COVID bought two congregations together – InkFreeNews.com
By Dan Spalding
LAKE WINONA — While COVID-19 has separated communities and caused great heartache and many burdens, it has also brought two churches together.
Such was the case with Winona Lake Community Church, which is the name of the relatively new church created by the merger of Winona Lake Free Methodist Church and Oak Grove Church.
Church leaders and the Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce celebrated the union and new membership of the Church in the chamber.
The Free Methodist Church, which sits atop the hill along College Avenue in Winona Lake, was established in 1935. In recent years, the church was under the leadership of Pastor Rick Hurley.
The Oak Grove Church, on the other hand, had been more transitional or, as Pastor Doug Lemon describes it, “kind of nomadic.” The congregation had recently gathered at the United Methodist Church in Pleasant Grove, south of Warsaw. At the start of the pandemic, the church held services online.
The Free Methodist Church moved faster to reopen and return to in-person services, and in the summer of 2020 the Oak Grove congregation asked if they could sit down temporarily. So they tried it with the two senior pastors rotating the Sunday sermon, and the combination exceeded expectations.
“It was a really great experience,” said Hurley, who had led the Free Methodist Church. “People in both churches were like, ‘Why don’t we just do this? “”
At the end of the year, they formed a transition team “and we kind of dreamed about what it would be like if we did church together,” he said.
Better still, the church sees its attendance increase. At first, the merger gathered about 60 to 70 people for weekly services. Now the number sometimes reaches 100.
“We have new people who weren’t part of either church coming in every week and staying,” Hurley said.
Oak Grove is non-denominational, but they realized that their beliefs and articles of religion fit well with the Free Methodist approach.
“I think we’re a great team,” Lemon said. “We always trade stuff.”
While most chambers are clearly focused on business customers, chamber CEO Rob Parker said they are making a concerted effort to work with churches.
Three churches are now members of the Chamber.
“The Chamber believes that when everyone works together, we can dramatically improve the community,” Parker said. “I don’t see that we have defined roles when we have secular and sacred roles…I think the two have to work very closely together.”
Parker admitted that the strategy is a bit different from the traditional role of chambers.
“I don’t think you see this in a lot of other places, but it’s a great way to show we’re thinking outside the box,” he said.