Today, we are 20 years old. I wanted to briefly walk through how we got here and then I wanted to talk about what matters most, the heart of who we are as a church.
To share some fun facts with you, I need to start and say, a couple families are still with us twenty years later. We couldn’t get rid of them – lol. These families were with us day one when we stood behind the glass walls of the Old Northern High School looking out wondering if anyone was going to show up that morning. The Bartons, the Nyes, the Knights, the Hepners, and Landis family. I just want to say a sincere thank you to each of the families who have walked with us. It think it takes character to make a decision and follow through on that decision. To each family I ask, “Who knew what we were walking into – right?”
Before MRC started, in 2001, we took a year to prepare. The biggest thing we did was an 8 week ‘Phones for You’ campaign. We made over 12,000 phone calls to find people who didn’t attend church but were okay with us sending them information about our Grand Opening.
These are the days when I met Sam. I didn’t know Sam well at all. We played basketball together but we weren’t really friends. We were at a party playing horse-shoes, which of course I beat him in, and I invited him to be a part of the launch team. Ever since then, we came the best of friends.
Grand Opening was October, 2001 at the Old Northern High School. We met there for 3 years. We did a full set up and we tear down, every Sunday. We did many new things that many churches didn’t do at that time. Served coffee. Wore jeans. Showed movie clips. Had more passionate worship. We saw so many people come and visit. And all those new things seemed to upset individuals. We heard that coffee shouldn’t be in church. Movies shouldn’t be shown in church. Worship was too loud. But we moved on.
We were completely shocked when the Northern School District broke their contract with us to prepare that building to be torn down – which never happened. With no place to meet, MRC was forced to move in three weeks, to a Saturday night format at Cumberland Valley BIC.
We still needed to do a full set up and tear down for church at 6 pm. We met there for two years. Do you know what we discovered about church on Saturday night? People didn’t want to go to church on Saturday nights – LOL. Our attendance dropped by 65%. Imagine the joy we had in the fall with college football games on Saturday and the NFL Saturday night playoffs.
These years were confusing for me as a leader. I wanted to be the greatest leader for God and it didn’t make sense that this happened to us. Why did God allow this to happen? Was God with us? As a leader, did I do something wrong? As attendance dropped, giving seemed to stay the same at first and then slowly increased. Some launch team families began to leave but new families began to attend. One couple started coming and they used it as their date night. They did church, then dinner and they began piecing their marriage back together.
After meeting the Northern School Board, they agreed to allow us to meet in the Middle School auditorium. We moved back to a Sunday morning format for five years. We continued to do a full set up and tear down. The assumption was, when we go back to Sunday morning, we would go back to larger attendance. Do you know what we discovered? Nobody came back – lol.
During these days, MRC hired an outside consultant to interview those who attended MRC to discover if there was interest in buying land and building a building. There was overwhelming interest so we began a building campaign. We found land, bought it. We started the building process.
We saw men’s groups and women’s groups really impact people. We started several other ministries. ‘The Messy Kitchen’ to feed people in need. ‘Traffic411’ started to fight against human trafficking. ‘Gettin Dirty’ started to fix cars for those in need. ‘Loafin Around Town’ picked up bread from Panera and delivered it to the needy.
To reflect on ten years of being a mobile church who did a full set and tear down, I would have to say, ‘God is so good.’ In those years, I thought about what the worst-case scenario would be and when it happened, we survived. God was so good. I would say the beginning years at the Old Northern High School felt volatile. The Saturday night years felt confusing for me. The Middle School years had lots of activity.
November 2011, we moved into our new building you are sitting in. We were excited to have a home. As exciting as a new building was, it took a little while to get handles on how to do church in our new building and no set up or tear down. With our growth, our leadership team agreed we needed to hire Sam Hepner. We did just that two years later on November, 2013.
As we time unfolded, we had to deal with another big blow. Some key leaders who committed to us long term in leadership and giving had walked away. Through all of this, we stayed focused on the mission God gave us. After much prayer, we felt Gold leading us to start a church plant. We wanted to turn outward, not turn inward.
MRC announced we wanted to start a new church in Gettysburg. And we did. January, 2018 Sam led the Grand Opening of Mountain Ridge Church – Gettysburg [MRG] at the James Gettys Elementary School. MRG now meets at the Heidlersburg Fire Hall.
Then, the pandemic came and that was mixed with politics. ‘It’s been great’ – that means, no it hasn’t.
That’s how we got here practically. Let’s talk about the heart of what we do.
One word: Imagine. That is our vision at MRC. I hope when you think of MRC, you think of the word Imagine. Imagine a church that was passionate, relentless, and unapologetic at reaching people far from God and inviting Christians into that mission. That’s our church. That’s our heartbeat. That’s our vision. Just imagine that. Can that even happen today? Are there even Christians these days that would give their lives to that vision?
It has happened. It’s called MRC.
To understand our passion, you have to go back in time. I grew up in church. Actually, I grew up in my father’s church plant in South Jersey. I am so grateful for those days. During my college years, I decided I was going to live life on my own. I knew about God, I just wanted to do life on my terms. After years in the mortgage banking corporate world, my heart was a mess. Every attempt I made to find fulfillment in this world didn’t work. And believe me, I tried.
I started attending a church and in that church I learned about God’s grace. It was overwhelming to me. I spent years feeling like I never added up. I spent years striving and struggling to prove to myself and to others that I was somebody. I spent years not liking who I was or knowing how deeply wounded I really was. I spent years hiding behind my insecurities. I discovered the most remarkable thing. In my worst moments, God loved me. I learned that I didn’t have to do a thing to prove myself to God. He already knew I was a mess. He loved me just the way I was. Honestly, I took years to wrap my mind around that. It took years to learn how to rest and allow God to love me just the way I was. No more striving or struggling to prove myself.
