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Zion’s Stone Church – One Body in Christ

(article from “Partners in the Spirit” – the online newsletter of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – written in the Spring of 2005) 

          In what does the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ consist?  Once upon a time German immigrants came to the new world and settled in Northeastern Pennsylvania in a lovely little valley just north of what we have come to call the Blue Mountain (West Penn Township).  They came to America with the faith of the Reformation – some of the Lutheran tradition, others of the Reformed tradition.  Frugal in heart and mind, one church building was constructed and the two congregations shared their one church.  The Lutherans would gather for Sunday worship this week while the Reformed congregation would gather next Sunday.
          In the late 1700’s the Lutheran congregation would have been a part of the Ministerium of Pennsylvania while the Reformed congregation was originally under the jurisdiction of the Reformed Church of Holland, finally becoming part of the newly formed Synod of the German Reformed Church.  Over two hundred years of American Church history the desire for unity in the Church of Jesus Christ had dramatic effect.  Over the centuries the Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania and Adjacent States became part of the United Lutheran Church in America (1918); which became part of the Lutheran Church in America (1962); which became part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1987).  Over that same period of history the Synod of the German Reformed Church became part of the General Synod of the Reformed Church (1863), which entered into a merger that resulted in the formation of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (1934), which itself entered into a further merger that formed the United Church of Christ (1957).
            In 1846, the year in which the current stone church was built, a proclamation was adopted naming this church and its congregations Zion’s High German Reformed and German Evangelical Lutheran Church in West Penn.  Over the years both of the congregation at Zion’s found themselves participants in four-point parish arrangements.  One Lutheran pastor and one Reformed pastor served the four local congregations of the Mahoning Parish (Zion’s; St. Peter’s, Mantzville; St. John’s, Mahoning; and Ben Salem, Andreas).  Worship alternated weekly between Lutheran and Reformed in each church with each pastor leading worship and preaching in two of the four.  In 1966 the Mahoning Lutheran Parish was dissolved and Zion’s became part of the West Penn Parish with St. Peter’s, Mantzville.
          The 1997 Formula of Agreement, which declared full communion among the ELCA, the UCC, the Reformed Church of America, and the Presbyterian Church – USA, made it possible for the sharing of ordained ministers between full communion partner congregations.  Under the provisions of the Formula the two congregations at Zion’s entered into “shared ministry” in which one ordained pastor was called to be the pastor of both the Lutheran and the UCC congrega- tions.  Under the shared ministry agreement the two congregations began holding joint worship services each Sunday and a Joint Board made up of six Lutheran Council members and six UCC Consistory members began overseeing the life and ministry of the church.  Following two years of interim pastoral ministry (Pastor Robert Bohm 1998-99 and Pastor George Kinney 1999-2000), the Rev. Michael Frost became the first fully called pastor of Zion’s shared ministry, beginning in July of 2000.
          Consideration of yet one more step toward organic unity for Zion’s Stone Church began within a brainstorming session by Zion’s Long Range Planning Committee in January of 2002.  The goal for the committee’s work and for the life and ministry of the church was “to grow as one church in the ministry of Christ.”  The committee passed on recommendations to the Church Board in the fall of 2003 that investigation should begin on the possibility of creating one new congregation that would be affiliated with both the UCC and the ELCA.  The board and Pastor Frost began explorations into this possibility, which included conversations with Bishop David Strobel of the Northeastern Penn Synod of the ELCA and Conference Minister, the Rev. Alan Miller of the Penn Northeast Conference of the UCC and members of their staffs.  In December of 2003 the congregations were asked for their input and feelings on such a possibility.  Overwhelming support from the members encouraged the board and in early 2004 the board gave the Long Range Planning Committee the task of drawing up a draft constitution for the new congregation.  Early drafts were circulated in the congregation and both the Synod and the Conference.  Feedback from all sides was considered and a final draft was approved in October of 2004.  Congregational meetings were scheduled for Reformation Day, October 31st, 2004 following worship for a vote on the adoption of the new constitution and approval of the process that would lead to the formation of a newly incorporated congregation, the transfer of all assets to that new congregation, and the ultimate dissolving of the two former congregations.  Once again the votes in favor of the proposal were overwhelming.  A charter document was designed containing the preamble to the new constitution and it was made available for members’ signatures beginning on Sunday, November 7th, 2004.  Well over 200 signatures had been collected on the charter by Christmas Eve.           
          The legal process of getting state approval of the new corporation finally bore fruit and we received notification on Monday, March 14th, 2005 that Zion’s Stone Church of West Penn Township, Inc. was a corporate reality.  Announcement was made to the congregation on Palm Sunday, March 20th.  Plans are in the works for a massive celebration of this gift of God’s grace on Pentecost Sunday, May 15th, 2005.
          In what does the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ consist?  In John 17 we hear Jesus pray to the Father that all who follow him might be one.  From a long history as a Union Church, through seven years of shared ministry, and now into the bright future God has for us as one “federated” church affiliated with both the ELCA and the UCC, God has blessed his people here in Zion’s Stone Church, West Penn Township, Schuylkill County with unity of spirit and purpose, with a common life and ministry, and the confident understanding that there is far more that unites us in Christ than those things over which we may differ. 

