17 April, 2024

The ‘Only God’ Story of Mountain Christian Church

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by | 1 March, 2024 | 2 comments

By Ben Cachiaras  

Churches don’t last forever. The churches Paul worked with in Corinth or Ephesus are both gone. There is a typical life cycle for churches, and those who study such things say that after 30 or 40 years most congregations show signs of stagnancy and start down the backside of the bell curve in decline. This is partly why the vast majority of churches in this country are plateaued or are shrinking in vibrancy and impact. About 5,000 churches will close their doors this year. Most of them are, well, old.  

So, when a really old church is bursting with new life, vibrancy, growth, and impact, it’s remarkable and worth celebrating! And when that church is burgeoning in the “rocky soil” of the Northeastern United States, amid 60 million souls with the highest percentage of unchurched people in the country, it’s very special, indeed.  

This is our situation at Mountain Christian Church! In 2024 we’re celebrating our 200th birthday. And there is so much to celebrate!  

In 2023 we experienced nearly 40 percent growth year over year, with record numbers in kids, students, young adults, groups, and worship. And 536 baptisms! 2024 has continued the boom with scores of first-time guests and a new surge of attendance. More importantly, as so many churches are experiencing in our post-COVID world, there is a new hunger for God, truth, depth, and community.  

A CONGREGATION WITH HISTORY 

1824 was 200 years ago—that’s quite a long time! John Quincy Adams was president, and there were no cars, computers, or bicycles. If you had an infection, the doctor might prescribe bloodletting and let some leeches suck on you for a while. Before there were matches or movies or light bulbs . . . or bathrooms or indoor plumbing . . . there was a church in Maryland, northeast of Baltimore. And it has continued in an unbroken line through two centuries to this day when God continues to “do something new” (Isaiah 43:18-19, New Living Translation). 

But the most interesting and important part of a church is not its age or size. It’s the defining moments. The stories. The places where God’s undeniable presence and power show up.  

A defining moment for me personally was my ordination service back in Minnesota. Karla and I felt called to uproot from all we knew and head to Tennessee. My father, John H. Cachiaras, spoke at the service and told how, back in the 1950s, he and Mom had done the same thing, leaving Minnesota to move across the country to enter Butler seminary in Indianapolis. He described those difficult years with a heavy school load, a difficult church situation, a baby, and no money. There were days they didn’t know if they would make it.  

Dad quoted the old hymn, “God Made a Way.” Then he looked right at me and said, “As you go with God and he with you, whatever happens, God will make a way for you when there seems to be no way.”  

I’ve never forgotten that. And it’s true! Countless times God has made a way where there was no way! And that is exactly the story of Mountain, as well!  

Today Mountain is a thriving multisite, multiethnic church with four campuses (we’re pregnant with our fifth!), two community centers, a strong online ministry, and more than 7,000 people who worship together each week. God has made a way! The church in Acts faced all manner of conflict, threats, and persecution. But it prevailed through it all and pressed on unhindered (as the final verse of Acts indicates). And God has also made a way again and again for Mountain for 200 years!  

THE WHITE CLAPBOARD CHURCH

RESTORATION MOVEMENT LEGACY 

Samuel Rogers was baptized by Barton Stone; both were great pioneer leaders of the early Restoration Movement. Rogers traveled by horseback from Kentucky to preach in Maryland. On two different trips, in 1821 and 1823, he gathered believers and interested friends in a log cabin called Union Chapel. Then in 1824 Restoration Movement preacher James McVey, also from Kentucky, met with those 14 families representing 11 different churches. He helped them catch a vision for a new expression of church without denominational labels that would identify simply as “Christian”; it would be a place where truly everyone was welcome. God made a way, and what would soon be called Mountain Christian Church was born!   

