After 150 Years, Starting Fresh
At Central Christian Church in Toledo, Ohio, it’s not uncommon for children to get out of their seats and walk around during sermons. At times, a curious child might even approach the pulpit and strike up a conversation with Dennis Nagy as he preaches. Central Christian is not disorganized, undisciplined, or chaotic. Nor is the church pioneering an interactive approach to teaching the Scriptures. Rather, the congregation is home to a higher-than-average number of families with children who have autism.
Nagy is in his second tenure with Central. He first served there around 20 years ago but left in 2003 to pursue other callings in ministry. He returned to the congregation in October 2020 after a 17-year absence. In those intervening years, Central Christian Church struggled, and attendance dwindled. Only one elder remained when the church’s preacher died of COVID-19 earlier in 2020.
That elder, David Valleroy, has been a longtime, faithful member of the congregation; he and his wife have continued to serve the church and the surrounding community as Central experienced a slow decline over nearly two decades. During that time, with the church’s building often underutilized, Central began renting rooms to a local school for children with autism. Many of the children at the school came from families that were struggling, and so the Valleroys reached out to the families one by one, providing food or other necessities and inviting them to attend church on Sunday.
When COVID-19 took the life of Central’s preacher last year, David Valleroy contacted Nagy and invited him back to resume his ministry in Toledo.
“The church was trying to get things started again,” Nagy said. With few people or resources at their disposal, he said, the church simply committed “to do the basic things that Christ intended”—preaching the Word and loving people.
Upon returning, Nagy discovered that many of the church’s new families had been introduced to the Valleroys while their children attended classes in the church building during the week. Most of those families were previously unchurched, in part because, as Nagy said, “It’s uncomfortable for parents of children with autism to sit in a traditional church assembly.”
In order to love and serve those families, Central is committed to making Sunday morning a comfortable experience for children and their parents, even if it means allowing the sermon to occasionally be interrupted by a curious youngster.
“We let the children do what they want to do while going through our services,” Nagy said.
Central Christian Church has been around since 1872, making it one of the oldest churches in the Toledo area, yet its current approach to ministry is most unusual. Naturally, not everyone at the church is raising a child with autism, but the congregation is adjusting its ministry and learning new ways to reach people who need the gospel.
After nearly 150 years as a church, Nagy said, “we’re basically starting fresh.”