THANKS BE TO GOD!
Zion’s Stone Church of West Penn Twp.

 

 

Taking a Stand

(The following article has been updated and edited as of April, 2006)

                  Zion’s Stone Church of West Penn Township is incorporated as one congregation living out its faith, life, and ministry through affiliations with both the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).  In this way we recognize and celebrate both our Reformed and our Lutheran traditions, which go back to the time of our founding well over two hundred years ago.  These traditions are not merely theoretical or theological.  The UCC and the ELCA are the modern day counterparts of those church bodies to which our two congregations have been affiliated throughout our history.  They are and will be important parts of what it means for us to be the church in this place.
          Even as we celebrate our traditions and our denominational affiliations, we live out our life of obedient faithfulness as the Church of Jesus Christ under the Lordship of Christ and the authority of the Word of God in Christ himself, in the Gospel of God’s saving love in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the inspired word of Holy Scripture.  In every generation we must test and discern the course being followed by the church on earth, whether nationally, regionally, or locally.  When we believe that there is cause to question the direction taken by the church, to question decisions and resolutions adopted by our denominations, whether regionally or nationally; we have an obligation to take a stand and voice our concerns.
          In recent years specific issues related to the larger issue of homosexuality have arisen in both the UCC and the ELCA.  What do we believe about what has come to be called “same sex marriage”?  Should the church celebrate such relationships and hold them to be equal to the marriage of a man and a woman?  What do we believe about the ordination of men and women who understand themselves to be gay and lesbian?  Should the church ordain gay and lesbian persons to the ordained ministry of word and sacrament and, if so, under what circumstances and conditions?  In the UCC’s General Synod 25 in July, 2005, and in the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August, 2005, our denominations passed resolutions on such issues.  The UCC General Synod passed a resolution supportive of “equal marriage rights” for same sex couples.  Though the strict texts of resolutions adopted at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly seem to prohibit same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing gay and lesbian persons, it has become clear that leaders in a number of synods in the ELCA are moving to disregard those prohibitions.  Many in both denominations grow increasingly concerned about these actions and overall trends that seem to be moving the church away from the traditional Biblical values that have been our proper foundation.
          In the months following the summer’s churchwide denominational gatherings individuals, congregations, and other groups have met to discuss how to respond to what has happened.  Some congregations in both the UCC and the ELCA have withdrawn their affiliations, becoming independent or joining with other church bodies.  Others have determined to stay within the UCC or ELCA but have determined, also, to come up with concrete ways of voicing their opposition to resolutions adopted and actions taken.  Among other responses developed in this context, two have sought and seemed worthy of wide acceptance throughout the church bodies.  They are:  (in the UCC setting) The Lexington Confession and (in the ELCA setting) The Common Confession.  The history and background of these two documents is available for those interested.  Both have been written for adoption by congregations desiring to remain within their denominations and yet desiring to make it clear where they disagree with the directions taken by the denominations – both regarding issues related to sexuality and marriage and to broader issues of tradition and authority in the church.
          These two documents were brought before our Feb. 26th annual congregational meeting for adoption and, after discussion, were unanimously adopted as statements of our faith that we believe are in keeping with the faith statement of our congregation as found in our constitution.
          By adopting The Lexington Confession and The Common Confession we go on record as opposing specific actions and general trends within our denominations.  This is at it should be but we’re not going anywhere.  We remain a congregation affiliated with both the UCC and the ELCA.  We support ministries of the church on the synod and conference level and nationally where and when we feel that support is warranted.  We may join in association with other congregations locally, regionally, and nationally holding similar concerns and a similar commitment to the traditional values of our churches but we will not withdraw from either the UCC or the ELCA. 
          Through our adoption of the Lexington Confession we have connected ourselves with a group within the United Church of Christ known as “Faithful and Welcoming Churches of the UCC” (FWC) – their website is linked from our home page.  Through our adoption of the Common Confession we connect ourselves with a group within the Lutheran traditionknown as “Lutheran Churches of the Common Confession” (LC3) – their website is also linked from our home page.
          In a sense nothing will change here at Zion’s Stone Church as a result of the adoption of these confessions.  Our worship will not change.  Our teaching will not change.  Our ministry of witness and service will not change.  Adopting these faith statements simply clarifies who and what we are; where we stand and have been standing.  We will be communicating our actions to the Synod and the ELCA, the Conference and the UCC, making clear our stance as well as our determination to remain within the denominations.
          This is where we stand.

