Omaha: Getting ready for an eternal party

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Omaha MB congregations invite us to see what God is doing, join the celebration

by Myra Holmes

The five USMB congregations in Omaha, Neb., are preparing for a celebration—a gathering much bigger than Conection 2012, the USMB biennial convention to be held this summer in Nebraska’s largest city.

“We happen to know there’s a party coming,” says Lance Burch, pastor of Shadow Lake Community Church, “where the food never runs out, the music never gets turned down and no one ever leaves. We’re in it for that.”

With an eye toward that eternal celebration, each of the Omaha-area MB congregations goes into their unique highways and byways to invite their neighbors to accept God’s invitation to join his family.

It all started with Faith

Faith Bible Church has been at it the longest—since the late 1960s. Their near-downtown community now has a distinctly urban composition. About half of the folks in the area are Hispanic, and many are trying to make ends meet from week to week.

The urban feel of the community is reflected in the congregation, says church board member Stephen Stout. A visitor to Faith Bible would be welcomed among a mixed group of people that would likely include a few homeless individuals.

While it’s likely that preaching pastor Denny Hartford would speak, he is not the full-time pastor at Faith Bible. In fact, the congregation does not have a pastor, nor are they seeking one. Instead, a six-member church board leads the congregation. These volunteers, including Stout, manage the shepherding and administrative tasks that pastors usually do. “It’s working very well for us,” Stout says.

Since Faith Bible is centered in an area with ample physical needs, a primary way this congregation of about 60 people reaches out is by meeting physical needs. In 1996, Faith Bible established a separate nonprofit, Good Neighbor Ministries (GNM), to most effectively share God’s love in a tangible way. Stout is the director of GNM.

Being a good neighbor

GNM serves a 15-by 15-block area that is home to about 10,000 people. Through a pool of volunteers, GNM offers such services as yard care, snow shoveling, “Life Skills” classes, food assistance and Bible studies. But it’s much more than meeting physical needs, says Stout. GNM works to build relationships, to connect volunteers to those who need encouragement and to verbally share the gospel.

For example, on a recent afternoon GNM provided a dumpster so that area residents could clean out accumulated stuff without cost. As they spread word about the dumpster’s availability, Stout and volunteers talked with residents, offered information on the gospel message, GNM’s services and other area resources.

Stout says the Faith Bible community has recently drawn attention from other service groups and has even been targeted by the city as an area for restoration. Stout comments that God seems to be answering Faith Bible’s longstanding prayer for more workers for this neighborhood, although in unexpected ways. “There seems to be a growing interest—with real things happening—in our neighborhood,” he says.

Not satisfied with spreading the gospel in their own neighborhood, Faith Bible has “grandmothered” the rest of the Omaha MB churches by planting Iglesia Agua Viva and Millard Bible Church.

Church planting

Although no longer an active congregation, Millard Bible had an excellent ministry in the Omaha area for 20 years, particularly among families and youth. In 1997, Millard partnered with Mission USA, the USMB church planting arm, and the Central District Conference (CDC) to plant the congregation now known as Shadow Lake Community Church.

When Millard Bible closed its doors in 2008, they left a perfectly good facility under the ownership of the CDC. Meanwhile, Shadow Lake was quickly outgrowing their facility. So in partnership with the CDC, Shadow Lake launched a satellite service in the Millard facility. In time, it became apparent that this satellite had potential as a stand-alone church, and it became Stony Brook Church, the youngest of the Omaha churches. Campus pastor Chad Stoner became the lead pastor.

Shadow Lake and Stony Brook are both located in more suburban areas of Omaha, although even the 20 minutes that separates them means unique communities and outreach. Papillion, the small town on the outskirts of Omaha where Shadow Lake is located, ranked fifth in Money’s list of 100 best small towns.

