It’s not often you get to wish someone a happy 175th birthday, but that’s precisely what I did this past weekend at Mount Carroll Church of God in Mount Carroll, Illinois. Many people are self-conscious about their age, but not Mount Carroll, who celebrated for two days last weekend (and why should they be? They barely look a day over 174 years old.) Started in 1848, Mount Carroll church is older than 20 of the states in the United States, and even predates the eldership (now region) in which it resides. Yet, despite its Dodransbicentennial (that means 175, how fun!) Mount Carroll is still changing, and growing.
Over the course of two days (August 5th and 6th) church members and people from the community celebrated the anniversary by taking part in a number of activities. Inside the buildings, kids and the youth played games, did face painting, and had a puppet show, while many of the adults walked through the historical display. The display included everything you might expect, like photo albums, a historical retelling, and newspaper articles about key moments in the church's life. It also included some fun extras that we don’t often see in modern churches, like a community created recipe book. The internet has pretty much made something like this obsolete but it’s a reminder of the sense of community that churches have always provided, reaching far past Sunday morning and into our homes throughout the rest of the week.
Outside, Mount Carroll’s property is full of remarkably tall trees that provided comfortable shade while people listened to live music from a hired band and enjoyed food from the grill. For a bit more excitement, Pastor Tim Yoder volunteered to get dunked in the carnival-esque dunk tank. A combination of poor aim and a deep desire to dunk the pastor resulted in many people just walking up and smashing the button with their own hand instead of the ball. Pastor Tim seemed not to mind though.
Sunday morning was a special worship service with both traditional hymn songs and contemporary worship music. Before the message, numerous guest speakers, videos, and letters from previous pastors were presented, all wishing the church well and congratulating them on their 175th anniversary. The service was filled with joy and warm emotions.
Mount Carroll’s moto for this celebration is “175 years of growing and proclaiming Christ”, and while there was certainly a focus on the history of the church, much of the weekend also centered around what the church was growing into. Pastor and Midwest Regional Director Travis Bodden preached a message centered around identity. Pastor Travis came down from the stage to give an interactive sermon, anticipating responses from the congregation. He began by asking, “What’s an identity that you used to have, but that is no longer you.” Responses from the congregation ranged from sincere, to comical, to frightfully relatable. “Single,” one person said. “Dairy farmer,” said another. “Slimmer”, said a third. Pastor Travis asked numerous questions about who we are, who we want to be, and what it means to be authentically Christian. Extrapolating further, the message ended with a prayer for Mount Carroll to live into the church that God is calling them to be, rather than to remain in the identities of their past.
Churches all across our denomination and all across Christendom are making intentional changes in the way they hold worship, how they reach out to the community, and the types of programs/events that are worth investing in. For some, it’s superficial things like the style of carpet, or a debate about pews versus tables and chairs. For others, it’s about embarking on a new partnership in their communities, like having church folk mentor and tutor at a local middle school, or starting a prison ministry. As churches consider how they impact their communities and the legacies they want to leave behind, there’s also some reconciliation with their pasts. Many churches have spaces in their histories that are less than beautiful.
Pastor Travis drew attention to the disparity between the people (and churches) we want to be, and the people we are or have been in the past. James 5:16 was referenced as a place to begin the process of moving forward and growing. “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other that you may be healed...”
I found myself thinking about those things I need to confess while embarking on the long drive back to Findlay, Ohio, and the ways I need healed. I was also thinking about the ways churches as organizations might be wrestling with their own pasts so they can again become houses of God that bring hope to their communities, and preach Jesus. In the CGGC, we’ve been drilling down hard on rethinking our strategies for engaging the culture around our churches, but we cannot lose sight of the places we need to confess, seek forgiveness, be healed, and ultimately be transformed by the power of the gospel.
It would be easy, I think, for an anniversary celebration to have too much of the focus upon the past. But Mount Carroll also have an eye toward their future, and toward the kind of church that God is calling them to be. As the CGGC as a whole nears its 200th anniversary in 2025, Mount Carroll’s celebration is a reminder of the importance of not idolizing our pasts, but learning from them and allowing that experience to shape the way we envision our futures.
I offer a special thanks to Pastor Tim, and to the many wonderful people of Mount Carroll Church of God for hosting a wonderful weekend. Happy 175th birthday, and I wish you 175 more.
CGGC eNews—Vol. 27, No. 32