We first met in a log cabin-type structure, but growth soon required construction of a white clapboard church building. The Civil War brought heavy losses to the church, but God made a way and Mountain ministered faithfully through it. We planted our first church in 1877, and we would go on to plant over a dozen more. Instrumental music was introduced in 1878, and in 1882 our preacher, Albert Norton, left to begin the first mission of the Christian Churches in India.  

God kept sending people and we kept welcoming them! In 1891 a second, larger house of worship was built; it was remodeled and enlarged in 1941. Under the visionary leadership of senior minister William P. Walker and his wife, Doll, in 1956 we relocated 500 feet to what is now known as Walker Chapel, a beautiful neo-Gothic stone structure with a stately steeple. Old-timers remember “walk over Sunday” when, like the children of Israel, we marched together to occupy our new “Promised Land!” God kept sending people and we kept welcoming them! An educational wing was added, then a K-8th school. In the 1960s Mountain experimented with a drive-in church service! Just pull into the parking lot and tune in on your car radio! I imagine the deacons went car-to-car collecting the offering! Members of the church were obedient to calls to the mission fields of Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe), Kenya, Mexico, Japan, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, England, Tanzania, and many other places around the world—and each one of them has harrowing stories with the same punchline: God made a way!  

“WALK OVER SUNDAY” IN 1956

RENEWED HOPE IN A DARK SEASON 

The year 1983 brought dark days for our church. There was a disagreement about a pastor and whether he should be dismissed. It got very contentious, and it split the church. About half of our 600 members left with two pastors to begin another church. It was a horribly difficult time. We had lasted through America’s Civil War, but now we had our own civil war within the church. Families hurt and friendships were damaged. On the heels of that horrible event came our annual Faith Promise Rally for missions, when we would pledge “over and above” giving in faith that God would provide. The first round of commitments had been collected before our congregation was reduced in size. That had produced a stretch-of-faith number. Now what would we do? Should we adjust the number downward to better reflect our decimated membership? We decided to leave the goal where it was and trust God.  

The day came when everyone made their gifts and pledges. Some took the cards to a back room to count them up while the rest of us sang and worshipped. Soon a leader came back in with the results. Everyone was on pins and needles. He cleared his throat, wiped his eyes, and read the total pledges . . . which exceeded the original goal! People erupted into applause and cheered; they stood on pews, hugged, and laughed. In that moment we knew God had made a way where there seemed to be no way!  

Still, we worried: Who would come out East to serve as minister with a depleted, discouraged little church that just lost half its members? But God made a way, and in 1984 God sent Dr. Charles and Barbara Cook who led us into a beautiful new era of unity and getting back to welcoming whomever God would send.  

Karla and I arrived in 1997, and I remember thinking on my first Sunday, with 700 people present, “I’m in way over my head here. There is no way!” I preached a message from Acts 2, doing my best to describe the beauty of Jesus’ church and being simply Christian. After the sermon, a man (who I later learned was an atheist) marched down the aisle straight toward me with a strange look on his face. I didn’t know any better, so I asked him what he wanted and gave him a microphone! He said, “I finally get it! I want to do this Jesus thing!” Moments later, he came up out of the baptism waters and pumped his fists in the air, jumped up and down, and in a crazy laugh shouted, “Woo hoo!” God has been making a way like that for these last 26 years, again and again.  

THE NEW LIFE CENTER

GOD MADE A WAY 

I could tell you so many stories. Like the time we were trying to build our New Life Center but couldn’t proceed because of multiple failed perc tests (a septic requirement). We didn’t know what to do. The whole project was about to screech to a halt. An elder suggested we pray one more time and test again. I rolled my eyes, but we prayed. The next day he went out and dug yet another hole—and it perced! The project moved forward, and God made a way!  

Or like the time we felt called to plant a new church just down the road, and sent off four full-time staff members and nearly 300 members so God could launch Community Christian Church one exit away. It was scary, but God filled those spots in no time and made a way!  

