Church vitality: From ‘dying’ to ‘reborn’

Editor's Note: As The United Methodist Church focuses on vital congregations and responding to membership trends around the globe, United Methodist News Service is taking a close look at church vitality. This is one of a series of reports.

For 40 years, our United Methodist congregation had shrunk; in the end, only about a dozen people came together in Peace Church in Bremerhaven city center. In 2006, it was confirmed that the building was to be sold. In the neighboring Lutheran church, the United Methodist assembly was offered a room on the top floor, a slight analogy to the Upper Room in Acts 1. There was quite a similar mood now, too.

In 2010 the North Germany Annual Conference made a brave step: It was decided that once again a pastor should be dispatched to Bremerhaven. So my family and I moved there - a leap of faith on one hand, a clear personal call on the other. "We are much too old. Nothing's going to change here." I often recall these words spoken during the first congregational meeting well before our actual move. Could I, as well as the bishop and the superintendents, have misheard God's call?

Right at the start of my ministry I met with the congregation in our home, and was surprised by how many actually came; it felt like the house was about to explode. On Nov. 8, 2010, we promised each other to pursue the Methodist cause in Bremerhaven. The number of people attending the Sunday service rose to 25. Our first attempts to find a suitable room for our meetings weren't successful.

So we started to get together outdoors. We organized our first open-air service on the fourth Sunday of Advent of 2010 on the "Drachenberg" (Dragon's Hill), Bremerhaven's highest peak. Who would come?

When we appeared on the hill, we found that half of the city's population had already gathered there. Snow had fallen overnight and the Drachenberg was the ideal ski slope. We lit the pastoral fire and the people sat down on their sleds around the brazier. Each of us felt that these were the people that God had sent us to.

We held services at the harbor, in a graveyard, on a radar tower, in a pedestrian mall. We got ourselves a trailer, which we use for our equipment and as an advertising surface. And our cross always goes with us. It's well known in the city by now.

Back in 2010 we had arranged the seats in two rows. Over time it was three rows, then four. Now we usually put up five.

Not for sale

On Sept. 25, 2011, we began to realize why we had never succeeded in finding a new home for our gatherings. By now our congregation had grown so much that the old church was exactly the right size for us. We withdrew the decision to sell the building. The very same week we were donated a share of an inheritance and a member of our church won a charity lottery.

On the first Sunday in Advent 2012 we celebrated the re-consecration of our church building. Bishop Rosemarie Wenner had come especially to participate. And again, the house was bursting at the seams. It felt just like that day two years earlier when we gathered in our parlor: God has plans for us!

We can't tell if this growth is going to continue. But that's not important, because our mission is to bring "healing fellowship into a shaken city." That's what we are, and that's what we live. The good thing is, the original remaining dozen people remain the core of our congregation. The new thing has sprung up not beside them, but around them. They were willing to let go of many things: of their church, their traditions, even of their congregation as a whole. After they had actually relinquished all that, God gave it back to them as a gift.

We are a growing congregation. These days we pray for 100 - and that figure isn't far away now. But being as he is, our God hasn't only granted us growth in numbers, but also given us back our Peace Church. The theme of the consecration service was the words from Deuteronomy 6:22: "Before our eyes the Lord sent signs and great wonders."

*Elle is pastor of Bremerhaven United Methodist Church.

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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