Tuesday, November 29, 2016

We Go to Church in Wyoming (on Saturday AND Sunday!)

Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church, Casper
What can a little blog do when a big national magazine beats it to a story? This week we went to Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church the month after Christianity Today did a story on churches “Breaking the 200 Barrier” (two hundred people attending worship services over the weekend). So what’s left for us to write about?

After all, the article by the church’s pastor, Jace Cloud, told about the church being founded in 1971. The article discussed how the congregation was small for decades but 15 years ago, when the church called Pastor Jack Olsen, attendance was consistently between 130 to 175 people. At that point, several things led to growth. For one thing, the church expanded the facilities and for another, they added worship times. After completion of the building in 2011, attendance averaged 250. In 2013, they added a Saturday evening service which also led to more attendees. They are now considering adding a Thursday evening service since in Wyoming, many people use the weekends for travel, hunting, and fishing.

Another factor in the church’s growth has been successful leadership. Jace had great praise for the humble and wise leadership of his predecessor, Jack Olsen. When Olsen decided his time of leading was coming to an end, he took an interesting approach to a transition. He told the church he would be transitioning to another ministry within the church. Jace was hired by the church and was there for a year of transition as he gradually took on Olsen’s responsibilities. Jace is now senior pastor and Olsen is pastor of adult ministries.

Multiple services are a challenge for churches: how does the church maintain cohesiveness and unity? Cornerstone EFC makes small group ministry a priority. The small groups of the church base their discussion on the weekly sermon and five discussion questions (included in the bulletin each week) written by Jace. There has been a very positive response to this system.

When we spoke with him, Jace said some of the changes that led to the church’s growth have been carefully planned and some have been accidental, but all have been things have been part of God’s sovereignty and grace.

So what do I have left to write about?

I guess I could write about the cool magnetic pens that hang on the back of the chairs. Or the ingenuity of using old bottles to catch drips from drink dispensers at the dinner that follows the Saturday evening service?

It would be probably be beter to twrite about the service we attended and some of the people we talked to.

We were delighted to find that the church was celebrating the first Sunday of Advent. Not all Evangelical Free Churches celebrate Advent -- sometimes they’ll stay with whatever sermon series they were working through and only celebrate Christmas at Christmas.

But at the Saturday evening service we attended a couple read from Isaiah 9 (“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light”) and lit the first of the candles in the Advent Wreath. What made me very happy was singing Christmas carols.

Jace told us that Cornerstone celebrates Advent because many people who don’t usually come to church come at Christmas time. They often hope to sing the carols they grew up with, songs they’ve heard since they were young.

Jace’s sermon on that first Sunday of Advent wasn’t what many would expect for a traditional Advent service. Jace preached from a different passage in Isaiah, chapter 63. He read from the passage, “I trampled the nations in my anger; in my wrath I made them drunk and poured the blood on the ground” and he added, “Merry Christmas!”

Jace said many people think exclusively of the baby Jesus in the manger, but that we should remember at this time of year the Second Advent of Christ, as well as the first, when Jesus comes again to judge the world. Later, he said, they would be focusing on the first Advent with Jesus in the manger, but this week he thought it was important to focus on the Returning KIng.
(He asked “for permission to nerd out for a bit as I talk about eschatology.” He went on to give an explanation and timeline of events of the end times from a dispensational perspective, not a surprise from a Dallas Seminary graduate.)

He acknowledged that most Americans, in the comfort of our 21st century life, might be uncomfortable with Jesus as the Warrior King in Isaiah 63 and Revelation 19, but most oppressed, persecuted people of God through the ages would find great hope in this imagery.  The picture of a bloody soldier doesn’t fit in our Christmas decorating scheme, but if you were locked in a concentration camp, such a liberator might be the best thing you could ever imagine.

