The Oldest New Church in Minnesota

by Mark J. Boone

Heritage Assembly of God has a Baxter, Minnesota address, but it’s only about two blocks outside of Brainerd where previously the church was located since the early 1920s. Heritage started out as Brainerd Assembly of God Tabernacle and over the course of time became Brainerd Assembly of God.

The move to Baxter in 2004 necessitated a name change, and Heritage is certainly appropriate. It’s the oldest Assemblies of God church in Minnesota. I’ve been the pastor for just nine of its 80-plus-year history.

Any pastoral candidate considering a church that’s about twice as old as he is will encounter some adjustments. I certainly faced mine. But there is also a special dynamic about an older church. Just as there is an excitement when a church is planted and a sense that God is doing something new, an older church offers reminders of God’s faithfulness through the decades.

Walk into a healthy older, multigenerational church, and you’ll encounter a spectrum of lives. You’ll hear of grand traditions as well as new outreaches. You’ll see families with three or four generations of believers in attendance together. You’ll find others just starting out in the faith, with perhaps a single parent with a child representing the gospel’s first touch on a home.

They are all woven together in a tapestry with time-tested bonds. When you arrive, you want to be sure your contribution to God’s loom is additional fabric instead of a tear.

Look, listen and learn

Mary and I first came to Heritage in the spring of 1998. We had been pastoring in Grand Rapids, Minnesota for ten years and were happy in our ministry.We did, however, sense God stirring us to be open to a new place of ministry.When the church in Brainerd invited us for an interview, we accepted.

During the interview process I began to talk to the people about ministry philosophy and I even challenged some of the existing philosophies. After all, I wasn’t looking for a position. Mary and I were just exploring God’s potential leading.

The Saturday of that interview weekend the board set up interviews with every department. We started at 9 a.m., and every half hour another group would come in. Before the day was over, I had a good picture of what was going on in the church because I was hearing from all of the different departments. What I heard was the desire and the need for change. But no one knew what form that change should take or how to get there.They had been doing church the same way for decades.

I needed to make it clear I would not have any answers anytime soon.

“If you come here what are you going to do?” someone asked.

“I don’t have a clue,” I said. “I know who I am in ministry, but I don’t know yet how that would fit here and how that would play out here. Whatever I do has to blend with who this congregation is. Ministry is not something you can transplant.”

We were voted in with a healthy majority and we moved to Brainerd. I began to look at what made this church tick. I looked for the positive as well as the things that needed change. The people loved the altars. They loved to see the lost get saved. They had a heart for their community. In fact, they had a vision for a lost world. Their mission’s conventions were unparalleled successes and the mission’s giving for this size church was remarkable to me.

So, when our mission’s convention chairwoman came and announced, “I’m here to resign,” I was taken by surprise. “Oh, no, you’re not!” I said with as much pastoral authority as I could muster my first weeks in office.

“I’m not expecting everything will be done the same way, because you are a new pastor,” she explained. She wasn’t angry or resentful.Her desire was to be submissive to me as her pastor.She wanted the ministries of the church to move ahead in unity.

“Listen,” I told her, “When I talked to missionary guests at my last church I would ask how I could enhance our missions convention.The answer was the same, ‘You need to talk to Brainerd.’ I’m not changing anything. I’m going to watch and learn. Please don’t resign!”

She retired nine years later after our 2006 convention. She has trained someone to take her place. We’ll miss her.

Look, listen and learn when you take the pastorate of an established church. Patient and prayerful observation on the front end of your ministry will work wonders in creating partnership rather than opposition with the existing ministry entities.

Recognize the culture

I have kept in focus in my ministry, and stressed with my staff, that we serve the whole church. That means I am the pastor of the senior citizens as much as I am the pastor of the young married couples. Each generation’s way of worship is just as important as any other. We have to bridge any gaps in order to minister and pastor all generations within the church. If you just target a young generation, then we lose the right to pastor the senior citizens. Like a missionary learning the culture of a foreign ministry field, I’m committed to learning the worship culture of the church in which I serve.I learned quickly the generational cultures were clashing.

Wednesday night was challenging in our old building.The adult Bible study was in the sanctuary directly above the youth service in our fellowship hall downstairs. I tried to make certain we didn’t put the clamps on our youth pastor and prevent him from effectively ministering to the youth.This included the music.

“Pastor Boone,” a lady said to me, “I hope I don’t have to stop coming to Wednesday night service because of that music downstairs.”

“You know,” I replied, “I hope that wouldn’t make you stop coming to Wednesday night service, either.” She never stopped coming.

One night the youth were exceptionally loud. I could see the stirring among my middle-aged and seniors group. I knew I had to do something.