It’s a solidly middle-class area, with lots of young families, including military families from nearby Offut Air Force Base. Pastor Lance Burch describes the feel of the community as “all-American,” complete with a baseball field, friendly neighbors and great fireworks.

Seniors and ethnic mix are scarce in the community, and the congregation reflects that. But that doesn’t mean there’s not diversity. Burch says the congregation includes a variety of spiritual maturity levels—“a lot of people who ask big questions about God and the church.”

Because the congregation is quickly closing in on 800, with an abundance of children, on a property with only 75 parking spaces, Shadow Lake offers three Sunday services. The church owns 20 acres of land on which they hope to build in the near future, which will alleviate some of the space issues.

Focused on God and others

Worship at Shadow Lake is designed to put the focus squarely on God. Sermons “provoke people to think about God and their place in the world,” says Burch. Beyond Sunday worship, the church encourages risking relationships through “life groups,” with an eye toward impacting their community.

Each of Shadow Lake’s life groups takes on an “impact project” each semester, like serving with a local feeding ministry. “We’re really serious about Papillion and Omaha knowing that we’re here and that we don’t exist for ourselves,” Burch says.

Shadow Lake’s daughter church, Stony Brook, is in what pastor Chad Stoner describes as “an old suburb,” with a broad mix of young and old, middle and lower-middle class—reflected, of course, in the congregation. “We have the whole gamut here,” Stoner says.

Belong, believe, become

Stony Brook invites people to “belong, believe, become.” First-time visitors, no matter their background or spiritual journey, are welcomed into an atmosphere of love and acceptance. Very quickly, they know they belong and recognize this as a safe place to work out their relationship with God, says Stoner.

Once someone belongs at Stony Brook, they are free to ask the questions that lead them to deeper belief in Christ, which then allows them to become who God intends. Life groups play a key role in all stages of this journey. Each group is an expression of the church, encouraging those involved to belong, believe and become. That includes a passion to multiply.

While Stony Brook is located in a high-traffic area, the facility is small with limited expansion possibilities. “Our trajectory is one of planting churches,” Stoner says. He dreams of Stony Brook becoming a “greenhouse” for growing young leaders and church planters for the national USMB family and of planting a new church in the next few years. “We are bent on that,” he says.

Churches planting churches

Stony Brook’s pastor of discipleship Stephen Humber adds that a big church planting vision will require support across the larger church family, especially in terms of finances. Stony Brook has already felt that kind of USMB support through Mission USA, the USMB church planting ministry; the CDC; partner congregations and individuals.

Humber says, “God is at work in the lives of people in Omaha, and we loving partnering with the USMB to help get that done.”

Meanwhile, as Millard, Shadow Lake and Stony Brook were spreading the gospel in Omaha’s suburbs, Faith Bible saw a growing Hispanic population in the city, noted a lack of evangelical churches serving this population and decided to do something about it. About 16 years ago, with help from the CDC and Hispanic church planter Walter Presa, they established what might have been the first Hispanic evangelical church in Omaha, Iglesia Agua Viva.

Ministering to Omaha's growing Hispanic community

Agua Viva meets in the heart of South Omaha—a perfect location for them, according to pastor Daniel Rodriguez. The church building is located just a block from the main center of Hispanic shopping and restaurants. It’s a location familiar to Hispanics in Omaha.

Services, naturally, are in Spanish, but Spanish and English-speaking visitors alike find a warm welcome. Rodriguez says they often work to accommodate English visitors by including English songs. That kind of extra effort to include all comers is intentional. “When people come, we want them to feel the unity, feel the love for each other that comes from Christ,” he says, “not just hear the words.”

Young people are active in the life of the congregation, leading worship, preaching from time to time, lending their musical talents and helping to communicate bilingually. Rodriguez says visitors are sometimes surprised by the way the congregation includes the youth.

