Extreme church makeover

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California congregation reaffirms its unique model

by Myra Holmes

Butler MB Church, Fresno, Calif., certainly isn’t the first U.S. Mennonite Brethren congregation to face conflict, nor will it be the last. Sadly, unresolved conflict closes its fair share of churches.

But when Butler found itself wrestling with conflict and upheaval a couple of years ago, they decided that their mission was worth fighting for. Through a long and patient “extreme makeover” process, Butler is reaffirming their vision as a multicultural, multicongregational church.

Butler has for a long time considered itself both multicultural and multicongregational. Before the makeover, Butler Church included four worship communities in three languages: a traditional English-language community, a contemporary English community, a Southeast Asian community and a Spanish-language community.

The church’s Web site describes how the different worship communities evolved from the original English group: First, a desire to reach students spawned a more contemporary service. In 1992, a ministry to the Lao/Khmu community began with Phone Keo Keovilay leading. Then in the mid-90s, a Spanish Bible study grew into a worship service.

“All groups agreed adamantly that though different in languages and cultural norms, together they would be one church,” the site says.

But, maybe because the different worship communities evolved over time, the English culture remained dominant.

“Maybe in a sense we kind of took over as an Anglo church and maybe did (the other groups) a disservice by leaving them without the control to run things as their culture would,” speculates interim coordinating pastor Scott Holman. “As you go along as a church for 50 years, things are just happening, and you don’t always think about why they are.”

In recent years, theological and cultural misunderstandings led to conflict. Long-ignored cracks grew and threatened the church’s very foundation. People left. The church was hurting.

So Butler asked for help from the Pacific District Conference’s Board of Faith and Life, which led them to Larry Martens. Martens has experience as an extreme makeover expert; he’s a former MB pastor and former president of MB Biblical Seminary who has worked with nine congregations in transition or conflict in the four or five years since his semiretirement. Butler asked Martens to bring this considerable expertise to an interim assignment, beginning in September 2008.

With Martens’ help, Butler formed a Transition Team of respected congregational representatives to lead the church through a healing and revisioning process. This team formed a Transition Plan—a lengthy document that defines Butler’s vision and describes what it means to be a multicongregational, multicultural church. The Transition Plan includes four goals for matters of relationships, structure, mission and leadership. The plan was approved by the congregation, and an Implementation Team followed up to begin to put the plan into action.

The makeover isn’t just cosmetic. The process has required the congregation to rethink its foundations, then rebuild accordingly. Key to Butler’s unity and identity is the MB Confession of Faith and a clear belief in the centrality of Christ. “There has to be a center to the faith,” Martens says. “That’s not optional.”

Building on that common foundation, Butler explored its vision to reflect the diversity of their community, which they believe also reflects the kingdom of God. All groups interested in being part of that vision were asked to formally apply to be a congregation of Butler Church. It meant thinking through and affirming their uniqueness as well as their commitment to Butler’s theology and mission. While that wasn’t an easy process, Martens calls it “enriching” and “a vital part of solidifying the commitment for the future.”

Five distinct congregations emerged: Faith Community is an English-language traditional congregation; Common Ground worships in English but is intentionally open to an ethnic mix; Kingdom Tide, the third English-language congregation, has a vision for reaching a postmodern mind-set; Asian Grace serves the Lao/Khmu community; and Amor y Fe is the Spanish-language congregation.

Each congregation—even the three English-language congregations—represents a unique culture with a distinct mind-set. “There is a difference in how we approach and think about church,” Holman says. “We’re pursuing the same thing but in very different ways.”

Each congregation has autonomy and is expected to take ownership of their ministry. Each sets its own budget, for example, and takes responsibility for any staff salaries while also contributing to shared Butler expenses. Each decides how they wish to reach out to their community and worships in a culturally-appropriate way.

At the same time, the five congregations function interdependently, not as five churches side by side, but as one Butler Church. So they cooperate on things like leadership and facilities, and they share expertise, resources and gifts to meet larger ministry goals.

Admittedly, it’s complicated. To make it work, especially when diverse viewpoints come together, Butler works intentionally at building relationships. The Transition Plan calls for regular worship together, as well as other gatherings, such as the monthly “Meal and More,” for which one congregation plans a meal and another plans an activity.

From there, the Butler congregations are learning to serve side by side, partnering in ministry. For example, men come together to work on various projects on the church campus. “Even if we don’t share a language, we can work together,” Holman says. A developing Celebrate Recovery ministry will be a shared ministry of all the congregations.

Relationships are also encouraged on an informal level. After all, it’s harder to speak ill to or about someone when there’s understanding “on a heart level,” as Holman says. “We’re being very intentional about building relationships and going beyond, ‘I think I know how you are,’ to ‘I’ve eaten with you; I’ve seen your family; I’ve been in your home and you’ve been in mine.’”

Although Butler Church celebrated its new identity as five congregations with a common worship service Jan. 17, the makeover is far from complete. The Transition Plan lays out a three-year process. The church will continue redecorating, refining and knocking down walls as they worship and serve together. It won’t be easy.

But Butler believes it’s worth the effort. Martens says, “It’s part of what it means to be kingdom people when we don’t see skin color or culture as dividing lines; we see a common faith in Jesus Christ.”

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