Sunbury Village is a small town of less than 5,000 people. Despite its size, Sunbury is a vibrant, growing community. And Sunbury Christian Church is too.
Since moving into their new building four months ago, the church has grown by 200 people—an increase of over 40%. Easter just brought an attendance of 1,125. As Sunbury navigates the joys of growing pains, they are already imagining ways to get more out of their new space.
“As a church we’re going through puberty,” said Pastor Mike Bratten. “We’re experiencing things we’ve never experienced before. We can seat 530 right now, but we can blow out those walls and seat 1,000.”
For this church that began meeting in city hall more than 60 years ago, the transition to the new building was a coming of age story.
“We purchased the land nine years ago,” Mike said. “But we had to wait for the developer to begin building houses on our side of the state route. For us to have gone first, it would have cost us another half a million dollars for the infrastructure.”
The church continued to grow, despite being in a non-ideal location. Sunbury watched developers build 250 houses on the other side of the highway and continued packing into their old building, awaiting the day when they could finally put the new property to use.
“You had to turn down three streets to get to us. We were in the back of a subdivision,” Mike said. “So nobody drove by us.”
Now the church meets in a beautiful new building in one of the most visible, actively growing parts of town.
“They’re building 450 homes right next to us,” Mike said. “And now we’re on a state route where people can actually find us!”
The new building is part of the church’s intentional effort to play a bigger role in the community of Sunbury.
No Longer Isolated
“One year we decided that we were going to change our DNA,” Mike said. “We decided that we were going to take on a different project every month for twelve months in a row that would do nothing but minister to the community.”
The point was not just to make people aware of the church, but to actively support people who play important roles in the community and contribute to making their little corner of the world a better place to live.
“We brought treats to all the school staff. We wrote letters to the leaders in our community, letting them know that we were praying for them,” Mike said. “We hosted a fishing derby in partnership with Sunbury Village.”
The undertaking was a defining time for Sunbury Christian Church. While their old building was hardly a focal point of the community, their values were clearly on display.
“That changed our entire outlook on what we’re supposed to be. We were no longer isolated,” Mike said. “We’re not saying, ‘We’re the church, come take a look’ but, ‘We’re here to serve you.’”
Sunbury began exploring the deeper needs within their community and planned ways to connect those needs to the gospel.
“We did a demographic study, and our community is largely middle-upper class. They’re not in need of jobs or food,” Mike explained. “The needs they have are of significance and value. Because they’re going to find out it doesn’t come from family and jobs after a while. There is something deeper than that.”
“We’re the church, and we’re here to serve you.”—Pastor Mike Bratten
Since moving into the new building, the church has made a concerted effort to show people that they matter to God and to the church. In the coming months, they will begin a larger campaign to play a more direct role in supporting families.
“We want families to stay together. So in the next three months we’ll be approaching the topic of family and talking about how important that is to God,” Mike said. “We’ll talk about how we can help with parenting, relationships, and marriage. We have 15 counselors coming to lead our workshops. We’re sending a mass mailing; and one Saturday will focus on transitions and boundaries. We want the community to understand that we know who they are, what their needs are, and Christ can satisfy.”
Sunbury’s outward focus has clearly had an impact on their small community. A local newspaper shared an encouraging story about their ceremonious journey to the new building. More importantly though, numerous people who never grew up going to church are becoming influential members of Sunbury Christian Church.
“One of our deacons has become the town mayor. Not having grown up in a church, he and his wife began attending a small group, gave their lives to Christ, and are now serving in leadership roles. In fact, my first small group about 15 years ago included 6 young couples, and only three of the adults attended regularly as a child. God has changed their lives, and most have matured into servant-leaders within the church.”
Parents are learning about God from their kids and being filled with a desire for more.
“One of our 3rd grade teachers came in one day and confessed, ‘I need to do some fast catching up, because my kids are learning more about God than I ever knew.’ So she took home 10 children’s books just to get caught up on Daniel and the lion’s den, and stories you just take for granted growing up in the church.”
The church is in a better place than it has ever been. And soon they will be making a different kind of transition.
Handing Off the Baton
Sunbury Christian Church has known since September that after 19 good years, their senior pastor was going to step down.
“They knew that I would help them get into the building, we would work through all the transitions together, and then bring in the new guy so I can make the handoff before I fall down from exhaustion,” Pastor Mike laughed. “I’ve been in a lot of races, and I just want to have some speed left at the end, you know? I turn 66 in May.”
Mike plans to take what he’s learned through his time with Sunbury to help other mid-size churches navigating similar situations. He’ll be “semi-retiring” to work as a part-time consultant with the Center for Church Leadership.
“We were under 200, and we’ve grown to mid 600s now,” Mike said. “A lot of church leaders are in the middle of challenges we’ve been through. It’s nice to have an outside source who can share something the pastor once said, or the elders once said.”
“We have such an incredible team of leaders who would do whatever it takes to get the job done.”—Mike Bratten
While Mike tends to focus on the positive, he has experienced his share of difficulties as a pastor.
“I came into a bad situation,” Mike said. “The preacher before me had divorced his wife and married a deacon’s widow. There were all kinds of issues, and there was a healing process that needed to take place before we could grow.”
At every stage, the church has wrestled with where and what God was calling them to be.
“We have had some pretty hard discussions within the leadership about getting from here to there. We’ve had to make some big adjustments, and change is just not that easy. But we have such an incredible team, leaders who would do whatever it takes to get the job done. And one of the keys for us is our older folks. They have helped lead that change; they have never been the ones to put on the brakes.”
Overall, Mike is overjoyed about how far the church has come and where they are headed next.
“I believe we are a healthy church,” he said. “Healthy churches have people who are both looking for Christ and have been in Christ for 50 years. You don’t have just young people; you don’t have just older people—you have an entire family of believers. Within four weeks of each other, we have witnessed an 80-year-old baptized into Christ, a mother and her four children baptized, as well as a young couple with two small ones. People of all ages are coming to Christ—and that is exciting!”
While Mike knows this is the right time for him to hand off the baton, he is also excited about the momentum Sunbury Christian Church has right now. He is leaving behind a legacy of faith to help other churches build their own.
“I would love to be the guy coming in to take my place.”
Article published by: CDF Capital