Through Missional Church Learning Experience, Oregon congregation discovers new life by letting go

Carren Woods (Alumna)

More than 50 years ago the small group of believers who started our church acquired the entire city block where our building stands. At the time that wasn’t saying very much. The area was industrial, almost undeveloped, and the land wasn’t worth much. After clearing the land of the brambles and blackberry bushes, they built our sanctuary for worship and Christian education.

Two generations later, the church is still meeting and worshipping in the same building, now surrounded by a working class, inner city neighborhood. Dreams about the land have come and gone. Once in the ’60s there were dreams of expansion and a bigger sanctuary. We even still have the architect’s model somewhere on a shelf. That dream did not come to pass, and instead of growing we began shrinking.

Like many churches, as we dwindled in numbers, we also dwindled in vision. Where once we dreamed of building a bigger worship center because we were reaching our neighborhood with the message of Jesus Christ, we now dreamed of selling the land just to pay our bills. Internal family concerns began to consume us: Talk was no longer about our God-given mission; it was now about survival. Our future looked dark.

However, God does funny things to us sometimes. In our case, God caused us to get old. We could no longer navigate the steep stairs in our worship building, and the bathrooms were downstairs. We had to put in an elevator, but that was tens of thousands of dollars. We began to look at the "back forty" of our land as our only way forward. It was then that God gave us the hard push we needed.

We had been learning about becoming a missional community through our involvement in the Missional Church Learning Experience, sponsored by National Ministries’ church revitalization program. The idea dawned on us that we could use our land somehow to engage our community in mission and solve our elevator problem at the same time. One night in a deacons meeting, the idea arose clearly: What about Habitat for Humanity?

We contacted Habitat, and all of the pieces fell into place in rapid order. It seemed like God had already known what we were supposed to do and had everything ready for us when we finally got the message and acted. We arranged to sell the back half of our property to Habitat for below-market price. It was enough money to install an elevator. Suddenly we discovered that with the elevator in place God began sending outside community groups to us who needed meeting space, but required handicap accessibility. As time moves forward, our building is becoming a community center.

We have discovered new life. We are pouring ourselves into helping Habitat build homes for 12 families. We are figuring out how to help our neighborhood celebrate a new community forming in our midst. We are starting a community garden so the Habitat families and neighbors have space to grow vegetables. As we have done these things, we are seeing more and more that God has gone before us, preparing for us a space to work and live out the Kingdom calling.

Today all we talk about at Rivergate Community Church is the new life growing up in the community named Rivergate Commons—built on ground our forefathers bought for a song, cleared with their own hands, and tended for years with no idea why God wanted them to do it. We have learned the hardest lesson of all for a Christian community: In order to save our life, we had to give our life away. What looked like defeat—the inevitable bowing to our dwindling numbers and money—has become the foundation of a new life together in mission for God. Our future no longer looks dark.

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