Stepping Forward Together in Faith: Congregation and Faith Community Merge to Reach New People for Christ

By Rick Wolcott*

“Today is a service of commissioning where we are bringing together two churches that have been meeting in this space for seven years now, Regeneration a faith community and Otterbein United Methodist Church, and we’re marking coming together and sending out,” said the Rev. Kyle Tennant during the Sunday, June 13 service held on the front lawn of Champion Otterbein UMC at 1128 State Road West in Warren.

Mahoning Valley District Superintendent the Rev. Abby Auman then said, “Today we are commissioning, and we are recommissioning, because the call of God is always there in our lives it just takes different shapes and different forms that lead us on different paths and through twists and turns. So, this is the moment when we mark in worship the transition from Otterbein United Methodist Church and Regeneration faith community to Regeneration United Methodist Church.”

Those words brought smiles to most – but not all – of the approximately 100 people of all ages who sat under the shade of trees and tents on the sunny, hot June morning. The commissioning service was the culmination of four congregations (Warren First UMC, Warren Grace UMC, and Howland UMC in the Mahoning Valley District and Champion Otterbein UMC in the Western Reserve District) working together over seven years to create a new ministry that will reach new people for Christ in Trumbull County.

“I think it was the leaders of all of those churches choosing to make a sacrifice for the sake of something bigger that existed outside of their preferences or outside the preferences of the congregations that they led so that we could reach out and connect with somebody that we currently aren’t reaching,” Tennant said before the service.

“Today is a day of joy and celebration. It’s also a day perhaps for some people of some grief and some mourning as we make some transitions. Life never holds still and praise the Lord God doesn’t hold still either,” Auman stated during the service.

“Otterbein has been on an emotional rollercoaster over the years. We’ve seen some very high highs and we’ve seen some really low lows,” shared Jill Sakonyi, a lay member of the church who has been part of the life of the congregation since its beginning in the early 1980s when her mother came as an ambassador from Tod Avenue UMC in downtown Warren where the family had worshipped to help plant the church. “This is my church. I haven’t always liked every decision that’s been made or every pastor that’s served here but that’s life. I’m committed to this church and I’m excited to see what the Lord has in store for us.”

“All of this we didn’t see coming,” said Pastor Rick Oaks, a retired local pastor who served Warren First UMC (2003-2016) and attended the commissioning service.

The Birth of a New Faith Community
Oaks said, “We started out looking to do a second service, a more contemporary service back in the day and we thought that would make a difference. We realized ‘we’re not really planning another service we’re planting a second church’ – and that’s where Regeneration began, with that mindset and learning that it takes a different approach to reach people who have been far from God and facing eternity without Jesus and being intentional about reaching those folks first and then building the community from there. That was the transformation in our plan.”

Rev. Dan Bryant, former superintendent of the Mahoning Valley District (2009-2017) shared in an e-mail conversation last week, “Otterbein UMC was a struggling congregation in a wonderful facility located in a vital mission field. Regeneration saw the missional opportunity and began reaching out to the Champion area as part of its new faith community as part of the Warren Team Ministry.”

Because Otterbein UMC was in the Western Reserve District at the that time and Warren First UMC was in the Mahoning Valley District, Bryant worked with then-Western Reserve District Superintendent the Rev. Sondra Snode to create a model for a new missional partnership.

“The goal was to help sustain Otterbein UMC and create a discipleship path for Regeneration to launch. The Otterbein UMC facility was a natural location to try and have both a chartered congregation and a new faith community,” said Bryant. 

New Opportunities Present New Challenges
“During the initial meetings at Champion Otterbein, I am grateful for those who engaged in conversation even when they were confused by what was being proposed. It is not easy to think outside the box; to do ministry in ways that have no references to check. It takes courage to let go of what is known and comfortable, and step into a new plan,” shared Snode, who is currently lead pastor of Mentor UMC (Western Reserve District).

She recounted in an e-mail one particular meeting that still stands out in her mind.

“We were in a jam-packed room where people were striving to listen and comprehend a proposal. Legitimate questions were asked. Concerns were expressed. Passion was evident. So was tension. There were no guarantees the plan would work. There were no assurances that finances would be strong, or the children’s ministry would grow, or worship services would be full. Yet over and over again a mission to share Jesus in the community was emphasized. When a young woman stood at the end of the meeting and shared her desire to know Jesus and to help others know Jesus, and a desire to do whatever needed to be done to do so, most of the jam-packed room sensed God was calling them to step forward in faith.”