 

 

THE LEXINGTON CONFESSION

Hedricks Grove UCC 
Lexington, NC
July 7, 2005

We, the undersigned, pastors and laity of the United Church of Christ, having reviewed reports of the actions of General Synod 25 of the United Church of Christ in Atlanta, Georgia, gather at Hedricks Grove United Church of Christ in Lexington, North Carolina to declare our confession on this seventh day of July in the year of our Lord two thousand five.

1) We affirm the faith set forth in the Basis of Union of the United Church of Christ: “The faith which unites us and to which we bear witness is that faith in God which the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments set forth, which the ancient Church expressed in the ecumenical creeds, to which our own spiritual fathers gave utterance in the evangelical confessions of the Reformation, which we are duty bound to express in the words of our time as God Himself gives us light. In all our expressions of that faith we seek to preserve the unity of heart and spirit with those who have gone before us as well as those who now labor with us.” We dissent with all who have abandoned or altered this faith or who believe that our covenantal unity can be renewed or sustained apart from the historic and apostolic faith contained in the Old and New Testament and in the Ecumenical Creeds and Reformation Confessions.

2) We affirm with General Synod 25 our “faith in Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, whose true humanity and divinity are declared in our constitution, our liturgies, our hymnals, and our ecumenical confessions.” We further affirm our belief that that the confession of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is essential for Christian profession, church membership, and ecclesiastical leadership. We dissent with all who reject the divinity, centrality, and Lordship of Jesus Christ, the teachings of Holy Scripture, the Ecumenical Creeds, and Reformation Confessions, or who re-interpret them in manners that violate the historic understanding of these Scriptures, Creeds and Confessions of the truly apostolic and catholic faith.

3) We affirm the overwhelming witness of Holy Scripture, church tradition, the UCC Book of Worship, and the ecumenical church that marriage is between a man and a woman. We urge continuation and strengthening of ecclesiastical, legal, and political protection for the institution of traditional marriage. We dissent with the action of General Synod 25 to support equal marriage rights for same sex couples.

4) We affirm that God is still speaking to the church and the world in our time. We dissent with all who imply that God is asking us to abandon the teachings of Holy Scripture as affirmed by the historic and ecumenical church.

