Dialogue: A Conversation with Joe Bright
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — What happens when a church grows too…
EDMOND, Okla. — Less than an hour into the Heritage Church of Christ’s grand opening worship service, the first Cheez-It crumbs appeared on the brand-new auditorium carpet.
No one seemed to mind.
On the contrary, the 296 church members and visitors spent part of the morning celebrating their children, crumbs and all, as they dedicated Heritage’s new facility.
Bobby Kern, a founding member of the 6-year-old church plant, gathered the youngsters on stage for the weekly Kids Message Time. The church is one body with many parts, he told them as he pointed out a few of their individual gifts. Wiley has the gift of inclusion. Lilly has the gift of encouragement. Josiah, Kern’s son, has the gift of energy. Lots of energy.
“Every single one of you is a part of this body,” Kern said as the children sat — a few, including Josiah, squirming — around the pulpit. “You are not the church of tomorrow. You are the church of right now.”
@christianchronicle EDMOND, Okla. — Members of the Heritage Church of Christ sing “Shout Hallelujah” during the grand opening worship service in their newly completed building. The congregation, planted by the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, met in the cafeteria of a nearby public school for nearly six years as the facility was built. #edmondoklahoma #edmondok #visitedmond #heritagechurchofchrist #churchofchrist #memorialroadchurchofchrist #memorialroadokc #churchplant #shouthallelujah ♬ original sound – The Christian Chronicle
Among the guests were members of the Memorial Road Church of Christ, which meets seven miles south of Heritage’s new, 12,750-square-foot building. Memorial Road planted Heritage to reach the growing suburb of north Edmond, abrim with new homes, a new Braum’s ice cream shop and a giant new Crest Foods supermarket.
“We never wanted to be a megachurch. That’s not us,” said Chris McKeever, a Memorial Road elder who attended the Heritage opening. Neither did he nor his 23 fellow elders want to launch a satellite campus of their 60-year-old, 2,500-member church.
Although it meant losing a core group of their active and financially supportive members — and, eventually, one of their ministers, Travis Akins — Memorial Road’s leaders had few reservations about launching the new congregation, McKeever said.
“The only hesitation we had,” he said, “was doing two at once.”
Memorial Road was itself a church plant. Members of the Edmond Church of Christ launched the congregation, originally named the College Church of Christ, in 1963 to reach the students at nearby Oklahoma Christian University. Over the decades, Memorial Road has adapted to serve university graduates and their families. In the past two decades the church has remodeled its two-level nursery school wing and added a youth building, the Summit, complete with a full-size kitchen and basketball courts.
In the early 2000s, as weekly attendance topped 2,200, members heard story after story of declining membership among Churches of Christ. Young adults learned that the rural churches they grew up in were closing their doors. Downtown congregations in big cities were dying, too. And some members, their talents not fully utilized by the church, were slipping through the cracks.
Memorial Road’s leaders invited Joe Bright to speak to the congregation. Bright, then minister for the Sunset Church of Christ in Springfield, Mo., talked passionately about the church’s need to reproduce itself in a way that inspires future growth — churches planting churches that will plant churches. The Sunset church, whose attendance was less than half of Memorial Road’s, had nonetheless launched two new congregations in a five-year period.
Inspired by Bright’s words, Memorial Road sent 70 of its members to plant a church in Oakdale in October 2010. The community, about six miles southeast of Memorial Road’s building, was home to the first Church of Christ in Oklahoma, a congregation that had long since moved away.
“We wanted to have a presence east of I-35,” said Darrel Sears, who moved from Kansas to serve as preacher for the Church of Christ at Oakdale. “There weren’t really any churches over in this area — at least Churches of Christ.”
The new church started out in the middle school commons of Oakdale Public School, across the street from Oakdale Baptist. That meant a weekly ritual of setting up chairs and audio/visual equipment and taking it back down.
“One thing we tried to do from the very beginning is be an autonomous congregation financially,” Sears said. The church purchased property but prayed for nine long years as members struggled to raise enough money to start construction.
Their prayers were answered in 2019 when the Oakdale school superintendent told them that his congregation, Oakdale Baptist, was preparing to move. Would they like to buy the building?
They would. Oakdale sold its property and moved across the street.
“Though we were not nearly where we needed to be financially to build, we had enough money in the bank to buy Oakdale Baptist’s building outright,” Sears said. “It’s been a true blessing to not have a mortgage payment.
“We had a lot of ideas of how we thought a church plant would go,” he added. “Not a lot of it happened the way we thought it would, but everything happened the way that God wanted it to.”
Now the church averages 300 or so on Sundays during the school year.
“We see Memorial Road as a big part of our beginning,” Sears said, “and we love to partner with them when we can. But we’re kind of our own identity now.”
Oakdale has, however, inherited its parent’s desire to replicate. It seeks to be “a church plant that plants churches,” Sears said. “We said that when we got to 300 to 500 we would start thinking about that.”
