HANCOCK COUNTY — Mark Hargett has some great memories of the years he worshiped at First Church of God in Greenfield.
There was the December his son played baby Jesus when the Christmas story was acted out at church. There was last summer, when his son, now 13, was among those baptized at Brookville Reservoir.
But as the years went by, the number of people sharing those memorable moments began to dwindle. Members numbered around 50, give or take, and they often wore many hats. Hargett, for example, has mowed the lawn, led worship and filled in to preach a sermon.
He would have kept on going, too, but when the church lost two more families early this summer — one moving to Ohio as part of a job change, another moving closer to family in Greenwood — church leaders knew they were at a crossroads.
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For seven years, the Rev. Chris Braschler had been leading the congregation that met in the former library building at 700 N. Broadway St. Leaders set aside time to pray and fast, or give up something for a time to pursue greater focus in their times of prayer.
Near the end of that period, Hargett, a church elder, suggested talking with a fellow Church of God nearby to see if First Church of God might become part of it. So the elders and Braschler agreed the pastor would call Mark Adcock, pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship in Fortville.
Adcock had never met Braschler, and Braschler did not say why he was asking for a meeting. But Adcock recalled that after their phone conversation, he said to his wife, “I think they’re going to want to merge with us.”
Adcock said he feels that hunch was God preparing him for what Braschler would say to him days later in their meeting. Church members in both parts of the faith family tree that is the new New Life Christian Fellowship, created by the merging of the churches, point to the prayer that went into the process and the feelings that developed that this was the right fit.
New Life elder Ike Strege grew up in church, but the idea of churches merging was new to him when he heard about it this summer. He said as the two churches prayed about the move, and as the teams from both congregations met, his feelings turned from surprise to excitement.
Things happened fast, he said, but as he grew in confidence that merging was God’s will for the churches, “It was really kind of a fun ride to be on.”
Strege was introduced to church mergers this summer, but the joining of congregations is actually becoming more common. The phenomenon is the subject of a feature in “Christianity Today” magazine and the focus of a book, “Better Together,” which outlines different types of church mergers and offers advice on how to make them work.
It’s happening close to home, too. In New Palestine, Water’s Edge Baptist Church recently merged with New Palestine Bible Church. A few years ago, New Faith Community Church also joined with the Bible church.
Steve Ellis, pastor of Curry’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Greenfield, wrote his doctoral dissertation about church mergers.
He interviewed more than 90 churches around the country, asking each more than 20 questions about their mergers and identifying common characteristics that made them work.
Among them: The pastor has to take regular vacations, or it’s easy to not have the energy to make it through the process. It helps if new construction is going on in the area, so members see that the area in general is changing, not just the church. Both pastors have to be engaged in regular prayer sessions daily, Ellis said; one of them will have to step aside, or become an associate pastor.
Ellis also said it helps for both churches to be in the same school district, because there’s just something about school rivalries. The First Church-New Life merge spans two school districts, but former First Church members say the youth group transition is going well, in part because the few First Church youth are happy to have a group to join.
Scott and Carol Sauter said their granddaughter goes to school in the Mt. Vernon district, so the move means she is in church with school friends.
Like Hargett, the Sauters have fond memories of the years they attended First Church of God.
“I was saved and baptized there,” Scott Sauter said.
His 26 years of attending the church reach to its days before the library building, when it met down the street at 119 N. Broadway St. He and his wife met and were married there.
Carol Sauter’s memories go even further back, to her childhood. The moments that stand out include the baby dedications of her three children and helping launch the live Nativity in downtown Greenfield in the mid 1980s.
For her, closing the First Church of God chapter is difficult.
“I’m in a grieving situation that it just won’t exist in Greenfield anymore,” she said. “There’s an excitement, but yet we’re grieving.”
The Sauters said their new fellow church members realize the joy of joining is tinged with sadness for some and have shown sensitivity. They and Hargett said the people who were already at New Life have been warm and welcoming to them.
Strege said notices in the bulletin are inviting people to learn about their spiritual gifts and encouraging them to speak up about ways they’d like to be involved. Some of those coming from First Church say they welcome the chance to focus on helping out where they feel most gifted and not feel pressured to wear many hats.
“It’s a chance for a lot of people to grow, … try new areas of ministry and grow themselves,” Scott Sauter said, and “not feel ‘if I don’t do this, I’m not sure there will be someone else to do it.’”
Hargett voiced a similar sentiment.
“I haven’t heard one negative thing from people; most people are breathing a sigh of relief,” he said.
One of those sighs could well be coming from Braschler. After long struggles with glaucoma worsening his vision over the years, the decline was hastened four years ago in an accident. He was playing with his dog, and the dog suddenly let go of the toy, which struck Braschler.
For two years, he has been accompanied by Iggy, a service dog. The black Lab has sat quietly on the platform as Braschler has officiated at weddings and funerals.
Braschler said the time of prayer and fasting made him realize it would be good to stop being a senior pastor. In the merge with New Life, he becomes an associate pastor there and is happy to offer his ministry gifts in a supporting role.
Adcock said community-based ministries were an area where First Church of God excelled. He said Braschler’s job at New Life will be training and mobilization for those. The newest members of New Life say that will be a great fit. They tell of a pastor who comes up with great ideas, who’s very caring and whose door is always open.
“The world is going a hundred miles an hour. He takes time to connect with you,” Hargett said. “He doesn’t just give you lip service. He really sits and listens to you.”
And coupled with Adcock, who he says is a great speaker, and the rest of the staff at New Life, “the whole ministry team there at New Life is just going to be fantastic.”
Strege sees that blend of strengths, that coming together of gifts, as powerful at the congregational level as well.
“You kind of think of it as joining forces. When you put us together, it’s exciting to think of what the possibilities are.”
First Church of God began in the 1930s in a home on North Street, close to its intersection with Broadway Street.
Its first church building went up in the 1940s at what is now 119 N. Broadway. The building expanded to the south in 1970.
Through the years the congregation has been active in the community. Years ago, older women of the church had a chili booth at the Riley Festival. In the mid 1980s, the church began presenting a live Nativity. It became a tradition at the downtown Christmas festival. Those who worked on the production would often gather at the church afterward for chili and hot chocolate.
Parking was limited there, so after Hancock County Public Library moved to a new building, First Church of God bought the building at 700 N. Broadway in 2006.
In recent years, a clothing ministry operated out of the building, and the church presented other community events, such as an Easter Eggstravaganza in the parking lot or hospitality to fireworks watchers who wanted to park at the church on the Fourth of July.
This summer, church leaders began to consider joining New Life Christian Fellowship, a fellow Church of God congregation in Fortville that it had contributed to in the early 1990s, when New Life was getting started.
On Aug. 30, the church visited New Life Christian Fellowship for Sunday services. The congregations ate lunch together afterward.
On Sept. 13, members of First Church of God voted 92 percent in favor of joining New Life Christian Fellowship. They’re hoping as they join with their new fellow church members in ministry that the live Nativity will continue.
The congregations’ first Sunday as one church at New Life was Sept. 27.
Chris Braschler, who was pastor of First Church of God and now becomes part of the pastoral staff at New Life, said the many years First Church of God continued in Greenfield are “a testament to God’s presence and the fortitude of the people there.”
He said the decision to join New Life was a missional one, reflecting the First Church congregation’s desire to not merely survive but “to do better with reaching our community with the Gospel.”
In closing the First Church of God chapter, he said, there is a tendency to talk of the decision in terms of death, but “we are really choosing to think of it as a vital life cycle change, even rebirth.”