New Life Emerges from a Dying Congregation

Resurrection is taking place in Oklahoma as a once dying Episcopal Church has found new life in birthing a new congregation. The Church of the Savior in Yukon was down to 36 active members when worship stopped for a sabbatical period of discernment. What followed was new birth as the Revs. Tim and Kirsten Baer, funded in large part by a $100,000 Church Planting Grant from the Episcopal Church and a $500,000 grant from the Diocese of Oklahoma, forged a new vision and kindled a sense of hope as they worked with a dozen members to reboot the church.

Our Savior became Grace as the new vision and new sense of calling needed a new name, like Saul becoming Paul as he responded to the call to be an Apostle to the Gentiles. They became a church for post-evangelical Christians who as Tim says, “Don’t want to give up Jesus, but they need a new lens for the Bible, for theology, and for how to do church.”

Learning from the emerging church as they sought to build a traditional one, the Baers brought a church plant mentality and a missional eye to the struggling congregation. They had a clear vision for their unique mission field and a willingness to flex the tradition in order to reach new people.

Newly graduated from seminary, the Baers looked around their mission field, which was a little more than 5-mile radius, and asked where they fit into the church landscape. The two priests realized their niche was a “third way” in a via media between traditional organ and choir led worship and the contemporary mega-church rock band churches that are so entertainment driven. Kirsten says, “We blend old and new, ancient and modern, and connect liturgy and sacraments to people’s lives.” Tim adds, “Some people come to Grace and say ‘whoa, this is really traditional’ and others say, ‘whoa, this is really contemporary.’ We consider that a good thing – it means we’ve struck the via media.”

The Baers now see how once the vision clarified all of the decisions came easier—worship style, music, projector screens, how to do hospitality, and a focus on Anglican Essentials for newcomers—as they looked for ways to translate the tradition and make it accessible. Tim notes, “We are ‘lowering the speed bump’ into the Episcopal Church—all the while not throwing out the baby with the bath water.”

The vision for Grace included those who were already part of the congregation becoming evangelists too. Kirsten recalls that those existing members who had the courage to join in the rebirth became passionate and excited about creating a Christian community that could spark a connection with their children and grandchildren. Kirsten said, “We emphasized our hope of being an intergenerational church and they also desperately wanted that.”

Looking back, Kirsten says she sees how some people who started out nervous and even angry became the biggest supporters and most successful evangelists. Kirsten said, “They brought family and friends and quickly helped us grow the church. It was an exciting process to see people’s hearts and minds change and in such a missional way.”

Two further components were unique in their early emphasis at Grace Church—Hospitality and a Rule of Life:

Thirty percent of the congregation trained as Hospitality members. While there is a rotation, the saying is that “Even when you are not on duty, you are on duty.” Within 48 hours they get a phone call, email or card depending on the information provided. The retention rate for those who attend is roughly fifty percent. Beyond this hospitality, there is always something new to invite others to and there are lots of ways to connect to the community.

Rule of Life
The Rule of Life focuses on Authentic Relationships, Sacramental Lives, and Generous Hearts ( “The Rule of Life leveraged the vision for the whole community” Tim said. To move people from visiting to fully being part of Grace Church a Foundations of Grace Course starts with the Rule of Life and the vision for Grace Church. Part of each first session is to ask people where they have seen the Rule of Life exemplified in the community. Often they will say something like “I saw authentic relationships as soon as I walked in the door.” People report experiencing authenticity right away and connect that this is what they do want church to be about. Visitors in various ways say they sense the intentionality behind our worship and find it very accessible.

New Challenges
Now two and a half years into the reboot, as more former evangelicals have found a home at Grace the church has baptized their spouses and children. Twenty percent the church is comprised of new Christians. The ongoing growth has led to new challenges.

For the first year the challenge was forging and living into the new vision. In the second year, the challenge was to create more programs. They launched their second service last year with 9:15 and 11 a.m. liturgies on Sundays. This contributed to a 40% rise in attendance in just over six months from 115 in attendance on an average Sunday to 160-165 in two services.

In the last year, Grace Church not only launched a second Sunday morning liturgy, but they also started a youth ministry and formed three outreach ministry teams—a hunger team, a mentor ministry team, and a laundry love ministry. Now as they are past year two, the challenge has been to create more committees. “It’s not sexy, but it has been essential work to support the ministry and growth,” Tim says.

By the end of 2015, Grace Yukon had about 200 members on the roles together with more people who attend, but have yet to join. Tim says, “What I find amazing is that we have done over 40 baptisms. About a third have been infants, a third older kids, and a third adults.”

Kirsten adds that the growth at Grace, “was about reaching those closest to them with good news of Jesus. Relational evangelism is really what helped us grow especially in the very beginning.”

Grace Church’s Leadership Team

12 thoughts on “New Life Emerges from a Dying Congregation”

  1. You two are truly the hands and feet, boots on the ground, leaders we need Your implemented vision is such a blessing Thanks be to God Makes me want to join your congregation May you continue to ble a blessing

  2. At the Easter service at Grace we were blessed to have 138 at the 9:00 and 125 at the 11:00 . God has given our congregation so much but I believe the greatest gift is all our new friends if your ever in the area of Yukon Okla. Come see us , I will pour you a cup of coffee .

  3. There’s a very important piece of this story that makes it different from other attempts at revitalizing churches. The ordained people involved were not expected to do their work on for low pay. It makes a difference

  4. This is a terrific model, and one I’m very excited to see working so beautifully! Very inspiring. I wonder how something similar could work in a Diocese that doesn’t have $600k to devote to the project?

  5. I would love video of a service, just to see how they’ve integrated tradtional and contemporary, to see what worship looks like there on a given Sunday.

    1. If you live in Oklahoma, especially any where near central Oklahoma, go some Sunday and see the integration in action. I’m intrigued by it, also. I believe I’ll make plans to be there soon.

      1. Grace is my church Rick. You come to the 11:00 servic, ask for AM and I will gladly welcome you, even though I am a Mennonite. Love everyone at Grace and couldn’t ask for a more loving and accepting group of Christians with whom to worship God each Sunday.

    1. With Tim working full time and Kirsten part time together with some other staff that are quarter time or less, much of the funds will go to staffing spread out over five years. Some of the $500k from the Diocese also went to fixing up the existing building.

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