Five years after the Oakdale launch, Memorial Road formed a team to ponder sites for a second church plant. The team identified two locales: burgeoning north Edmond and historic Midtown Oklahoma City. The latter, just north of the city’s business district, is a center of urban renewal with walkable neighborhoods of art galleries, gastropubs and upscale apartments for young couples.
Both seemed like ideal locales for a church, said Akins, then Memorial Road’s young adults minister, who served on the team. Rather than choose, they presented both to the elders.
“We kind of thought they would say no,” Akins said. “They came back and said, ‘That’s a great idea. Let’s do it.’”
The promotional video from 2016 presents the ideas behind church plants in north Edmond and Midtown Oklahoma City and ends with elder James Hill asking, “What if we did both?”
Both of the new congregations began meeting as small groups in the Memorial Road building — just as Oakdale had — and prepared for their inaugural services as stand-alone churches. While the Heritage church headed north to worship in the cafeteria of Heritage Elementary School, the Serve Midtown Church of Christ headed 12 miles south to Brown’s Bakery, an iconic Oklahoma City eatery owned by Memorial Road members.
Worshiping while surrounded by the scent of pastries was delightful, said Bob Carpenter, a Memorial Road elder who works with the Midtown church, “but there was no place for a classroom. Our children’s class met on the floor near the women’s bathroom.”
The church found classrooms and space for growth one mile west at Cross and Crown, a nonprofit that operates a food pantry, legal clinic and other services for the disadvantaged. Members continued to bring in donuts and pastries from Brown’s, however, until the bakery closed in late 2023.
The current venue fits with the church’s mission, Carpenter said. On the third Sunday of the month, members conduct “Serve Sundays,” distributing meals to those in need in their community. Then they go to Cross and Crown for worship.
“This is part of the story that fits in with Serve Midtown’s core identity,” Carpenter said.
Corey Baird, preaching minister for Serve Midtown, described the congregation as “less a transplant and more a true plant” of Memorial Road.
“It’s a seed from Memorial Road,” Baird said, “but it’s not necessarily the same type of energy or structure you would get at Memorial Road in any capacity.”
The following video gives an update on the Midtown and north Edmond churches five years after planting.
Unlike Serve Midtown, which may or may not purchase or build a meeting place in its pricey, developed Oklahoma City neighborhood, a building always was part of the Heritage church’s plan, elder Jeff Bingham said. The Memorial Road church purchased 9.5 acres of land next to an under-construction subdivision and gifted it to Heritage.
Heritage’s building committee had its first meeting in March 2020. Two days later, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s home game against the Utah Jazz was canceled at the last minute after a player tested positive for COVID-19. For Oklahoma, it was the unofficial start of the pandemic.
The virus shut down schools and moved church services online. It also drove up building costs and delayed construction about a year, Bingham said.
It also brought the Estes family to the congregation.
Morgan and Jessica Estes, members of Memorial Road, needed a safe place for their daughter, Joanna, who was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft tissue cancer, in 2021. The large cafeteria at Heritage Elementary, plus the public school’s masking requirement, made the Heritage church a nice alternative to worshiping exclusively online, Jessica Estes said.
The church’s children’s ministry did meet online, and Joanna became a regular attendee. As her friendships grew, her parents became increasingly involved.
“This is about the size of the congregation I grew up in in California,” Morgan Estes said. “Everyone really knows everyone.”
His wife added, “and everyone needs to be doing something for the church to work.”
That “something” for the Estes parents was teaching the third and fourth grade class, which they didn’t think they’d be good at. “We enjoyed it more than we thought we would,” Jessica Estes said.
Joanna, now 12, is part of the fifth and sixth grade class, LiveWires, which has nine kids. She said she enjoys the tight-knit family. The class participates in service projects, including an upcoming dinner and game night they’ll host for the “Classics” class.
Among the church’s “classics” is Jack Rowe, a longtime church member from San Diego. Rowe, 93, led the communion devotional during the grand opening service.
“As we dedicate this building today, we hear a voice … beyond time and distance,” Rowe said. “The voice is from the very heart of God, and it was delivered to us in the person of his son and our savior. Hear him now as he declares, ‘This is my body, given for you.’”
Standing on the Heritage church’s brand-new stage, Akins preached about the Israelites crossing the Jordan in Joshua 4 and placing stones to remember what God had done for them.
He also quoted from “At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge” by Jack Reese, one of his professors at Abilene Christian University in Texas. The book laments the rapid decline of Churches of Christ in the U.S.
But Reese also cites the example of the Blue Hole, a tiny spring from which flows the life-giving San Antonio River. The source of that spring is the massive Edwards Aquifer that, though unseen, spans much of the state.
Churches, like springs, get all of the credit, all of the attention, Akins said. “We’ve got to maintenance it. We’ve got to take care of it. But it is not the spring that gives life. It is the water that lives beneath it.”
Instead of focusing on a building, or the Cheez-It crumbs on its floor, he urged his church to “stop maintenancing the springs … and live knowing where the water comes from.”
ERIK TRYGGESTAD is president and CEO of The Christian Chronicle. He is a deacon of the Memorial Road church. Reach him at [email protected].
ADDITIONAL REPORTING: Tiane Davis
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