The Cornelius Church of Christ is the youngest congregation we’ve ever visited; in fact, their first official worship service had just commenced the Sunday before our visit. We would have loved to have been there, especially since the congregation is composed of Christians from the first congregation that had hired Mark as their evangelist thirty-six years ago. They had just merged with a congregation composed of some of the members from the only other congregation in which Mark was a full-time evangelist. This adds up in our hearts to a beautiful blend of people, many of whom we’ve known and loved for several decades.
Their evangelist, Brian Haines, was willing to share with my readers his notes on the valuable details of the process of their merger which I believe will be quite useful to other congregations considering the upsides to this option as a way to join forces in the building up of their local congregations. Though it is a collection of notes, I think you’ll agree, it is also a story of introspection, honesty both with oneself and others, and the beauty of interdependence. It’s a story of humility, ascertaining and acknowledging what God says matters and distinguishing that from what’s irrelevant. It's a story about having the courage to engage in hard conversations and the conscientiousness to give attention to detail around the holy worship of God.
July 22, 2022:
The Forest Grove congregation was formed in the 1970s when members of the Grant Street congregation (in Hillsboro) who lived in Forest Grove met to establish a new work. At its peak, there were over 200 members. By January 2022 there were around 35 members. Much of this drop-off was due to age-related changes. At that time the congregation had two elders, two deacons, and no evangelist.
The Sunset church of Christ was formed in 2010 when members of the 5th Street congregation who lived in the Hillsboro, Oregon area began a new work. At its peak, there were approximately 80 members. In January 2022 there were 45 members. Much of this drop-off of membership was due to members moving during the COVID pandemic. At that time the congregation had an evangelist and no elders.
When Is a Merger The Right Thing to Do
Scriptures do not provide us a plain example of congregations either dividing or merging. We do have examples of congregations being established (Acts 13-14, 16-19). In those examples we see that they were set up with certain features: geographical closeness, doctrinal unity, and that establishment was meant to meet the needs of the Saints in that area. We can take these principles and apply them to the concepts of merging (or dividing) a congregation. A merger is relevant when (1) the geographic region of work overlaps, (2) the purposes in establishing these congregations have changed, (3) merging congregations will not result in undue burdens on the brethren, and (4) unity within a new body can be obtained.
When most consider merging, they see the issue of size as the main purpose. Size alone does not necessarily warrant merging congregations. Small churches succeed throughout the world. It is likely the case that both now and throughout history a majority of congregations have existed with less than a few dozen members. When we consider the purposes given to the local church (organization, soundness, evangelism, worship, edification, benevolence), we would all agree that a small congregation can carry this out. We consider these purposes as the (exclusive) definition of congregational success and approval for a congregation.
In January 2022 a discussion began on merging the Forest Grove congregation and the Sunset congregation. The evangelist at Sunset and the elders at Forest Grove discussed this and determined that it seemed possible that the relevant factors in merging congregations were in place. Additional concerns included the difficulties for Forest Grove to bring in an evangelist (based on recent changes in the area) and concerns that the Sunset congregation had locating another location for assembly (their lease was coming to an end in May and the cost of leasing their building was escalating beyond affordability).
Sunset needed men who could serve in the worship assembly; Forest Grove had that. Forest Grove needed an evangelist; Sunset had that. Sunset was about to be without a place to assemble, and Forest Grove (having sold their building located in Forest Grove and currently leasing) had the ability to secure that; It was decided to present this idea to both congregations for discussion. It was clear that we needed each other, and circumstances seemed to have brought both congregations to a critical moment at the same time.
The earliest discussion revolved around the idea of a merger (and formation of a new congregation) rather than simply dissolving one congregation to join the other based on the perceived need to bring all of the members together. Dissolution without purpose might lead to members being lost in transition. As well, with both groups on roughly equal footing in regards to needs and abilities, there was no obvious choice as to whom the dissolver ought to be. Finally, a merger would allow a new assembly to meet in a place geographically central to both existing congregations.
Goal 1: Evaluate the Purpose, Merits and Obstacles of a Merger
Both congregations could see benefits to a merger. The geographic qualification was met; many members in both congregations drove past the other location to assemble, so they were both working in the same community area. As well, the circumstances that brought about the establishment of these congregations had changed. Both congregations had been established when there was an abundance of members in the immediate community, but changes in the communities (and within the congregations) meant that this situation was no longer present.
