URC seeks right house for worship in DC


bldg 2For the last five years, Christ Reformed Church (URCNA) has met for worship in the historic Grace Reformed Church building, located on 15th Street in downtown Washington, DC. Like other Gothic Revival style churches, the building features lofty spires and luminous stained-glass windows. But the architecture stands alone in its sculptural tributes to key places and persons of the Reformation.

About to enter the front of the building, you’d see an arch over the double doors that bears the name “Grace Reformed Church” and depicts Christ’s ascension. You might pause in surprise when you noticed the arch is flanked by shields for the cities of Zurich and Geneva. Lift your eyes higher, above the soaring stained-glass window to the very top of the building’s facade, and you’d see a carved figure holding the coat of arms for Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate, who commissioned the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism.

A Sunday School building echoes the Gothic Revival style as well as the theological emphasis. Dr. Brian Lee, Christ Reformed Church’s minister, calls the building’s outside wall on the south, “Washington DC’s version of the Reformation Wall.” Sculpted elements list Zwingli and Calvin, Bullinger and Beza, Ursinus and Olevianus.

How did the structures come to be embellished with such distinctly Reformed touches? The history page on the church’s website provides the answer. In order to appropriately represent the church’s philosophy, architect Paul J. Pelz studied the history of the Reformed church and became inspired by it. Sculptor James F. Earley incorporated the unique names and symbols, contributing to a final appearance that Pelz believed made Grace Reformed “more artistic than any church in this city.”

pewsThe Reformed Church Messenger, the denomination newsletter, agreed with that assessment while affirming the clarity of the building’s Reformed witness. An article about the church’s dedication in 1903 reported, “In erecting this building the Reformed Church has done an appropriate thing in a beautiful way…. Within and without it is as beautiful and artistic as it is substantial and complete…. It stands as a monument first of all to the power and grace of the kingdom of Jesus Christ but it represents at the same time the history and genius of the Reformed Church….. The style of architecture; the shields of Geneva, Zurich and the Palatinate; the emblems cut into stone arches over the entrances to the church and the memorials in the windows and the chancel, combine to make one harmonious story easily understood by anyone who knows the Reformed church.”

A structure with such Reformed elements seems the perfect place for the newly-organized URC congregation to meet, except for the fact that the building is for sale and Christ Reformed Church needs to find a new meeting location once it sells.

The building belongs to Grace Reformed Church, formerly a Reformed Church in the United States congregation, but now part of the United Church of Christ. The dwindling congregation, composed primarily of elderly parishioners, has realized for some time that it could not continue to maintain the building. In the summer of 2016, the church informed Christ Reformed that current rental arrangements would conclude soon.

FrederickAlthough the owners appear willing for the building to remain a place of worship and encouraged Christ Reformed to put together a proposal, that possibility does not seem likely. Church buildings in the DC area bring a premium sale price because real estate developers are keen to convert them into high-end condominiums or other lucrative secular uses. Because Grace Reformed Church, with its Sunday School building and parish house, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, its value could be even higher than average. While Dr. Lee hates to speculate, recent sales lead him to estimate the building could be sold for around $5 million. He foresees the proceeds being placed into a trust that would eventually benefit UCC charities.

While the loss of this unique location poses extreme challenges to the fledgling congregation, leaders and lay members are embracing the opportunity to assess and solidify the church’s vision and mission.

Dr. Brian Lee

“This is a blessing,” Dr. Lee says, “especially for a newly-organized church like ours, a precious opportunity to ask anew where the Lord would have us plant our pilgrim flag and how he would have us serve him in this time and place.”

About a dozen volunteers, representing a broad range of the congregation’s demographic, are meeting for prayer and discernment. Part of their task is to determine questions and issues to bring before the entire congregation. Do they want to continue meeting downtown as the only Reformed witness in the city? Or do they want to move out to the suburbs, where most of them live? Do they want to continue focusing exclusively on Sunday worship and fellowship or find a facility that will permit the implementation of mid-week programs? Parking in DC is a problem, and many residents prefer not to drive in or out of the city. Church leaders feel it is important for members of the congregation to have input and play an active role in the important decisions that must be made.

Dr. Lee views this as a two-step process. The first step is figuring out, “How do we want to live our life together?” And the second step follows. “If we do that, what kind of building do we need?”

He explains that doing ministry in the midst of a city with a highly-transitory population is very different from the situation experienced by many URC congregations. Churches in smaller towns often enjoy a “generational aspect” that provides continuity and foundational resources. By trial and error, Christ Reformed Church has been discovering the “little details” that work within its metropolitan context. Although many city churches have updated worship or made compromises in other areas, Dr. Lee believes the congregation remains committed to the priority of worship that centers on the preached Word. Nevertheless, the church faces what he calls a “covenantal renewal moment.”

“This is a big step in the life of our church,” he says. “We’ve always been somewhat ‘accidental’ in our worship space, and we desire now to make a more intentional and long-term commitment in a particular neighborhood with a particular vision.”

Christ Reformed Church began meeting for worship on November 4, 2007, under the supervision of Zeltenreich URC (New Holland, PA). Classis Eastern U.S. concurred with the request for organization on October 14, 2015, and a celebratory worship service was held on January 21, 2016.

The congregation consists of about 70 total souls, although its composition is constantly changing. One family recently moved out of state, but two young women are being instructed toward membership. In addition to Dr. Lee, the church is served by two deacons and an elder. A former elder, who served for many years, continues as a member of the church.

