When the gracious dismissal policy did not work for a group of like-minded believers from Grosse Pointe Woods Presbyterian Church in Michigan 19 months ago, they decided to walk the path God set before them and start anew.
That decision – to leave their building without any financial assets and form a new congregation – has proven to be beneficial for those now a part of Living Hope Evangelical Church.
“We’re pretty much a conservative group, and the PCUSA had become a little too progressive. We felt we needed to make a move,” Living Hope Elder Peter Ruppe said. “It was a long discernment process that was painful, but we all felt that Scripture was so important to us, and God is closer to us now that we have made this move. Things are going great.
“This move has brought us such joy. We’ve shed all the templates that were holding us back. We’re discovering what God truly wants for this church, and that’s to bring lost folks to harvest. We’re following Jesus and making disciples for Him.”
Answering the call to move on
Living Hope formed as an Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) congregation after a meeting to be dismissed from the Presbytery of Detroit and the Presbyterian Church (USA) fell 58 members shy of the quorum needed to vote on dismissal in October 2012.
Instead of continuing to be part of what was then a church of about 325 members (approximately 135 in worship services at the time), a significant majority of the active members of Grosse Pointe Woods Presbyterian Church (GPWPC) – including the pastoral staff and nine of 13 elders – voted with their feet and left to form a new congregation.
“We tried to walk through the policy and be dismissed. We walked the road until it came to a dead end,” said Living Hope Pastor Jim Rizer. “We had always been a conservative church in the PCUSA but sought to walk through the presbytery’s policy for separation because we did not feel the PCUSA was being Biblically faithful.”
The Administrative Commission assigned to work with the GPWPC congregation did not allow a congregational vote on dismissal in April 2012, and the quorum needed for the October vote fell short.
“We had talked about what might happen, and our session members were willing to walk away from the building and assets. They were committed to being the church,” Rizer recalled.
So, when the vote was not allowed on Oct. 7, 2012, church members were given an opportunity to gather at a local middle school later that day to be given voice and vote for their future. They discussed being the church outside a building. A week later, they gathered once more, this time in the auditorium of nearby Pierce Middle School to begin worship as Living Hope Evangelical Church (LHEC).
“I left that vote on Oct. 7, packed up my things (at GPWPC) and started concentrating on being Living Hope Evangelical Church,” Rizer said.
Rizer said God’s grace was evident in the way the timeline of events unfolded. The April vote that was put on hold by the presbytery provided more time for members to consider their willingness to walk away from the GPWPC property and start a new church from nothing.
“We began to think more critically about a building, but we came to the conclusion that it was nothing more than a tool to work in,” he explained. “Look back at the Old Testament. God did not need the temple for worship and showed that we could worship outside a church building. We are the temples of the Holy Spirit and can worship anywhere.”
With that in mind, an agreement was reached to continue worship in the 1920s-era auditorium at Pierce Middle School. That agreement held true until church officials worked out a deal to begin meeting at Brownell Middle School, built in 2008, in June 2013.
“Our people have grown into it,” Rizer said of worship at the school. “Being people of God, we are following His will and trying to grow into the likeness of Christ, wherever it is we are worshiping. Until we feel God calls us to go elsewhere, we’re completely content to remain at the middle school.”
Ruppe said there does not seem to be a feeling that a church building is a necessity right now.
“The church is not a building; it never was. That’s been made clear to us,” he said. “We’re doing mission work, serving our congregation and community, and we’ve done it without a building. That has brought unexpected joy.”
A sense of renewal
Rizer noted that LHEC is thriving, with joyful worship services and a fresh revelation of Christ each time members gather together.
“At Grosse Pointe Woods, we really were two churches under one roof,” he said. “We’ve discovered that church is not about us, that first and foremost it’s about Jesus Christ. It’s about reaching out to the world. We are made different through Christ to go out and make a difference, and that is what we are doing.”
The formation of the new church has allowed Rizer, the leadership of LHEC and its members to grow critically and feel the excitement of serving God in the ways He has called them to do so.
“I heard one member say, ‘We let everything important fall away so we may be focused on Christ,’” Rizer said. “We chose to walk away from the building and all the financial assets we had. I’d have to say we have faced some challenges, but we have been greatly blessed.
“We have a renewed focus, a renewed vitality and a renewed sense of mission.”
Moving past the pain of a split
While Living Hope is thriving and growing since it broke away from GPWPC, there still is sadness that there was a split.
“I love the folks there (at Grosse Pointe Woods), and my heart goes out to them,” Rizer said. “I wish them the best, but I stopped pastoring that congregation on Oct. 7, 2012. I pray frequently for that congregation and its leadership, that God would lead them in the direction they need to go. I encourage them to be the church they believe God is calling them to be, just as we seek to make Living Hope the best congregation it can be.”
Ruppe said there were some strained relationships right after the division occurred, and healing from wounds brought by the split continues.
“We felt we were doing the right thing, and some who stayed behind felt betrayed,” Ruppe said, adding that a group consisting of members from both churches still gather each Wednesday for lunch and fellowship. “We’re still friends and serve the same God. We just have different philosophies.
“I have friends from different denominations, and if I can be friends with them then why can’t I be friends with those people I used to worship with? There was some animosity after the split, but we tried to be grace-filled when we left, and we have seen grace coming from those at Grosse Pointe Woods. Life is too short to fight over this. We have more important things to concern ourselves with, like sharing Christ with others.”
Officials from Grosse Pointe Woods Presbyterian Church declined comment to The Layman for this story.
Thankful for the faithful
Living Hope completed its transition to join the EPC in September 2013, and Rizer noted how helpful leaders in that denomination had been in working with his new congregation, which had no official vote and did not affiliate in a normal way.
“They worked with us when we walked away from Grosse Pointe Woods, and we’re thankful for that,” he said. “They walked faithfully with us to complete this transition.”
As thankful as he is for having the EPC’s assistance in making a denominational transition, Rizer is even more grateful for the congregation he serves and the faith in God they exhibited to leave everything behind and start over in their endeavor to share Christ.
“It’s a great honor to serve a congregation of saints who left the comforts of a sanctuary in order to be faithful to Christ and His Word,” Rizer said. “That’s something to be excited about.”