With the first two considerations met, it was the last two issues that needed discussion; would a merger create hardships or burdens on members, and could a united congregation be achieved. These last points needed the input of both congregations. At the same time, the discussion needed to be independent within each congregation. Throughout January and February discussions were held within each congregation. Brian Haines, evangelist at the Sunset congregation, also began preaching on Sunday afternoons at the Forest Grove congregation.
Discussion on the merger revolved around a number of concerns and desires. First, the members in both congregations had concerns about the nature of changing the congregational dynamic. The Sunset congregation was comprised of members from a white-collar / tech. field demographic, while the Forest Grove congregation more blue-collar / business owner. Sunset was younger and had fewer traditions (only existing for about a dozen years) while Forest Grove had been around for many decades. These considerations were viewed in light of circumstances such as Acts 6, Acts 11, and Acts 15, when demographic changes in congregations occurred. In those situations, it was clearly established that distinctions in demographics were NOT appropriate reasons to avoid merging.
Another concern was on the matter of church structure. Specifically, there was a different view among the majority of members at each congregation on the qualifications of elders (re: the plurality of believing children, Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3). Rather than approach this as a doctrinal matter to dispute, the elders of the Forest Grove congregation agreed that they would not serve as elders in the new congregation if this were a stumbling block to others. It was also agreed that Brian Haines was qualified to serve as an evangelist at this new congregation.
The next concern was whether there was a doctrinal unity present. In March of 2022 a group of (4) men from each congregation began meeting to discuss the ways in which a merger ought to be approached. The first item to be addressed was whether there was a doctrinal unity, or more specifically if the majority of each congregation would accept the teaching on particularly controversial issues. Based on the input of members from both congregations, Brian Haines prepared the following document to drive the discussion:
“It is important that all members of both congregations that exist now have a clear concept of the teaching of the congregation that we will be forming. This is not saying we must all have an agreement, but that we must all at least agree that the pulpit will be used to teach in this manner. As Brian Haines will serve as the evangelist, lessons he has presented on these subjects in the past are the most evident view of these doctrinal questions. These particular issues are ones that have had some controversy in times past, and the purpose of bringing them up now is to diminish any future controversy.
- Marriage/Divorce/Remarriage: Matthew 19 is where we find Jesus’ law of marriage and divorce. Jesus only permits one cause for divorce and remarriage – fornication. If some come to Christ in a marriage that is not lawful, they cannot remain in that relationship.
- Church Discipline: Congregations are required to practice discipline on members who walk unfaithfully. When a member has been withdrawn from, the members of the congregation must not “keep company” with that person.
- Church Membership: Congregations are composed of members who have identified themselves with that congregation. Members are obligated to be present for the assembly of worship.
- Fellowship: II John says that we are not to receive those who teach falsely. As well, we are not to encourage those who are not walking in the light. To this end, we often reduce our association with other congregations and their teachers if we are concerned about their doctrinal soundness.
- Church Structure: One of the purposes of the church is to organize itself according to the pattern of the New Testament. An organized congregation has qualified elders, deacons, teachers, and evangelists. There is a rather large teaching on this found on the Sunset website under classes, church structure. It is not attached because of the size.
- Roles of Men and Women in the Church: Men and women have different roles in the church and in life. To that end, it is important that we are in agreement as to what those works consist of and how they should be handled. We would like to be in agreement on what works men and women perform (and do not perform) within and outside of the church.
- Other matters: Both the Sunset congregation and the Forest Grove congregation have websites that give a great deal of information on their teaching and position. We strongly encourage members of both congregations to look over these resources to ascertain if there are other issues to discuss.”
Attached to this document were a number of lessons and writings that discussed views on these subjects. This information was shared between both congregations, and all members were invited to ask questions or add subjects they thought pertinent. The “committee” met April 2 & 10, May 1, 15, 29, and each Sunday in June.
Goal 2: Avoid Losing Any Members
A congregation exists to get its members to heaven. Both the Sunset congregation and the Forest Grove congregation had the obligation to ensure that all members either (1) joined in the merged congregation or (2) were able to locate to another congregation. The former was the chief goal and the latter was accepted only because of the increased distance to the assembly location. Members were met with personally by each congregation in order to discuss concerns that they had. Meetings like this went on in both congregations multiple times a week between April and June. Several congregational meetings were held at Sunset to allow all members to voice their concerns, while Forest Grove worked through the eldership.
