Three years ago, Calvary Baptist Church in Morganton was a traditional church in decline and looking for a pastor. Nearby, Journey Church was a growing, contemporary church plant in search of adequate facilities.
Photo by Mark Steven Houser
When Summit Community Church formed in Morganton three years ago, it brought together a contemporary church (Journey Church) and a traditional church (Calvary Baptist Church). The new sign was placed on top of the old marquee, and a merger took place that is still bringing change to the community.
Mike Chandler, pastor of Journey Church, was leading a transition team of five church leaders to pray and study options for the right location. Nothing seemed to work in their favor.
“We looked at every single facility we could look at here in town,” Chandler said. “Either they weren’t available, they were way too expensive or there were too many obstacles in the way.”
After one of their meetings, he told Jerry Stephens, a founding lay leader of the church, that Calvary Baptist Church had been on his heart for several years. The church has a great location and good facilities, and everyone in the community knew it was struggling to survive.
Stephens said the same church building had been weighing on his mind, so he arranged a meeting with Calvary’s deacons, in an unofficial role, to offer an idea: would the church consider a merger?
“They thought we wanted to rent space,” Chandler explained. “When Jerry said we should consider a merger, they said, ‘What?’” But, the deacons opened up to the idea.
Calvary’s deacons began meeting with Journey’s transition team to “see where God might be in this whole merger idea.”
“In June of 2014 we decided to have a joint worship service and see what happens,” said Chandler. “We didn’t advertise it. We brought our portable sound system in Calvary’s worship facility, set it up and we packed out the place. That was on a Sunday night. To this day, it is one of the best experiences of my life.”
Journey averaged almost 300 people in morning worship and Calvary saw 60 worshipers on a given Sunday, yet the Sunday night “trial” service was filled with more than 400 people.
The following Wednesday night Calvary’s leaders held an open question and answer time.
“I didn’t know if we were going into a firing squad or what to expect,” Chandler said. “They asked legitimate questions and expressed concerns. One person spoke up and said they really liked the fact that there were children in the Sunday night service – something they had not seen in a long time.
“I asked them if they really, really loved the fact that children are attending. You have to really love children, because they are a great blessing, but along with that comes some headaches. You may have screaming, crying and messed-up walls. So, I asked them again, ‘Are you really glad they’re here?’ They said, ‘We’ve gone without laughter, kids and young families long enough. We will love it. We’re ready for it.’”
A new name
Photo by Mark Steven Houser
Pastor Mike Chandler loves Summit’s six-year partnership with Guatemala. In December, the church sent 450 backpacks loaded with supplies, and a truck for distributing food and water was shipped this month.
Journey’s transition team wanted to drop both churches’ names and rebrand with the new name, “Summit.”
Some of Calvary’s members did not want the name changed, Chandler said. But the potential conflict was disarmed when an older gentlemen stood up at the Q&A meeting and said, “I’ve been in this church since I was in the cradle, and I want to tell you something. The name on that sign does not matter. What matters is what’s happening in this church for the Kingdom of God. In fact, the name of this church has changed three or four times before it became Calvary.”
“They asked a lot of questions that we did not yet have answers for,” Chandler continued. “A godly woman said in a broken voice, ‘People, I want to tell you something. We’re asking questions that don’t really matter in the big scheme of things in God’s Kingdom. We have a group of men that God has given to lead us. Let’s quit questioning everything. Let’s trust God, and let these men lead like God’s called them to lead.’ The place broke out in applause.”
Calvary approved the merger in July 2014 with little opposition.
At the end of Journey’s morning service, the congregation waited to receive word of Calvary’s decision.
“Our people didn’t want to leave until they heard the results of the vote,” said Chandler. “We announced it to our people, and you would have thought we won the national championship. They were ecstatic.” Summit Community Church of Morganton was born.
As Chandler worked with the leadership teams of both churches, he felt uneasy.
“I was the biggest holdout on agreeing to move into Calvary’s facilities,” he said. “Things were going so well for Journey. Set-up and take-down gets long every Sunday, but God was blessing us so much. I had to admit that I’d gotten comfortable.”