God’s grace crushed me. It transformed my heart. It brought me to life. I didn’t say I was perfect, I said God’s grace crushed me. I was still a mess but with God’s grace.
As I continued to attend and serve and lead in church, something started bugging me. I wondered how long do we as Christians live in churches that are built for us and our comfort? We read so many books. We walked through so many sermons. We attended so many conferences. We cried in great worship sets. We had so much knowledge. We had fill-in-the-blank discipleships. We went on mission’s trips and retreats. We had Sunday school classes, small groups, leadership meetings, and all of it was about us.
I remember sharing this with someone who attended church. I said, “How long do we do this? How long do we as Christians just sit on God’s grace? How long do we stay stuck in churches that are built for our comfort?” They said, Ken, “That’s insensitive.” I thought, insensitive? “Insensitive to who?” They said, “That’s insensitive to people who attend church.” I thought, oh, that’s the difference between you and me. I also think it’s insensitive. But not to church people. I think it’s insensitive to every person who doesn’t attend church and is spiritually dying in this world. They need God’s grace. They need a church that is built for them. A church that purses them. A church that is loaded with mature Christians who have the ability to take the focus off of themselves and focus on others. A church filled with Christians who have prayed and fasted and prepared to share God’s grace with them every Sunday they visit.
Imagine that. Imagine a church that was passionate, relentless, and unapologetic at reaching people far from God. Where are these churches? Where are the mature Christians to fill these churches?
Truth is, we had previous Bishops and Christian leaders who told me, “You can’t do it. You can’t build a church that focuses on the unchurched.” I asked, “Why?” They said, “For you to exist, you need to keep the Christians happy. When they are happy, they give. So, you need to do things to keep them happy so they give.” I was horrified. I thought please tell me that isn’t the true spiritual condition of the North American church. Has the modern-day church become so selfish, so immature, so weak, we have to keep people entertained? And if I don’t focus on them, that’s insensitive? Jesus hung on that cross for six hours after He was beaten and whipped beyond recognition to conquer the curse of death over our lives and now my job is to keep people happy? If that’s the modern-day church, I’m quit.
As you can imagine, the church we attended asked Karen and I if we would consider starting a new church South of Dillsburg. I said I would love to. But this church is going to be different. We are going after people far from God. I can’t do the ‘keep people happy’ thing. And we will expect Christians to grow up. I will expect them to pray and read and fast and be prepared to share God’s grace with visitors. And we never play nice with religion. That old way of church that says, keep me happy so that I will give. No, you give because as a disciple of Jesus, He taught you to give. We are not playing games. We are going after people far from God. I want that grace that crushed me to transform every person who visits. And please, can we expect more from Christians?
3 So Jesus told them this story: 4 “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying,7 ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!” TLB Luke 15:3-7
Jesus was explaining to the religious church leaders why He was hanging out with people they called ‘notorious sinners.’ Jesus explained His mission. He came to pursue those who are far from God. To find them, love them, and bring them home. Jesus explains that heaven has priorities. The priority isn’t the good people in church, it’s the people far from God. Again, that’s not insensitive, it’s heaven’s priorities.
That is why we built MRC. Imagine a church that was passionate, relentless, and unapologetic at reaching people far from God and inviting Christians into that mission. Actually, we could say imagine a church that was passionate, relentless, and unapologetic at reaching people far from God – like Jesus did.
Looking back over 20 years, there are a couple things that I must share.
First, to be transparent I need to share what breaks my heart the most. For over 20 years we have asked people to walk into a relationship with God. To make the time to pray and read the Bible. Jesus taught, it’s the doorway into experiencing God’s grace. It’s the very thing every human heart needs. I have been amazed how many people walk away from that invitation. It breaks my heart and blows my mind. I don’t even have words for it. It makes me scared for their hearts.
Secondly, I cry almost every time I hear a testimony like the testimonies you heard this morning. The pain in people’s lives is unbearable. The prisons we all live in are unbearable. The damage life has handed people is unbearable. And when I hear people share how God’s grace has rescued them, I cannot thank God enough for His grace.
Do you see why we as Christians must be prepared for church? Do you see how desperately we need God’s presence? Do you see the life and death implications to how we do church? To be honest, it’s been a 20 challenge to keep Christians focused on the importance of church.
Third, the person who may have changed the most in all of this is me. I’m still a mess. But I’m a mess in God’s grace trying to figure it out. I was once a young man who was going to have the perfect plan to bring God to this area. Now, after 20 years, after a lot of pain and hurt, my plan is to wake up every day and declare my dependence on God. I just want His presence. I just want to hear His voice in scripture, or in worship, or in my heart.
The last thing I would say is that I had many low moments in this journey. Many times I wanted to quit because I felt so defeated. I have a couple friends who have been there for me behind the scenes. One of those friends you know, it’s Sam. If you know Sam, you know he is a great leader. If you know Sam, you know he is the best at leading through people. There is a reason people on other organizations call Sam for leadership advice.
I don’t believe I would be here today if it weren’t for Sam. He has been a huge support. I remember before we hired Sam, I would want to take a vacation and he would always rearrange his schedule so I could be with my family. Those qualities you really don’t see much today.
Imagine. That’s the heart behind everything we do. We are passionate, relentless, and unapologetic at reaching people far from God and inviting Christians into that mission.
Before I close this down with Sam, I want you to answer one question. “What would you do for someone to experience God’s grace?” Would you come to church early? Would you pray and have your heart right before church? Would you give? Would you serve? Would you attend consistently so that people visiting feel comfortable in their church experience? Would you surrender your ego, your control, your time?
“What would you do for someone to experience God’s grace?”