January 29, 2015

By Fred Koenig

The typical option would be to look around for another retired pastor who is willing to preach on Sunday mornings. But there was another option: partner with a larger congregation. Fortunately, the largest congregation in the Missouri Conference is just up the road. 
    
When La Croix UMC celebrated its 25th birthday in 2013, it was looking forward rather than backward. Part of the vision for “The Next 25” involved launching two more campuses. Benton, however, wasn’t on the radar when the vision was being developed.
    
“Benton just fell into our lap,” said La Croix Pastor Ron Watts. 
    
Conversations started between the two churches, which initially led to a partnership. La Croix UMC started supplying preachers for Sunday morning from their staff after Annual Conference Session in 2013. This continued for about 10 months, as people from La Croix built relations in Benton. Benton UMC then closed on May 4, 2014, and La Croix went to work on a five month renovation. 
    
Changing an historic, small-town church into a mini-La Croix comes with its own unique set of challenges. Paul Smollen is the technical director for La Croix, and is in charge of lights and sound. To get the sanctuary dark enough for the screens to look good, pull-down blackout shades were installed on all the windows. The chancel area is draped in black, so the stained glass that the congregation used to face toward is now only visible from the outside of the church. 
    
“We have to reinvent the church where the old church isn’t working,” Smollen said.
    
It was decided that the sermon would be provided by showing a video of the sermon from the previous Saturday night service at La Croix, similar to the way Church of the Resurrection provides a video of its Saturday night sermon for Sunday morning worship at its satellite campuses in Blue Springs and downtown Kansas City. As a preacher, they wanted Watts to be life size on the screen during the sermon. The stage area at La Croix in Benton is relatively small, so it took some creative work to make that happen. But they pulled it off. At a glance, it looks like Watts is standing on the stage in the front of the church. 
    
The renovation didn’t stop with the sanctuary. The basement was also renovated for a children’s ministry area, complete with video screens, wall murals, carpet and bright colors on the walls. In all, about $170,000 was spent renovating the building. That money was from a portion of a capital campaign that was dedicated to new church starts. The transformation was radical. 
    
“We didn’t want to make small, incremental changes, we wanted to close and then open with something dramatically different,” Watts said.
    
The Missouri Conference Congregational Development Team awarded La Croix a $150,000 grant to be paid out over three years for the establishment of the new campus. 
    
“We are using this grant to pay the salary of our campus pastor, allowing us to ease this extra position into our budget over time,” Watts said. “We also received a district grant to help with renovations at the building. Generous support from both the conference and district made this possible.”
    
J.T. Thomason, previous pastor of junior high ministries at La Croix, was selected to be the pastor at Benton, partially due to the fact that he has senior pastor experience from the church he served in Illinois prior to joining the staff at La Croix.  
    
“JT has done a fabulous job of building relationships there,” Watts said. “The church has created a lot of buzz and excitement around town, and it’s been positive.”
    
The staff contribution from La Croix extends to the entire worship, which has a pretty deep bench. That means providing music at a second campus wasn’t really a problem. “We have about four drummers, five lead guitarists, five vocalists...” said Charles McGinty, who was playing guitar and singing at Benton.
    
Worship leader Tyler Myers spends 20 hours a week working for the Benton campus, and 20 hours a week at Ignite, La Croix’s campus ministry at Southeast Missouri State University.
    
La Croix sent out about 6,000 direct mail pieces to the people of Benton twice: once to announce the grand launch, and once to promote a sermon series. The church also has up large, bold signs announcing the presence of a new church at that location. And the core group went through training to become more invitational. 
    
So far the church has exceeded expectations. The pre-launch services went so well that they decided to launch with two services, and did so with 272 in attendance. This is in a sanctuary set up to seat 125. 
    
“People were standing in the lobby,” Thomason said. They have been averaging in the 170s, and had 172 in attendance on the Sunday after Christmas. 
    
“Our bench mark was 110, so we’re really pleased,” Watts said. 
Some of those attending La Croix at Benton were previously attending La Croix, but the church has also brought in many unchurched people. Sparing people for the Benton campus hasn’t hurt La Croix. Last year the church’s attendance grew by 170.
    
“I hear a lot of comments about how great the intimacy is at this location,” Thomason said. 
Scott James has been coming to the church since it launched in mid-November. He had attended LaCroix in Cape Girardeau some sporadically before that. 
    
“Ron Watts shares a really good message, which is what got me interested,” James said. “This is nice, because it’s only six miles from where I live. The church at Cape is 24 miles away.”
    
Mark and Linda Teckhoff have been part of the core group. They live in Jackson, but Mark is originally from the area around Benton. “I always wanted us to do mission work together, but I never thought it would be this,” Linda said.
    
Sherri and Jack Mehner are not part of the core group for the Benton launch, but they’ve still been involved from the beginning. 
    
“It’s been fun to see the transformation,” Sherri said.
    
Georgia Graham has been part of the Benton United Methodist Church for 60 years. She was choir leader, and had as many as 16 people in the choir. 
    
“Sometimes we had more in the choir than we had out there listening to the choir,” she said. 
    
In its final days before partnering with La Croix the Benton congregation had got down to about a dozen in attendance. Transitioning to new church wasn’t easy for Graham, but she has moved her membership to La Croix. She isn’t a fan of getting her sermons via a screen, citing “Jesus talked to people in person,” but she has come to terms with the changes, and attends the new church regularly. “I decided to appreciate the things that I like, and dismiss the things that I don’t,” she said. 
   
She recalls that her and fellow member Scott Mainard were asked what their dream would be for the church during a meeting about its future, and they both said they wanted to see it full once again. That dream now comes true not only every week, but twice a week at two services. 
    
Manaird appreciates what has happened. “I think we’ve been led,” he said. “The Lord led us - we were faltering at times, and it was painful at times, but we were led.” Some of the hard changes are what is now making the church special. 
    
“There are several sweet, little churches around here, and many of them are having difficulty maintaining. There’s nothing like this here,” Manaird said.