By Charles Honey, Faith and Leadership.
Eight years ago, a Grand Rapids congregation left its stately but deteriorating church for a plain, empty building in a tough part of town. Today, the risk has paid off with a smaller but committed congregation heavily involved in neighborhood ministry.
Dennis Johnson readily admits it: one of the reasons he and his wife, Donna, joined Bethlehem Lutheran Church 30 years ago was the building. He loved its neo-Gothic architecture, its handsome woodwork and its majestic organ.
“It was my image of what a good Lutheran church should look like,” Johnson said of the stately structure in the historic Heritage Hill district of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
His image of a good church, however, turned out to be far from where this now 142-year-old congregation decided it needed to go. Today, Bethlehem’s new home looks nothing at all like a traditional church.
It is a nondescript former post office maintenance garage, set in the city’s gritty Heartside neighborhood of soup kitchens and lost souls. Johnson used to drive his children through Heartside to see how “the other half” lived. He never imagined he’d end up worshipping there, in a building right next to a homeless shelter.
But when Bethlehem’s members decided in 2007 to sell their old building and buy this one, Johnson voted yes. And though at first he had his doubts about the new building — which does not have a pipe organ, merely a piano — today he is sure it was the right move.
“As you read the Bible and hear the lessons, what Christ was like was pretty simple and straightforward about loving people,” said Johnson, a former president of Bethlehem Lutheran’s church council. “I feel like we’re getting closer to that than we were before.”