MONTGOMERY - On Sunday, February 19, the Christ Lutheran Church, 50 East Houston Avenue, Montgomery will be closing its doors for good following their last service which is scheduled for 3 p.m. "It's going to be a sad day," said Margie Miller from Montgomery who has been an active member for most of her life. "I have been here for 60 years," she said.
The decision to close as a congregation was made close to October according to Pastor Gunther Bernhardt, who has been with the parish for the last decade. "We just don't have the people anymore," he replied. "It's a grieving process, trying to let things go. There are stages here, not wanting to accept it. It takes time," he added.
"Many of our children aren't here anymore," said volunteer and active member, Mary Tobias who is now in her mid 90's and moved to Montgomery in 1940. Mary said she liked to volunteer for everything, especially the large Rotary dinners they used to serve. "We used to make vegetable soup dinners," said Miller. Both women stated they did not want to leave Montgomery and really enjoyed working as volunteers over the years for the church overseeing many weddings, funerals, and family celebrations. "Our last wedding was in November," Pastor Bernhardt sadly noted.
Margie Miller and Mary Tobias, long time volunteers with the Christ Lutheran Church in Montgomery, help Pastor Gunther Bernhardt prepare for their last service on Sunday, February 19, the Sunday of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The church will be closing its doors after several long decades of service. It was originally built in 1891.
February 19 was chosen as the last service because it is Transfiguration Sunday, the final and climactic Sunday in the Epiphany season. In the New Testament, Jesus is transfigured and becomes radiant upon a mountain while He is with three of his apostles. "The disciples want to stay with Him, but they are to go down into the valley and be with the people," explained Pastor Bernhardt as he showed the scene's depiction on the stained glass window behind the front altar. There will also be a service earlier that day, as usual, at 10 a.m. The special service at 3 p.m. will be presiding with the Bishop of Upper Susquehanna Synod from Lewisburg.
"Our contributions used to be wonderful," he explained. "We had lots of money. Not many were coming to the services on Sunday mornings, and funding became a difficulty to sustain viability of operations such as heating oil, no matter how conservative we have become," added the Pastor.
The ladies reminisced about the 70's and 80's when there was a full church, standing room only, full Sunday School attendance, and many parish suppers. "Every one of my children were married and baptized here," said Tobias. "And my grandchildren took catechism classes here." Miller also replied, "My boys were baptized here too."
"Children would come after school and we would cook them a meal," said Tobias, referring to the Jesus And Me program. Throughout the decades, these ladies were two of the biggest backbones of the church according to Pastor Bernhardt who arrived from Germany in 2002 to lead the parish.
Looking back, there will be much sadness and grief. "This is like a pivotal point for the people who were there, looking back at the long decades. It's more about letting go at this time," continued Pastor Bernardt. "We are working on continuing the legacy."
All records and historical documents which date back to 1891 will be transferred to the Gettysburg Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
Centrally located, throughout the years, many programs operated under the church's umbrella, well known as "Footprints of Montgomery." The food pantry will now be moved to the Lutheran "Brick" Church, and the building has been put up for sale along with the parsonage. "Even the hymnals are for sale," Tobias said. "Everything is." The building has been appraised at $450,000 according to Ed Rymsza from Montgomery who has been offering his services in the office. "The building has beautiful hardware and floors," he said. "But the demand for used churches is very low."
Pastor Bernhardt said that he will really miss going to the Montgomery elementary school every Wednesday afternoon where he helps the children with building self-esteem, giving them guidance and preparing them for lessons of life. He is unsure of his future plans, and is hoping to find a ministry elsewhere for he will be receiving his American citizenship on Feb. 29 at the Lycoming County Courthouse. Originally the Bishop coordinated his assignment here in Montgomery. "The people here are the most committed here to the gospel I've met. It's just going to be a sad day," replied Pastor Bernhardt.
When asked about other churches closing, he added, "The main line denominations are struggling."
The closing of churches and the merging of congregations in this day and age are becoming compelling challenges. The Institute of Biblical Leadership reports that according to Leadership magazine 85 percent of American churches have plateaued or are in a state of declining attendance. The Barna Group states that no more than 10 percent of American churches can be described as highly effective; and two-thirds of pastors strongly agree that spiritual revival is the most pressing issue facing the church today. World magazine has recently highlighted the high number of churches closing or about to close their doors. One author states that more than 3500 churches die each year in this country.