5) We appeal to clergy and congregations of the United Church of Christ who choose to remain in the denomination to affirm the faith set forth in the founding documents of the United Church of Christ and to remain active, vocal members of their Associations, Conferences, and the United Church of Christ as a continuing witness to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the place where God has called them.

 

 

The Common Confession
(The faith statement of the “Lutheran Churches of the Common Confession”
 — an association of evangelical Lutheran congregations.  2005)

1) The Lord Jesus Christ
We are people who believe and confess our faith in the Triune God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We trust and believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord.

2) The Gospel of Salvation
We believe and confess that all human beings are sinners, and that sinners are redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God alone justifies human beings by faith in Christ, a faith which God creates through the message of the Gospel. As ambassadors for Christ, God uses us to speak his Word and build his kingdom.

3) The Authority of Scripture
We believe and confess that the Bible is God’s revealed Word to us, spoken in Law and Gospel. The Bible is the final authority for us in all matters of our faith and life.

4) A Common Confession of Faith
We accept and uphold that the Lutheran Confessions reliably guide us as faithful interpretations of Scripture, and that we share a unity and fellowship in faith with others among whom the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and the sacraments are administered in accordance with the Gospel.

5) The Priesthood of All Believers
We believe and confess that the Holy Spirit makes all who believe in Jesus Christ to be priests for service to others in Jesus’ name, and that God desires to make use of the spiritual gifts he has given through the priesthood of all believers.

6) Marriage and Family
We believe and confess that the marriage of male and female is an institution created and blessed by God. From marriage, God forms families to serve as the building blocks of all human civilization and community. We teach and practice that sexual activity belongs exclusively within the biblical boundaries of a faithful marriage between one man and one woman.

7) The Mission and Ministry of the Congregation
We believe and confess that the church is the assembly of believers called and gathered by God around Word and Sacrament, and that the mission and ministry of the church is carried out within the context of individual congregations, which are able to work together locally and globally.

 

 

United Church of Christ – Sunday bulletin back page
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 29, 2006
Mark 10:46-52

FULL COMMUNION

Not long after Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the Wittenberg church door, serious doctrinal divisions emerged among Protestants, especially in Germany. At the center of those differences was the Eucharist, and reconciliation between the Reformed churches and the Lutheran churches on the meaning of the sacrament proved impossible.

When German Protestants migrated to Pennsylvania in the 18th century, however, people of the Lutheran and Reformed persuasions grew closer together-physically if not theologically. More than anything else, a shortage of clergy and cash led to the formation of the “union churches,” in which Calvinists and Lutherans worshiped on alternate Sundays under the same roof.

Now there is a movement among some union churches to graduate from shared space to some form of shared ministry and mission. No local church has moved closer to the organic merger of its two congregations than Zion’s Stone Church of West Penn Township in New Ringgold, PA. When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the United Church of Christ entered into “full communion” ten years ago, the agreement helped Zion’s members to start down their own road toward unity. In 1998, the two congregations began to worship as one, creating a new liturgy that was neither UCC nor ELCA, and acquiring new worship resources to go with it. In 2000 they called one pastor and, four years later, adopted a new constitution, formed a new corporation, and transferred their property and resources to this new entity.

Anyone familiar with the history of the Reformation might well wonder how UCC and Lutheran congregations could ever get together. Rev. Michael Frost recognizes that Zion’s Stone Church “blazed a trail.” But he also points out the factors that united the congregations from the start: their common Reformation heritage and German background; the long experience of living, if not worshiping, together in the same church; and the knowledge that other union churches were exploring their own forms of shared ministry and mission. And what about the Eucharist–the issue that divided their forebears in the first place? Both congregations already celebrated communion on the first Sunday of the month according to their separate traditions. Now, as one church, they celebrate the sacrament together.

On this Reformation-Reconciliation Sunday, we thank God for the unity now enjoyed by these two Protestant congregations that have traveled together in life and ministry since 1790.