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3 churches merge in Colorado Springs, bringing together new and old

By: Steve Rabey Religion Correspondent
May 25, 2014 Updated: May 26, 2014 at 8:03 am

Pastor Eric Sandras of The Sanctuary Church got much more than he bargained for in March when he approached another west side church about renting space.

Last Sunday, leaders of 125-year-old Bethany Baptist Church gave their West Colorado Avenue building, property and assets worth more than $1 million to The Sanctuary Church, which was founded only six months ago.

The churches followed the blueprint Jim Tomberlin provides in his book, "Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work." Tomberlin, a church consultant and former senior pastor at Woodmen Valley Chapel, says thousands of U.S. churches merge every year.

"There are more than 300,000 churches in America, and 80 percent of them have plateaued," Tomberlin says. "If you are not adding people, you are losing ground. So it can be a huge win-win when a church with facilities but in desperate need of a vibrant ministry merges with a growing church."

From boom to bust

First Baptist Church of Colorado City was founded in 1889 to serve the growing west side population. The name was changed to Bethany after Colorado City was annexed into Colorado Springs, which already had a First Baptist Church.

By the time Bethany celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1964, the church had more than 1,000 members, a sanctuary for 600 worshippers, a kitchen to serve meals to 500 people and a full-sized gym that was often full of kids roller-skating or playing basketball or volleyball.

But over time, Bethany lost touch with its changing community and drew inward. By the time interim pastor Rick Foster arrived last October, the 50-member church was on life support.

"After Eric approached Bethany about renting space, I felt God leading us to ask if there might be something more going on here than a rental arrangement," Foster says. "Ultimately, we felt a merger would benefit the west side because The Sanctuary brings to the table everything Bethany lacks."

Taking saints, sinners

Sandras, a Springs native, loves the west side's people, diversity, art community and funky culture.

"The west side has a higher tolerance for misfits, the poor and sinners, who are the kinds of people Jesus befriended," says Sandras, who sports tattoos and earrings.

Sandras also has a soft spot in his heart for Bethany, the church his grandparents attended. After serving churches locally and throughout the West (Washington state, Los Angeles, Las Vegas) and writing four books, he founded The Sanctuary in November, renting space at The Loft Music Venue for Sunday services.

Sandras approached Bethany because he wanted to start recovery groups for people struggling with addictions to alcohol, drugs and sex, and needed more room.

"Our goal is to have a church where it's OK to not be OK," he says. "Everyone has hurts, hang-ups and habits they're trying to get over. We want to help stuck people get unstuck.

"Unfortunately, a lot of churches have a culture of conformity, where everyone looks the same, acts the same and is afraid to show brokenness, pain, anxieties or doubts. But I believe these things are a healthy part of people's spiritual journeys."

Sandras embraced Bethany's merger offer.

"They had a building, but few people. We had people, but no building. They saw our relevance, and I saw their heart," he says. "And the fact that they would entrust their 125-year legacy to a 6-month-old church is amazing to me."

A third congregation also is merging with The Sanctuary. Paul Aung founded The Movement three years ago as a congregation in the Springs-based Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination.

"By joining The Sanctuary, we can better fulfill the mission and purpose for the church that Jesus had in mind," Aung says.

So far, these newcomers are adapting to Bethany's traditional architecture and its church pews (which most Sanctuary members call benches).

Bethany members also have welcomed the change. One old-timer seen crying at a recent joint service said, "It's been so long since we've had young people and children running through our sanctuary."

A growing trend

After serving as senior pastor at Woodmen Valley Chapel from 1991 to 2000, Tomberlin helped the pioneering "seeker sensitive" Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois develop its multisite model for satellite congregations. In 2005, he founded MultiSite to consult with churches nationwide.

Tomberlin says 2 percent of American Protestant and evangelical churches merge each year, and another 5 percent consider it.

The most successful mergers typically involve megachurches adopting smaller churches, like New Life Church did with Celebration Church in 2013.

The least successful mergers involve two failing churches.

"It is like two drowning men trying to survive together," says Tomberlin, who divides his time between Colorado Springs and Arizona.

A major factor in church mergers is changing attitudes toward church attendance and the growth of "nones" (people with no religious affiliation).

"The cultural pressure to attend church is gone, which is not necessarily a bad thing," Tomberlin says. "As we move beyond cultural Christianity to genuine Christianity, fewer people may go to church, but they go to church because it's meaningful to them."

Bottom line: Tomberlin says churches are either growing or dying.

"People who love their churches are often unwilling to change their methods and worship styles to serve new generations of children and grandchildren," he says. "We don't need to change our message, but if we aren't continually changing our methods we will die."

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