Welcoming A New Congregation
–By Ryan Ahlgrim Originally published in Gospel Evangel, June, 2005
Walking into the sanctuary of Community Christian Fellowship in Detroit is an experience of awe. The blue vaulted ceiling rises higher and stretches farther than many European cathedrals. Stained glass windows, created when the building was a Catholic church, glow brightly. Eight hundred padded chairs in immense rows soften some of the effect of all the stone and marble surfaces. Two large screens, a speaker system, and stage lights hang from the walls and ceiling beams. And the wall behind the podium is artfully painted with the church’s logo (a dove) and a call to mission.
What a difference from fifteen years ago when Community Christian Fellowship (CCF) met in the home of the founding pastors, Samuel and Jackie Wilson. The church plant, sponsored by the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference and assisted by Wally Fahrer, was designed to take the Anabaptist vision of discipleship and service to the inner-city neighborhoods of Detroit. And it has.
The congregation outgrew the Wilsons’ home and moved into a tiny storefront, and soon it moved from there to a larger store. Then, what must have seemed like a mighty leap, the congregation purchased an attractive and spacious church building. But all along Sam Wilson had his eye on something much bigger—a former Catholic church, convent, rectory, and school that would allow the congregation to expand its ministries in undreamed ways.
So when the huge complex came on the market, Sam urged his congregation to buy it. As one elder put it, “We thought he was crazy.” The buildings were seriously run down. Flocks of pigeons had made their home in the upper floors of the convent. Ceilings had caved in. Grime was everywhere. But Sam and Jackie called the congregation to a month of fasting and prayer, eating nothing from midnight to 6 p.m. each day.
The Spirit moved during that month: doors of opportunity opened, volunteers stepped forward, and the congregation accepted what seemed to be an impossible challenge. The first worship service in the dilapidated sanctuary was held in February. As they sang, plaster fell from the ceiling. And yet today the building has a new roof, and the sanctuary and offices are beautifully renovated.
Two themes emerge again and again as one talks with the elders, ministers, and members of the congregation: hospitality and service. Every visitor receives warm and generous hospitality, and every member is instilled with Christ’s vision to serve others. This vision manifests itself in the church’s many after-school ministries and in-the-works drug rehabilitation program and charter school.
The worship services at CCF are as inspiring as the renovated sanctuary and the story behind it. Over four hundred people, many out of work and struggling to put food on the table, gather together for two and a half hours of the most rousing music, singing, and preaching that one is likely to ever experience.
On April 9th representatives from the Indiana-Michigan Conference met with the pastors and congregational leaders of CCF to discuss full membership in the conference. Up till this time, CCF has been designated a “new church development” with only limited representation in the conference. But in the past fifteen years, leaders from CCF have made several visits to the MennHof museum in order to become more informed about Mennonite history and theology, and the congregation has developed special ties with Shore Mennonite Church, Shipshewana, Ind.
Following the visit by conference representatives, CCF formally requested full membership in the conference. The Church Life Commission recommended CCF’s membership to the Executive Committee, which in turn is recommending that delegates at the June16-18 Conference Assembly receive CCF into membership. As a new member of the family, CCF will bring greater diversity and spiritual energy to our conference, strengthening our Anabaptist witness.