As Christ Reformed Church faces the challenge of what may well be the loss of its historic and unique location, the congregation requests prayer for unity.

“We’re not so much seeking a particular outcome, as we desire spiritual unity through this process,” Dr. Lee says. “And stay tuned to see how the Lord blesses us during this time. He is the Lord of Provision, and we know he will.”

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 18-20 of the October 12, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.


Somerset Reformed Fellowship: New shoot from deep root

Sernas family
The Ruben and Leah Sernas family

A United Reformed Church is being planted in Somerset County, Maryland, where American Presbyterianism first took root.

Somerset Reformed Fellowship meets in Princess Anne, MD, under the supervision of Pompton Plains (NJ) Reformed Bible Church. Although the group hopes to soon lease Grace Episcopal Church, most recent meetings have been in Manokin Presbyterian Church—one of several churches organized in the 1660s by Scottish Presbyterian missionary Francis Makemie, known as the Father of American Presbyterianism.

Somerset County is located on the southern part of Maryland’s “Eastern Shore,” the nine counties lying along the east side of Chesapeake Bay. A history of Manokin Presbyterian Church, written in 1910, relates that many people who settled the area as early as 1666 were Calvinists. While a fair number of residents are aware of local Presbyterian history, few are familiar with Reformed theology.

Church planter Ruben Sernas hopes to spread the word and the Word, by helping the budding congregation become firmly rooted.

“Lord willing, we are hoping that our church plant will become fully organized in the next four to five years,” he says. “We want to establish a confessional Reformed Church that is committed to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.”

Rev. Sernas served the Spanish language ministry of Ontario URC in California until Pompton Plains RBC called him as a home missionary to plant the Somerset church. Several Classis Eastern US ministers participated in the installation service on June 13, 2014. Rev. Rich Kuiken opened the service, Rev. Steve Arrick preached the sermon, Rev. Bill Boekestein read the formulary, Rev. Paul Murphy exhorted the minister, and Rev. Sam Perez exhorted the congregation.

Roberto Rossi and Ruben Sernas

On June 22, a welcome service at Manokin Presbyterian Church introduced Rev. Sernas and his family to people in the Princess Anne area. Rev. Roberto Rossi officiated, and Rev. Brian Lee preached. Deacon Gus Mongiello read the Old Testament passage, and Elder Brian Okken read the New Testament passage. The over 60 attendees included local clergy, supporters, as well as potential members and visitors.

The Council of Pompton Plains RBC has appointed a team to oversee the work. The Somerset Reformed Fellowship ministry team consists of Rev. Sernas, Rev. Rossi, Elder Brain Okken, and Deacon Gus Mongiello. Rev. Sernas and the team work closely with Jason Punches and James Deck, who have been heavily involved with the Somerset group for all or most of its existence.

Rev. Rossi explains that supervising consistory hopes to maintain close contact despite the distance between Pompton Plains, NJ, and Princess Anne, MD (about 250 miles).

“In a technological age, communication at a distance is relatively easy,” he says. “We are hoping to have monthly meetings via Skype or conference call in order to discuss pastoral/financial concerns and to encourage Pastor Ruben as he labors in the ministry.” The plan includes sending groups of elders and deacons to the church plant on a quarterly basis.

Jason Punches-Sernas
Jason Punches and Ruben Sernas

Somerset Reformed Fellowship began when 34 people met in the home of James & Lois Deck in March of 2011. The following Sunday, a few of these people prayed in the parking lot of Grace Episcopal Church, specifically that the building would become available for the group. At the time of this writing, details to lease the building were being finalized.

That spring between 20 and 30 people regularly met, and the group adopted the name Somerset Reformed Fellowship. They began meeting on Sundays evenings at Manokin Presbyterian Church in July of 2011. But the group became smaller and smaller until only four people heard Rev. Brian Lee preach in November, 2011.

James Deck relates, “We liked him and his message.”

The tiny group persevered with regular gatherings at different venues and gradually grew. It explored affiliation options by inviting different ministers to preach on Sunday evenings or speak at weekday White Horse Inn discussion groups. One of those ministers was Pastor Sernas, with whom the group developed a close relationship.

Pastor Rossi explains that when the Church Planting Committee of Classis Eastern US asked Pompton Plains RBC to oversee the new church plant, the Somerset group asked Pompton Plains to consider Rev. Sernas.

“Our council was very pleased with Pastor Ruben and his zeal for preaching, teaching, missions and evangelism,” Pastor Rossi says. “Our Lord has richly blessed him with many gifts to do the work of a church planter. The Council and congregation of Pompton Plains Reformed Bible Church believe that he is a very good ‘fit’ for the church planting work in Princess Anne.”

Mongiello, Lee, Sernas, Rossi, Okken
Deacon Mongiello, Dr. Lee, Rev. Sernas, Rev. Rossi, and Elder Okken

The Sernas family moved to Princess Anne in May. Pastor Ruben and Leah have four children and expected another at the time of this writing.

This past summer, about 20 people met with Somerset Reformed Fellowship at a United Methodist Church on Sunday mornings in June. Up to 40 or more gathered at Manokin Presbyterian on Sunday evenings.

The group has been preparing to meet at Grace Episcopal Church, when it hopes to begin two services. Until a lease can be finalized, the congregation continues with the Sunday evening service and a weekly prayer meeting. The White Horse Inn discussion group will begin again in the fall.

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 14 & 15 of the August 27, 2014, issue of Christian Renewal.