Or the time Tom Moen, our global missions pastor, and I were sent to Africa to find a new mission partner, and at the last minute we connected with Mary and Wallace Kamau with Missions of Hope International. They had grown their holistic, Christ-centered ministry that provides education, health care, food, and Jesus to reach children and families amid the most abject poverty we’d ever witnessed in the slums. When we saw hundreds of children’s names on a waiting list, we promised to help get every one of them into school. We came home and shared the need with the Mountain people and many other churches, and by God’s grace, that partnership today serves over 30,000 children in 36 centers!  

EPICENTER KIDS

I could tell you about campuses that met in Catholic schools and health clubs (no way!—yes way!), or opening the EPICENTER, a beautiful community center that seemed impossible at first. But last year, EPICENTER served 11,000 people, including 712 ex-criminal offenders, and gave away 250,000 pounds of food, and it now has two locations. Or launching our Aberdeen Campus in the middle of COVID. No way!  

STANDING FIRM 

What’s the secret sauce to Mountain’s enduring health and longevity? I’m hesitant to say it’s anything we’re doing at all. But we do try to “stand firm, and let nothing move [us]” (1 Corinthians 15:58) from the following key commitments: 

  • Stick to the Mission. We are mission-driven. It’s easy for churches to drift, and make it about “us,” and forget why we’re here! We’re not here to play games; we’re trying to make it hard to go to Hell in Maryland! “Mission first” is our mantra, and our mission is to “make more and better disciples.” If a decision ever comes down to choosing between making ourselves more comfortable or reaching out to one more lost person, we are going to do whatever it takes to reach out. Every single time. And once a person says yes to Jesus, we have clear pathways and make it natural to follow and obey him for a lifetime.  
  • Stand firm on essentials. Holding fast to the same Restoration ideals that formed us 200 years ago—like scriptural authority and striving for unity—and the core matters of our faith (and allowing liberty in nonessentials) are more important now than ever. Preach it, live it, stand firm.  
  • Strong leadership matters. The church can rise no higher than its leaders. Leaders are too often the “lid” instead of the “lift.” Capable elders, carefully selected, within a healthy, biblical governance model, partnered with competent staff form a powerful team. Choosing wisely and building trust lets us move at the speed of the Holy Spirit.  
  • Stay humble, stay hungry. If anything good has happened at Mountain in 200 years, it’s not because of us, it’s in spite of us! Stay humble! At the same time, we refuse to become complacent and to think we’ve arrived. Yesterday’s medals can become shackles in tomorrow’s race. We keep a future focus with fresh vision. We believe nothing in our past compares with the future God has in store for us. We look back with gratitude at the people of faith who have gone before us; but we stand on their shoulders and peer forward with expectancy, believing to our core that God is about to do a new thing!  

Mountain has come through the Civil War, two World Wars, cold wars, and cyber wars. We’ve been here through the Great Depression and multiple economic disasters. We’ve survived dark days of social upheaval, political turmoil, and not one, but two pandemics. Through it all, when there seemed to be no way . . . God made a way!   

Mountain’s “life verse” is Psalm 118:23: “The Lord has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes.” It’s easy to get that backwards: “Look at all this cool stuff we’ve done for you, God! Isn’t it marvelous in your eyes?” In reality, the Lord has done this, and we marvel.  

For 200 years that’s been the story of Mountain. And it’s the story of the church where you serve, too. Because for 2,000 years God has been doing what he promised: building his church. And whatever congregations may come and go in the meantime, until the kingdom has come in its fullness, the gates of hell will not prevail against Jesus’ church.  

Ben Cachiaras serves as lead pastor of Mountain Christian Church located in and around Joppa, Maryland. 

2 Comments

  1. David Faith

    Thank you Ben for sharing Mountain Christian’s story of how God has made a way for the gospel to be shared, believers to be discipled & God’s Kingdom to grow!

  2. Kevin Dooley

    “The Lord has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

    So true. Wonderful testimony of God faithfully making a way where there was no way!

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