Bryant shared that it was a team approach that included more than just him and Snode.

“The work of Bishop Tracy S. Malone and the Cabinet, along with the Rev. Kelly Brown, who, at the time, was director of Congregational Vitality, provided training, resources and mentoring to help seed the birth of this new model of ministry,” he said.

The first Regeneration service was held at Otterbein UMC on the evening of Sunday, October 5, 2014. Rev. Joan Purnell began serving Otterbein July 1, 2015.

“It quickly became apparent to me that sharing the worship space with Regeneration, actually the entire building, was divisive in the life of the congregation. Otterbein’s role in birthing Regeneration was to come alongside offering a supportive, nurturing environment in which to grow. That role was challenging for Otterbein because Regeneration wasn’t embraced as a vital ministry,” Purnell wrote during a separate e-mail conversation last week.

“It took a lot of work but with conscious, consistent effort Otterbein and Regeneration leaned into being ‘we.’ We joined in a time of breakthrough prayer as we prayed the same prayer at the same time every day. We celebrated the seekers, the baptisms, the new ministries that were happening in our midst,” she continued. “Even as we sought to envision Otterbein and Regeneration as one community of faith, the reality is that this continued to be a challenging journey with Otterbein members often clinging to their vision of reaching new people. This didn’t always include the new people of Regeneration because Otterbein easily slide into the ‘us vs. them’ dynamic.”

The Turning Point
Purnell shared that the turning point was the people of Otterbein UMC committing to engaging in reaching new people and realizing that in nurturing the Regeneration faith community it was providing the space for worship and vital new ministries. From that point forward the congregation’s journey became grounded in the words of Isaiah 43:18-19: “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

By 2017 the two congregations sharing one building had found more ways to work together and it became clear to leadership that it was time to take the next step in the process.

“Bishop Malone and the Cabinet had approved moving Otterbein from the Western Reserve District to the Mahoning Valley District, so now both faith communities were on the same district. The Holy Spirit whispered that it was now time for Otterbein and Regeneration to have one pastoral leader,” Purnell said, before adding how much she appreciated having worked with Tennant. “One of the joys of ministry with Otterbein and Regeneration was the bond of friendship that Kyle and I cultivated as we led through this difficult, often messy journey. Kyle and I truly collaborated as friends and colleagues as we sought to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. In other words, we kept our egos in check, as we encouraged one another.”

In 2020 Malone appointed Purnell to serve as pastor of Cortland UMC (Western Reserve District) and she appointed Tennant to serve as pastor of both Champion Otterbein UMC and the Regeneration faith community.

It Doesn’t Look Like We Imagined
Sakonyi said that while feelings remain mixed among some of the members of Otterbein UMC, she sees the wisdom in what is taking place – even if the new model isn’t what everyone had envisioned.

“For me, when Regeneration came in, I said, ‘this is the vision, it’s happening we’re just not the ones actually doing it,’” she said. “I think it was a Godly plan that Warren ministry team with everyone doing a little bit. Our little bit was offering the building. We had said in our visioning back in the ‘90s that we wanted two services, a traditional and a contemporary, and that is what we we’re getting with Regeneration.”

Auman understands the mixed feelings of Otterbein UMC members.

“I am sure this is not what they had in mind when they thought of the church being filled with children again, but God is at work in ways that we don’t always understand and see until they come together. It’s been a blessing to work with people who are really excited to share Jesus with other people because many people have not heard the Good News of Jesus,” she said. “I’m sure the people at Warren First envisioned a vibrant congregation of adults and kids – maybe multigenerational – and that’s not happening there (the church closed in 2019) but it is happening here. It’s disappointing when you have a dream and it’s not heading in that direction, but the Bible is full of stories of people who thought they knew what God was going to do but then God went in a different direction. You might still have the sorrow or lament that your dream didn’t work out but if you’re willing to hang in there with God you can see something that is even more beautiful if you can look for it in a different form.”

“It can be hard to let go,” Sakonyi offered. “The name change has been really difficult for a lot of people because, as you merge, we didn’t choose a new name, we’re keeping the Regeneration name, which makes it feel more like an envelopment not a merge. But pragmatically I understand that they have spent six or seven years marketing the name Regeneration so I very much understand why we want to keep that because it has so much positive around it that you wouldn’t want to throw that away and start from scratch.”