“It’s really loud downstairs, isn’t it?” I asked.

There were some stern nods.

“You know,” I said, “Pastor Doug has almost 100 teens in that room. Anytime you get 100 kids in a room that size, it’s going to be loud. They’re having teens get saved and that’s exciting! Isn’t it wonderful we’ve got that many kids down there?”

Their countenance changed. I asked somebody, “Would you stand and pray that God would really do a work among our youth tonight?”

The whole picture was transformed.

But I don’t believe in accommodating the youth at the expense of the seniors. Senior citizens have experienced more change in what they hold dear in the church than young people have ever had to endure. In reality, seniors are more accepting of change than the younger generation. Older believers will put up with songs that aren’t hymns; if you try to sing a hymn to a younger generation, a lot of them will tune you out completely.

We need to honor our seniors even while we identify needed change. The hard work comes in identifying change that will bring in new life and reach the next generation without compromising ministry to previous generations.

When I was in Grand Rapids the Pensacola revival hit. Some of our people went to Florida and were excited by what they saw. They came back and expected everything to change at our church as well. One lady asked me about a couple of the elder saints worshipping at the altar.

“Why don’t we ever see them expressing themselves in a Pentecostal way?” she asked me.

She wondered why they always came to the altar and just knelt there as they prayed.

“Have you ever picked up his Bible and looked through it?” I asked her, pointing to one man.

“No.”

“Sometime, ask him if you can take a look at it.”

“Why?”

“You’re going to find things about him in his Bible you wouldn’t find somewhere else. Secondly, let me ask you a question. Are you enjoying the freedom you have in a Pentecostal altar?”

“Oh, absolutely! That’s why I’m asking why don’t they enjoy it?”

“Well, one of these days you ought to just thank him for that.”

That got a bewildered look.

“Thirty years ago, he and the others his age are the ones who prayed Pentecost into this community. They established Pentecost here when Pentecost wasn’t popular. They prayed for your salvation and fought for you to have this freedom. They are excited that you are enjoying this. But you need to know they’re battle-worn because they were on the frontlines so this would happen.”

Lead into change

I have drilled into my staff that “we do not dictate change; we lead into change.” In the first two or three years of being here they got tired of hearing me say that. They would get frustrated with me.

“We’ve got to do something!” they’d tell me.

“We are doing something,” I would assure them.

“We can’t see it!”

Then I would explain the difference between a standard decision and a philosophy-changing decision. A philosophy change needs to be made deliberately, not by accident. When a congregation has been working under a given philosophy for a long period of time, they will notice a philosophy change.They will resist that change unless it is carried out deliberately, prayerfully, and with the proper foundations having been laid.

One of the ways helpful to me in facilitating successful philosophy change was by establishing solid relationships with those who developed that original philosophy. A significant number of new and young pastors go to a church where a former pastor continues to attend. I don’t think they understand how important it is for them to build a relationship with that brother.

When my family and I arrived at Brainerd, the three previous pastors remained part of the church. We came in 1998 and their ministry stretched back to the early 1960s. They were my most loyal supporters.

One of them was a colleague of mine; we had served together on the presbytery board and were on a first-name basis. The other two were my elders who had taken me under their wing when I was a young preacher in the district. Pastor Melford Olson had been the assistant district superintendent for a while in Minnesota and had pastored here in the ’60s. Pastor Ray Schaible, whose son is superintendent in South Dakota, had pastored the church in the 70s.

They both said, “Well, just call me Melford” or “just call me Ray.”

“I can’t do that,” I said.

Personally, I just couldn’t do that. But there was more to it.“This church,” I told them, “is going to take my lead of how a pastor should be treated by how I treat you. I am going to treat you with the honor due a pastor and demonstrate to them the importance of that.”

I also knew these men were loved and appreciated and if I treated them as a threat then I could make enemies of the people they had impacted during their pastorate here.There are reasons why this has been a leading church within this district for so many years. My predecessors in the pulpit must have done something right. I wanted to find out what those things were and build on the things that were already solid. I did not want to destroy the DNA of the church.

Build God’s kingdom

Through all the orientation, through all the identification of what needs to stay and what needs to be tweaked, a pastor must keep one truth in focus: You have to build God’s kingdom and not your own kingdom. Your people have to believe that is what you are doing. If they look at you and think you are trying to build a name for yourself or build your own kingdom, they are not going to follow.

In Crookston, Minnesota, in the late ’70s at my first pastorate I was in the sanctuary praying. That sanctuary might have seated 100 if they were shoulder to shoulder. I felt the Lord encouraging me to envision the whole place packed with standing room only. “Oh, God,” I prayed, “let it be, let it be!”

