LIMA — On the outside, everything looks the same. The sign at 2223 Shawnee Road still reads “Shawnee Presbyterian Church.” However, while it looks like business as usual from the outside, it is a season of new beginnings, with a new pastor, Jim Oates, and an influx of members from what was The Oasis on West Elm (United Church of Christ). With this new beginning comes a new name — Faith Christian Church.
Faith Christian is a pioneer in that there has never been a merger between a UCC and a Presbyterian Church USA congregation in the United States.
“There aren’t many Presbyterian/United Church of Christ congregations to model from,” Oates, formerly the pastor of The Oasis for four years, said.
Although this is a new experience for both congregations, they were not unknown to each other. Shawnee Presbyterian and The Oasis had a long history together. In fact, although they have just now merged, the idea of these two churches coming together was not a new one.
“These two churches, about six years ago, talked about merging then, because they had shared a Bible school,” Oates said. “We had usually held it in at Oasis, and folks from Shawnee would come and volunteer and bring kids. But neither church was willing to give up their building. So the merger talks kind of went away.”
However, tougher economic times prompted The Oasis to revisit the idea.
“We were given a lot of money in the past from stocks,” Oates said. “When the stock market crashed, we had been living off a lot of those dollars, and we lost something like $50,000.” That, combined with dealing with the rising costs of heating and maintaining an old building, forced The Oasis to make some difficult decisions.
“In June 2008, we had to have a serious discussion about what our future would be,” Oates said. In that discussion, four options were presented to the Oasis congregation: closing and letting the church die, selling the building and meeting at another church, selling and meeting at a storefront, or merging with another church.
“We talked about it, and they said that closing and dying wasn’t an option,” Oates said.
Meanwhile, Shawnee Presbyterian had a part-time pastor who was planning on retiring. So when The Oasis contacted them about merging, they were very receptive to the idea.
“So we scheduled a joint meeting, and that was in August 2008,” Oates said.
That became the first of several meetings, leading to joint services that November and December. Those services, plus the deteriorating financial situation at The Oasis, prompted the UCC congregation to shut its doors in the beginning of 2009.
“We decided that we were going to worship here,” Oates said. “I was going to be the pastor, but we had separate congregations. We didn’t change our name, and we didn’t merge our finances. There was still Shawnee Presbyterian and there was still The Oasis.”
However, these two separate congregations continued to work toward unification. The next step was drafting a new church constitution.
“There were seven Presbyterian session members and there were seven Oasis council members, and they met together to write it,” Oates said. “They met three times, and they spent over 10 hours going line by line. They did some amazing work.”
That work was indeed successful as the two churches formally merged at the beginning of 2010, having membership in both the PCUSA and the UCC.
While they have been able to come together, there are still some adjustments that are being made by both former congregations.
“Shawnee Presbyterian people kind of looked the same — all white, middle-class kind of folks,” Oates said. “At Oasis, we had biracial folks, African-American folks, and a couple of lesbian couples, so this church here went from a pretty white, suburban church, until — well, now I think we’re probably the most diverse congregation around.” However, while there are still growing pains, there are signs of growing unity.
“One of those diverse families had a crisis and they didn’t come for a while,” Oates said, “and one of the longtime Shawnee Presbyterian members came in and said, ‘Jim, what happened? Because if somebody said something, I’m going to fix it.’ Those were powerful words. It wasn’t anything that happened here, and that family’s back and everything’s fine. But that’s a testament to what everyone’s about here.”
Also, there has been the issue of blending two different worship styles, with The Oasis having worshipped in a more relaxed fashion and Shawnee having a more formal method.
“We still sing some praise songs on the screen, but we sing hymns every Sunday,” Oates said. “Once in a while, we put in the prayers of confession, and I’ll try to do a more Presbyterian style of worship. We do a blended worship, and I think we do it very well.”
Although the sign out front may still say “Shawnee Presbyterian,” this new partnership is already forming its own identity, living up to its new name.
“Prayer is one of our values. It’s really undergirded what this is all about,” Oates said. “We’re about having faith in God and what God’s calling us to. Jesus said that everything hinges on two things: loving God and loving your neighbor. That’s what we’re about.”
• For details and service times, call Faith Christian Church at 419-229-4136.