelling urge—almost a command. So he stopped and wrote down the number.
On Monday, Pastor Gary (of New Journey Cumberland Presbyterian Church) made the phone call and spoke with Pastor Lee Berger (of Grace Christian Fellowship). “Would you be interested in discussing the idea of our two churches meeting in a regular unity worship service?” On Tuesday the two pastors met, both with aging and numerically declining membership of their churches, but both groups wanting to continue to worship with the people they have known for decades.
Smaller numbers of members meant less income to spend on benevolence, community aid, facilities and programs. Older age of members meant less energy to take care of the church responsibilities. But what if we brought together the two groups of 20 and created a congregation of 40? It doesn’t erase the fact of advanced age of many of the members, but it does provide more people to provide income and tackle the needed chores.
And it doubles the number of members participating in worship together. More voices singing together, more people to assist with the sound system, the music, the ushering, the Bible studies, the children’s classes. More people to help with the lawn care and the custodial duties. More people to share in the potluck meals and to visit shut-in members at home or in the hospital. Two part-time pastors to preach, counsel and serve the shared needs of the group.
But more than anything else, two long-time church groups of totally different denominations coming into unity worship would make a clear statement about the power and purpose of unity within the Church as the body of Jesus Christ. “What would it be like if, rather than split and divide, two groups of Christians joined together in unity?” Maybe Christians of other churches and unbelievers in the community would see and hear about the unity that comes from the love that God said would be the identifying sign of all believers: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
After several meetings and many hours of discussion and prayer between the two pastors, the possibilities were brought to the members of the congregations and pros and cons were openly discussed. Pastor Lee got advice from long-time pastors he respected, ideas were put into writing, doctrines and church culture of both groups were researched and discussed, and all wanted to follow the steady lead of the Holy Spirit.
Six weeks after Pastors Gary and Lee first met, Pastor Lee’s members closed their church doors for a Sunday and shared a worship service at New Journey’s owned facility—conducted in New Journey’s normal style. Six weeks later, New Journey came to Grace Christian’s rented facility to share in Grace Christian’s worship service. All went amazingly well, and there was a positive chemistry of the Holy Spirit. The potential benefits began to create a feeling of excitement!
A few weeks later, both churches embarked on a month-long “trial run” of unity worship at New Journey’s facility. For four Sundays, aspects of each group’s worship styles and songs were meshed to begin creating a “blended service” that honored the history, culture and preferences of both groups. The pastors preached on alternating Sundays.
After the four weeks, both groups agreed wholeheartedly to make the unity worship permanent. The groups maintain their denominational affiliations behind the scenes, but they share in worship, Bible classes, social events, service projects and other functions. Two church families becoming one in heart. On Easter Sunday, it was six months since the two churches came together to the glory of God the Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, and by the calling of the Spirit.
There were (and continue to be) glitches in the process, but there is a lot of godly love and patience to smooth over the rough spots. Overshadowing any glitch is the exciting and permeating awe of shared worship, the joy of fellowship with new church family, and a gut-level belief that God is leading the groups into unity to glorify His name and to model harmony among followers of Jesus. In a small (but very meaningful) way, in a quiet corner of the Christian community, a seed of unity is being planted.