After the Saturday night service, everyone was invited downstairs for dinner (a regular part of the schedule). Jace said that having a Saturday evening service with a meal was expected to be appealing to students from the nearby college. It turned out that it didn’t reach that group, but did appeal to the poor in the community, to outcasts. (I talked with Marshall, a former state trooper, who said that the Saturday night service was helpful for him when his work schedule wouldn’t allow him to come on Sunday morning.)

There was an abundance of pizza, fried chicken, salad,and cookies that evening. (According to regulars to the service, attendance was down for the night, about half of the usual attendance, probably due to the Casper Christmas parade taking place at the same time and to the holiday weekend.) The dinner made us almost as happy as the Christmas carols.

Before the service and after dinner I spoke with people about what had drawn them to Cornerstone. Cora said she heard about the church six years ago. Someone at work told her about a marriage seminar the church was conducting. Her marriage was struggling at the time but she doubted her husband would have the weekend off, since he rarely did. But he amazingly had that weekend free. She credits that seminar for turning their marriage around, and they’ve attended the church ever since.

Larissa moved to the area with her husband back in 2009 and said they love the church. They came because it is an Evangelical Free Church. (“We like the statement of faith. It’s like a Baptist church with a statement of faith.”)

We had dinner with Janet and Greg, who tried several churches in the area before coming to Cornerstone. They attended one Sunday and Janet said, “Okay, I’m fine here,” and they stayed.

We also spoke with Matt Horne, the Missions and Children’s Pastor at Cornerstone, who began attending the church years before he was on staff. He remembered that when he first started attending, he came with questions about his faith, the church, and Scripture. The people of the congregation were welcoming and hospitable. People allowed him to ask questions, without condemnation. They helped him work through Scripture to find answers to his questions. And eventually he came on staff (he and his wife also run a coffee business in town).

Questioning is a part of the culture, Jace said. People in Wyoming are quite independent. After he preaches a sermon, it’s not unusual for people to let him know what they think he got wrong. He said that is very different from the churches he grew up with and served in down South, but I think he’s come to enjoy it.

College Heights Baptist Church, Casper
We also visited College Heights Baptist Church on Sunday morning. They sang only one Christmas song, but the sermon came from Luke 1 about the conception of John the Baptist, a quite Adventy passage. We also had a delightful time at this church’s Thanksgiving dinner earlier in the week. I don’t have time or space to write more about this church, but one hopes that Christianity Today may do so in the near future.

Cornerstone EFC
Service Length: 1 hour 4 minutes
Sermon Length: 37 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were greeted and given bulletins when we came in. The bulletins had a connection card attached that both visitors and regulars were encouraged to fill out. Several people encouraged us to come to the dinner after the worship service, and we were welcomed at the table.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 55
Actual Ushers’ Count: 81
Snacks: pizza, fried chicken, green salad, coffee, hot water for tea, lemonade, ice water, brownie bites, and cookies
Musicians: piano (man)
vocals (woman)
Songs: “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”
“The First Noel”
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
“What Child is This?” (piano offertory)
“Joy to the World”
Miles to Church: 3

College Heights Baptist
Service Length: 1 hour 15 minutes
Sermon Length: 36 minutes
Visitor Treatment: At the beginning of the service, guests were encouraged to fill out the connection card found in pockets behind the chairs. There was only one card in our row (and no pencils or pens). During the greeting time, we were greeted by everybody around us.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 270
Probable Ushers’ Count: 300
Snacks: cookies, coffee, hot water
Musicians: Drums (man)
Bass guitar (man)
Acoustic guitar (man)
Electric guitar (man)
Piano (woman)
Vocals (3 men, 4 women)
Songs: “Speak, O Lord”
“Glorify Your Name” (piano offertory)
“He is Exalted” (piano offertory)
“Lord Reign in me”
“Thank You”
“Glory to God Forever”
Miles to Church: 2
Miles from Start: 44,200
Total 2016 Miles: 43,904
Church Website: http://www.collegeheightschurch.org