Chandler feared conflict around the way his congregation viewed their church. Journey was a younger, contemporary-looking church, meeting in a shopping center. But, they would be moving into a very traditional, dated building.
“But after we packed it out,” said Chandler, “I called some of our younger families to survey them. I said, ‘Tell me what you think about going into a place that’s dated, it’s got pews and stained glass windows – what do you think?’ Without fail, everyone said, ‘We couldn’t care less what that building looks like. What matters to us is what is happening inside the building.’”
That was reassuring to Chandler, but he was not completely convinced.
“I was still nervous because I had heard nothing but horror stories about church mergers and the battles that would ensue,” he said.
“I just didn’t want to go through that. Journey had such peace, and things were moving along in the church. I just didn’t want those battles.
“As I prayed about it, God said, ‘I called you to be a student pastor and you’ve moved three times. Have I ever let you down?’ No. ‘When I called you to South Carolina, did I let you down then?’ No. ‘I called you to Morganton to plant a church and you didn’t have a clue who would help you or where you were going to land. Did I let you down then?’ No. ‘So what’s the problem?’ After that, I said, ‘I’m on board. Let’s go.’”
Calvary was a traditional model with a 105-year history. Journey was a contemporary model with a five-year history. Chandler said, “I saw the potential clashes, but the clashes didn’t happen. A big part of that is because we bridged the merger with the statement, ‘We’re here to reach the next generation.’” That united both churches’ visions.
Another saying he repeats is “Trust and respect are built over time.”
“We had to earn their trust and respect. We’re walking in brand new, and we’re on their turf, so we’ve got to prove ourselves. We want to be patient, but keep progressing,” said Chandler. Three years later the statement is still written on a board in his office.
After months of renovations, Summit Church began on Oct. 5, 2014, with a classic worship service at 8:45 a.m., connect groups at 9:45 and contemporary worship at 11 a.m.
Chandler was shocked when he came into the worship center. “I walked out, and there were people standing in the lobby, standing in the aisles, every chair was filled, they were sitting on the steps in the balcony,” he said. “It was completely packed. It blew me away.”
Church leaders talked about starting a third service. Chandler was startled at the thought and made calls to leaders at LifeWay Christian Resources and pastors in other new churches.
The following Easter, Summit launched a third worship service. Today they are averaging 750 people for the year with 1,170 in attendance on Easter Sunday.
Ninety percent of the new attendees are unchurched. According to Chandler, most are “people who have never been in church a day in their life or church dropouts who got burned, but are willing to try again.”
Church members welcome outsiders. “Our church has a statement we live by – No perfect people allowed,” he said. “None of us are perfect, so when you walk in the door, you’re just one of us.”
Some of Calvary’s previous ministries, like Shepherd’s Kitchen, continue to serve the community. The kitchen opens every Monday night, providing clothing, groceries and a hot meal for 150-175 community residents. Recently launched ministries include one in public housing at the Andrade Community Center. On Wednesday nights during the school year, tutoring is provided, and local restaurants prepare a meal before games and activities.
“This has been a very rewarding ministry that is right in our back yard. I did not know this place existed before we got involved,” said Chandler.
The church partners with the city of Morganton for community events year-round. They wear T-shirts that read, “No perfect people allowed,” and engage in gospel conversations.
“We’re passionate about being very visible in our community,” Chandler said. “So, when our community has an event going on, we want to be involved.”
Chandler leads project coordination with World Changers every summer through LifeWay.
Summit has a six-year partnership in Guatemala that includes construction projects, meeting physical needs and gospel outreach. A large food truck was purchased and is being shipped this month. They delivered 450 backpacks to children in Guatemala last December.
Chandler is committed to serving in Guatemala. “I love going, and I need to go because that helps keep me focused on what’s really important – reaching people with the gospel. People matter. The gospel matters. If I don’t do this, I lose focus.”
The people in Summit Church want their story told. “We don’t want any glory or attention for Summit, but we want to encourage other churches,” said Chandler. “We want other churches to see that this thing is doable. Too many churches are dying, and they’re waiting for people to fill them.
“If more people in our churches put down our preferences and work together, we’ll see great things happen. Two totally different entities can come together. It can work. This has been a God thing, and He can do it in other churches, also.”