Sadly, two families decided not to participate in the merger. Both had concerns about the preaching that would go on at the new merged congregation, and declined to participate in further discussions. Both ceased attending either congregation prior to merging. All of the remaining members of both congregations agreed to participate in the merger.
Goal 3: Congregational Autonomy
One of the biggest concerns that was raised in the process about the process itself was the matter of congregational autonomy. This refers to the Scriptural description of oversight; in passages such as Acts 20:28-30 or Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, it is a clear and necessary inference that oversight in a local work is accomplished within that work. Additionally, as we see no authority for churches to share in additional purposes given to them (i.e. the supporting church arrangement), many members were concerned that even the discussion itself might violate congregational autonomy.
This was a valid concern that needed to be studied out. Additionally, steps were taken to ensure that even in matters of judgment on this issue of autonomy none of the members of either congregation had their consciences violated. These meetings were taken on as works of the individual members who then discussed these meetings with the members of each group. Judgments on matters that were rightfully determined by a congregation (such as meeting times, etc.) were postponed when possible until a time when the new congregation had merged.
One such matter was in regards to preachers being supported by the Forest Grove congregation to preach the Gospel in Central America. No one wanted these men left without support, so after discussion, it was decided that the Sunset congregation would review these men as though they were independently seeking to support them, and if there were no objections raised these men, apprised of the situation, would be brought up as candidates for support in the new congregation once they began meeting. Forest Grove agreed to offer multiple months’ additional support to ensure these men did not go without.
Goal 4: The Logistics of Merging
While balancing autonomy it was also necessary that certain logistical matters be dealt with prior to the merger. The most pressing issues were the location of the assembly and the nature of the assembly. Forest Grove had resources to obtain a meeting location (but had struggled due to property sales in the area being problematic). Once the merger was in full process, members of the Sunset congregation provided information on their desired range of meeting, while members at Forest Grove did likewise. Ultimately, a location was found in the community of Cornelius (which sits between Hillsboro and Forest Grove) that, while a compromise for all, was acceptable to all.
Many members of the congregations did not want to meet in the buildings of the existing congregations (i.e. the leased property used by Forest Grove), as it might feel as though it was not a new congregation. This too, was a matter of conscience, and it was agreed that until the new building was secured, another location would be leased for temporary meeting. The committee made arrangements to lease the Community Center of Cornelius for the months of July and August. However, the new congregation would use the existing Forest Grove leased area for (1) storage of items from both congregations and (2) mid-week Bible Studies.
Perhaps one of the most awkward matters was discussing the nature of the assembly. Both congregations had unique authorized traditional worship services. Sunset met once on Sunday, Forest Grove twice. Sunset passed communion, Forest Grove used prefilled emblems. Announcements at the beginning of services or at the end; four or five songs; two or three men serving, etc.. Many of these matters were seen as being something that needed to be decided by the new congregation (again for the sake of autonomy). Thus it was decided that the first congregational meeting of the new congregation would set an order for the first worship service.
On June 26, the Sunset congregation met for the last time and at the close of services dissolved the congregation. That afternoon the Forest Grove congregation did likewise. That was a frightening thing. The state of Oregon requires any 501c organization to hold such a meeting and then to designate where any assets would be transferred.
It had been predetermined by the committee that on Wednesday, June 29 there would be a congregational meeting of the Cornelius church of Christ (a description chosen based on the NT pattern of a congregation identified by its location). That meeting occurred at the Sunset location (in part to determine as a group what to do with the materials present at that location as well as what repairs were needed prior to the end of lease, July 15). That meeting had an agenda: (1) setting the order of worship for Sunday, July 3, (2) identify responsibilities for duties in the congregation, and (3) set up a schedule for our first men’s meeting on congregational affairs. The majority of time in that meeting (about an hour) was asking members to volunteer to be responsible for various duties in the church.
During this week we also complied with the state of Oregon requirements to dissolve and to establish a 501c tax-exempt organization. We set up with two men from each previous congregation to meet the state mandate.
Sunday, July 3 the Cornelius church of Christ assembled for the first time in the Cornelius community center. There were approximately 75 people present.
There are a lot of things we are working on in the future. We need to examine whether we have men qualified to serve as overseers. We are working on securing a permanent location to assemble. We need to set up our order of classes and teachers. We need to set early on our expectations of membership, and what church discipline will look like. We need to pray. We need to worship. If we pursue the purposes given to us we are confident we have His approval.”
Cornelius Church of Christ
80 N 17th Ave., Cornelius OR, 97113
PO Box 64, Cornelius OR, 97113