He asked me pointedly, “What are you going to do?”

I said, “I don’t know.”

He said, “Don’t you think you’d better find out?”

That began a journey for me of trying to identify those things that would bring about God’s growth. And a key to identifying God’s growth is identifying His timetable. When you obediently pursue growth for your church within God’s design, He brings things into place when they are supposed to occur.

I can remember a lot of conversations like this in a staff meeting:

Someone would say, “This needs to change.”

I would say, “I know.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

“Nothing.”

“Why?”

“Because we’re not ready for that battle yet. ”

There are things that have to happen first before that battle is taken on. You must not only choose your battles, but choose when to fight them and whether they are worth it or not. Is this issue really worth the effort and battle that is going to ensue?Are all the pieces in place to deal with it completely?The only thing some of those things do is sidetrack the main issues.

Keep focused on what God wants to accomplish within the church over time. You’ll watch as challenges are resolved one by one.

Protect change

One of the biggest areas of transition for Brainerd was in our music. It took three years to lay the foundations to change and bring in our music pastor who has been with us since then, a young lady. We had two interesting things happen with that process.

The first time I invited her as a guest, one of my board members, in his 60s, wasn’t really happy. You could sense it. He was a strong leader in the church. But as we worked through these things in the board meeting this board member expressed himself honestly.

“I don’t like her voice. I don’t like the style of music she is going to bring to the church. I don’t like a woman in leadership from the platform.”

Well, there you had it. I wondered what was coming next.

“But,” he continued, “I’ll make a motion we hire her… because I know if we are going to reach my grandkids, this is the right thing to do.”

To watch one of our leading men stand and be a point man with his generation was really integral to what I saw God wanting to do in this congregation.

Another truth comes up regarding this young woman. When you are making change, the spirit of the person who is going to be one of the change agents is critical to building a bridge to people who might otherwise be resistant. She had some rough early days but was able to bridge the gap and minister effectively to our people.

But she never had to do it alone. If you push for God-directed change, you have to be prepared to protect that change. One of the reasons our music minister was able to gain the respect of the people was that the congregation knew if they were going to get at her, they had to go through me. She was like a daughter to me. No one ever had reason to doubt my loyalty to her.

When I was laying these foundations for musical change I had a staffmember who nearly unraveled several years of hard work. He’s a great guy and was with us for a year during a transition time in his ministry. He played guitar and did worship for us from time to time.The old style of worship we were transitioning from was driving him crazy. The organ was not his favorite instrument and one Saturday night he went to the loft and turned the external speaker completely down. If our organist of twenty years had known who the culprit was … I probably would have had another funeral.

I had to pull him aside. “Listen to me,” I told him. “You can’t undo what I have been working on for 2½ years.”

When you come to an established church, you will bless yourself and your congregation by listening and learning from existing conditions. Identify the worship culture in place, lead steadily into change, keep the kingdom of God always in focus, then protect what God helps you to build. In the end, you will have ample reason to rejoice.

Rejoice in God’s new creation

I recently reflected on my years at Brainerd, now Heritage, with Pastor Doug who has been with me from the beginning.

“Doug, could you have dreamed we would have seen the changes we have had in this church?”

We took some time to share our thoughts on God’s faithfulness. The church had run between 300 and 325 for 20 years. Now we are running 600; we’re blessed with a new building and enjoy expanded facilities; areas of transition that once felt threatening to people are now accepted and contribute to community outreach.

In one sense, everything is different. God has faithfully created a church to meet this community’s 21st-century needs. But the true identity of the church did not change as far as who we are and what we are. We have people of every generation who are part of the church. We have new people in every generation who become a part of the church. They are connecting with God’s eternal, unchanging plan to save the lost and restore the joy He intends for every life.That is exciting to us!

This was demonstrated in a very special way for me when we moved into our new building.

We had one man who was a pillar in the church. He was a well loved adult Sunday School teacher, a longtime board member, and a strong leader in the church. He was failing in health, but determined to see us transition to our new building.

His was the first funeral in our new facility.We held our first service in the church on December 19, 2004. He died that day and we had his funeral on December 23.

The last time he was in church was in our old building. From his wheelchair he looked at me and said, “Pastor, I don’t know hardly half of these people.”

I got down on one knee next to him and said, “Well, Bob, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it?”

He nodded, “Yes, it is.”

“Look around you,” I said. “This is the fruit of your labor. We’re building on the foundations of your dreams, what you’ve planted and what you’ve built here.”

We both just sat there and shed a tear or two. That was about a month before he passed away. He had been in the church nearly 70 years.

Honor and recognize what has been done in the past. That’s integral to building an old established church into a multigenerational church ready for the future.