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Walking our Faith: How our churches grow spiritually, physically

Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson
Walking Our Faith

I slipped into St. Mary’s Catholic Church a few minutes late on Tuesday morning so sat in the back of the church. From there I had of the best vantage point to notice that there seem to be more people attending the 8 a.m. Mass than before. Yes, I did count.

This observation made me quite happy because I have been praying for a few years for a spiritual revival in Summit County. I prayed that Summit County churches would grow not only in attendance, but in our love for God and each other.

Whenever I leave Tuesday or Thursday morning Mass, I wistfully look across the street toward the little yellow church on the corner of French Street and Ski Hill Road, which is where I work as the parish administrator two days a week.



Normally, my commute to the office from morning Mass would be a matter of a few steps to cross the street from Saint Mary’s Catholic Church to St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church and then upstairs to my office.

But for the past year and a half, St. John’s has been surrounded by a high chain-link fence as it undergoes an extensive renovation.



I was able to visit the church for the first time since the renovation began to see the incredible progress that has been made on Tuesday afternoon.

What began as a $300,000 cosmetic freshening turned into a $3 million project that includes an excavation for a new basement and community center. It strips the interior of the church down to the studs, maintaining its historic exterior but modernizing the interior while repurposing much of the original building material — including the altar.

Dubbed The Gathering Place, the downstairs area will allow St. John’s to double the size of the weekly community dinners that they have hosted for years, from seating 40 people to more than 80 for a nourishing meal. It also provides private space for the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that have been held weekly at St. John’s.

The Gathering Place will be connected to an elevator to make it completely accessible to those with mobility issues, as well.

What I saw on Tuesday at St. Mary’s in the morning and at St. John’s in the afternoon got me thinking about how our churches grow.

A church is like any organization. It takes on a life of its own, and if it’s not growing, it’s perishing. But they don’t grow in one particular direction, such as the number of bodies in pews. I believe a church grows spiritually and materially, and not always at the same time or in the same direction.

St. John’s faced the dual challenge of the displacement of its congregation, due to the renovation and the pandemic. While this might have been devastating to St. John’s spiritual and physical growth, it seems to have gloriously had the opposite impact.

When the men’s weekly Bible study switched to Zoom, they gained members instead of losing them. St. John’s snowbirds were now able to join the weekly gathering from all corners of the United States. They found the same in their Zoom Sunday services.

I’ve asked Charlie Brumbaugh, rector of St. John’s, to discuss the church renovation and its impact on the life of St. John’s faith community:

“For the past 15 months we have grappled with twin challenges: adapting to the pandemic quarantine on one hand, while simultaneously moving forward with a major renovation of our historical church building on the other. But I am delighted that through it all St. John’s has been profoundly blessed. When we couldn’t be together in person, technology enabled us to worship, to learn, to serve and to stay connected. And the temporary loss of our beautiful, sacred space will soon give way to joy as we once again use it — from the very foundations to the tip of the bell tower — as a locus for loving service both within and beyond our parish family.

“Some people criticize the emphasis on church buildings, saying that our resources should be poured into flesh-and-blood ministry rather than brick-and-mortar projects. This critique of the so-called ‘edifice complex’ is not without merit. However, the beauty and utility of church buildings give expression to the love of God that is made known to us in this world, the nitty-gritty of life. From the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., to St. John’s in Breckenridge, these holy places gather, inspire, nourish and send God’s people. St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church has served Summit County for nearly 130 years. I’m confident that we’ll soon be good to go for another 130, at least!”

I’ve heard that Father Dyer United Methodist Church is contemplating their own renovation in the coming year and I look forward to writing about in this column.

I believe that the time that we spent apart during the pandemic, the ways we were called to find new ways to worship, created a deeper love for our faith traditions.

I know that St. John’s created a Zoom-based weekday evening prayer group, just we did at Our Lady of Peace/St. Mary’s, both of which are still going strong even after we have returned to in-person worship.

I believe the growing numbers of worshipers that I am seeing at weekday Mass at St. Mary’s reflects a faith that has grown deeper in our community, as well as a hunger to gather together to worship God.

Please email me and tell me how your church has evolved over the past 15 months. I’d love to share your story with our Summit County Community.


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