Reaching New People for Jesus Christ
Zack Byler was one of the first people whose life was changed by the Regeneration faith community more than six years ago. “God didn’t make sense to me. Church didn’t make sense to me. I was on a path of real selfishness,” he said, adding that if he hadn’t met Tennant, he would not still be married, and he and his wife wouldn’t have their two beautiful children.

“We were in marriage counseling, and I stated during the end of a session that, ‘selfishness is what makes me happy, and you have to learn to live with that.’ I said those exact words. On the way home we passed a church sign that read, ‘selfishness is not what makes you happy,’ it was crazy, and it really made me think,” he said. “There are a few other instances like that where God has connected the dots and brought me to Him. It wasn’t long after that that I gave my life to Christ and was baptized here at a Regeneration service.”

Tennant shared before the commissioning service that, “From the very beginning there’s been a pretty strong commitment to making sacrifice and making ourselves be uncomfortable so that other people might feel comfortable engaging with Jesus. For us it was never about building a church it was about making disciples because if you build a church, you will get some disciples but if you make disciples, you’ll always get a church.”

During his sermon, he told the story of the birth of his son, tying that life-changing experience into the life-changing experience that was about to take place that June day – the commissioning of a new church.

“Today we find ourselves in a delivery room. This is not a delivery room for physical birth it’s a delivery room where people, in the words of Jesus, are born again, born of water and the Spirit. We’re in a delivery room where new spiritual, eternal, joyful life is born, just as Jesus said in John 3. He says, ‘I assure you no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can only reproduce human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life so don’t be surprised when I say you must be born again.’” Tennant said.

Eleven people were baptized, or reaffirmed their baptism, during the Regeneration UMC commissioning service.   

“I’m standing before you this morning as a testimony to God’s faithful love and how he doesn’t give up on his children,” said Jenna Frisk, before she reaffirmed her baptism through immersion. “I grew up in a Christian home. I’ve always believed in Jesus but until a few years ago I never really understood what relationship was like with Him. He pulled me out of my sin, my shame, my feelings of being unworthy of His love and he welcomed me into His loving arms. He’s using me for His purposes despite my past, my brokenness, and my humanness.”

God’s Will, Not Our Will
Bryant is encouraged by the faith and the passion of the people of Otterbein.

“God’s creative Spirit stirred the hearts and minds of the congregation to help them see the vision of what could be. Through the tireless dedication of Kyle and the ministry team, God wasn’t finished in Champion, and you see the fruits of their labors,” he shared.

Snode said, “It is essential to help people focus on the mission even while changing the vision. Vision changes. How we offer Christ in communities and do the work of Christ’s Church must look different in a changing culture and demographic. Simply holding on to what worked in the past does not guarantee survival or success in the future. Instead, being passionate about Jesus can lead to new ministry. It may only take one courageous voice to help others follow where God is leading.”

Auman has been telling congregations in the Mahoning Valley District that they shouldn’t be afraid to try ministering in new ways.

“Some of those things are going to work out just the way that we think they will and some of them are not going to but that’s not necessarily a failure. It’s a failure if we don’t learn from it and if we stop trying. If we learn from it, if we seek what God might be trying to do instead of what we are trying to do then it’s not a failure because God doesn’t waste things,” she said.

Otterbein and Regeneration coming together as one church is the answer to many prayers. It may not look exactly like everybody wanted it to look, but it never does,” said Byler. “I didn’t expect myself to be who I am and what I am today. I never thought that. I had a lot more plans of things that had to do with me than being surrounded by these people. This is God’s surprise. God’s will be done, not ours. God’s work will be done not Otterbein’s not Regeneration faith community. We’re trying to live the way Jesus taught us to live scripturally.”

“I think this church will make a powerful difference because it’s not just a regeneration of individuals it’s a regeneration of a faith community that is a reflection of the community,” Oaks said after the service.

Purnell said that she believes more congregations are being called to lean into the journey of coming together in order to reach new people, younger people and a more diverse people in the name of Jesus Christ. 

“Maybe that means planting new faith communities in the midst of older ones, like Otterbein and Regeneration. Maybe that means merging churches in the same town or region. Yes, there will be sorrow as faith communities let go of the old, but there will also be rejoicing because God is always doing a new thing,” she said.

With restrictions from the pandemic eased, and momentum building from the commissioning of the new congregation, Tennant is ready to take the ministry of Regeneration UMC out into the community.

“We’re going to focus on making Jesus’ last command – to go and make disciples – our first priority.”

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.