A couple of times each year, Agua Viva closes the street in front of the church and holds their service outside. They go door-to-door inviting community members. But even if the neighbors don’t come, the outdoor services serve as a helpful connection to their community. Rodriguez says that because so many Hispanics come from a Catholic background and have a deep hesitation about a non-Catholic church, it’s important to break the ice and make them comfortable.

Agua Viva also serves Hispanics in Omaha through a weekly radio program on a Spanish, Christian station. The program includes music and a brief devotional by Rodriguez, followed by calls from listeners with prayer requests. Often, calls come from immigrants in prison, awaiting deportation and concerned about their families. The congregation visits the immigrants’ families and helps with physical needs as they’re able.

Rodriguez tells of a woman whose story is typical: She first contacted the church through the radio program to ask for prayer for her husband, jailed as an illegal immigrant. When he was deported and she was left raising three children alone, the church provided diapers, milk and friendship. She attended church, accepted Christ and is preparing for baptism. “It makes you really excited when you see that,” Rodriguez says.

"Showing them something different"

In the last couple of years, Agua Viva has multiplied their ministry to Hispanics in the area through Iglesia Manatial de Agua Viva, a church plant led by Jose Guerra. In a full-circle turn of events, Manatial de Agua Viva meets in the gym of Faith Bible Church, their grandmother church. It’s not only a good way for the two congregations to partner but also an ideal location for the Hispanic congregation, near apartment complexes filled with Hispanics.

The group is currently about 50 people, but Rodriguez says the church has tremendous potential to grow. They are currently knocking on doors to let neighbors know they’re near, and they have plans to hold an outdoor service in summer similar to those held by Agua Viva.

Rodriguez says that Mennonite Brethren offer something unique to Omaha’s Hispanic culture. Many come from Catholic or Pentecostal backgrounds and associate church with demands for money. But in the MB congregations “they feel safe.” They are not welcomed because of what they can give but so that they can know Jesus. “We’re showing them something different,” Rodriguez says.

And for each of these five MB congregations, showing their communities that knowing Jesus makes all the difference is what it’s all about. They want the Lord’s great banquet tables to be filled.

The Omaha Story: Fifty Years of Ministry

  • 1946: Cornelius F. Plett brings the idea of a city mission in Omaha to the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Conference.

  • Feb. 5, 1950: Fontanelle Chapel starts in North Omaha as an outreach of the KMB.

  • August 1964: CDC initiates a second church plant, Highland Community Church, led by Robert Friesen.   

  • 1968: Fontanelle Chapel relocates and begins meeting as Faith Bible Church. The CDC refocuses their ministry at the old Fontanelle property to serve the immediate neighborhood.

  • May 21, 1972: Faith Bible dedicates a new building.

  • 1977: Highland Community Church closes.

  • 1979: Fontanelle ministry closes.

  • May 1983: Faith Bible pastor Leonard Reimer begins Bible studies in Millard, Neb.

  • 1985: Millard Bible Church is officially organized.

  • 1990: Faith Bible starts a Spanish language ministry, called Iglesia Agua Viva led by Amalia and Walter Presa (pictured right).

  • 1995: Iglesia Agua Viva is officially founded.

  • 1996: Faith Bible starts Good Neighbor Ministries.

  • Sept. 13, 1997: Rolling Hills Church—a church plant of Millard Bible—is founded.

  • Dec. 18, 2005: Rolling Hills relaunches as Shadow Lake Community Church.

  • Oct. 1, 2006: Shadow Lake merges with Pleasantview Church.

  • Sept. 21, 2008: Millard Bible closes.

  • January 2009: Shadow Lake starts a satellite campus in the Millard Bible facility.

  • 2009: Iglesia Agua Viva plants Iglesia Manatial De Agua Viva.

  • August 2010: Stony Brook Church is planted in the Millard facility.

  • 2011: Iglesia Manatial De Agua Viva begins meeting in the Faith Bible facility.

Thanks to Peggy Goertzen, director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Hillsboro, Kan., for her help in gathering some of this data.

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