Personal Reflection on Attending a Service at the Evangelical Free Church of Blairstown, New Jersey

The Wondering Eagle visited the Evangelical Free Church of Blairstown in early March of 2019. This is my observation and what I experienced at Blairstown. This is a congregation that has lost a large number of members. The large number of vacant seats hints that something occurred. And yet if I did not know the history I would not likely have picked up on the issues at Todd Nathan’s church. 

“I am turned into a sort of machine for observing facts and grinding out conclusions.”

Charles Darwin 

“The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.”

Bertrand Russell 

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
    and every tongue shall confess[a] to God.”

Romans 14:11 ESV 

Blairstown worship service 

This post details visiting the Evangelical Free Church of Blairstown. The visit took place in early March of 2019. 

 

Why Visit Evangelical Free Church of Blairstown? 

Writing some of these stories are very sensitive especially when a church develops problems. For myself I have made it a commitment to visit some of the churches I have written about. The reason why is to try and understand the church and connect with the people who came from the church. To see people, or the pastor in their natural surrounding can reveal quite a bit. To observe and pay attention to the crowd, the service, how people engage, etc… can teach a person a lot about the culture of the church. As a result this blog has sat through quite a few services on the East Coast but also in other parts of the United States. Before writing about Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania I sat through their service. You can read about that in, “Steve Estes and Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania: A Painful Story of Domestic Abuse, Inappropriate Church Discipline, and Failed EFCA Polity.” Likewise when approached about issues in an Acts 29 church in Richmond, Virginia called Remnant I sat through that as well and analyzed it. You can read about that in, “The Disturbing and Cult-Like Behavior of Acts 29 Remnant Church in Richmond, Virginia is Adversely Affecting Lives.” Recently I was in Chicago and I was able to sit through Harvest Bible Chapel Rolling Meadows  which is immersed in scandal and problems. That was written about in, “The Wondering Eagle Visits Harvest Bible Chapel Rolling Meadows.” But to be honest, not every time I attend a church is for the topic of scandal. There are also a number of good places out there and its neat to observe and interact with their staff. For example I sat through an EFCA service in Kansas City, Missouri called Christ Community Church last fall and I was deeply impressed by what I witnessed as well as what those involved communicated to me. You can read about that in, “Tyler Chernesky of Christ Community Church in Kansas City on Friendship and Proverbs. Seeing What was Taught in a Sermon Play Out in Kansas and Missouri.” So visiting Blairstown, especially as I live on the East Coast is a trip I planned to take. Honestly after the discussions that took place with people I wanted to see the church, sit through a worship service, and observe the leadership and see how the congregation acts. Lastly in talking with former members of Blairstown I wanted to try and experience the church from their perspective. 

 

A Visit to Blairstown on March 3, 2019

The church service started at 10:30 and I showed up about ten minutes before the start of worship. What struck me as I walked into Blairstown is how empty the church is, as a body. The building had a lot of vacant space and I felt like it was too big for the current congregation. The other aspect that spooked me is that the church felt like a hospital. It was so white, so clean, it felt like a sterile medical environment. In looking around I picked up a lot of material to read and study. Included is a flyer from the Eastern District of the EFCA. When I went over to the coffee station to grab coffee I was stunned to realize that they had no coffee. All they had at Blairstown was tea. In my mind I wondered if that was due to the hemorrhaging of members and if budget cuts forced Blairstown to give up coffee. I will say, from California, to Missouri, and Wisconsin and the Washington, D.C. area this is the first time I encountered a church that had no coffee. That is usually one of the best aspects of evangelicalism and at Blairstown it was absent. 

When entering the sanctuary I sat in the far end almost into the gym. The row I sat in was the second one. The first person who greeted me was Christine. She shook my hand and asked me a question and I explained that that I was passing through. Then Todd Nathan and his wife came into the front row. Todd saw me and shook my hand and welcomed me. He commented that I was a spitting image of his son’s best friend. Todd was unique in that when he engaged me, in a busy room I felt, like I was the only one there in his presence. I felt showered with love and as if I was the undivided center of his attention. Todd asked me a couple of questions and I answered them. His wife was carrying a box of donuts and she shook my hand as well. Whereas Todd was more outgoing, his wife seemed to be a little withdrawn. Ray Snovosik came up and shook my hand. We spoke briefly he asked where I was from and I explained the Washington, D.C. area. Ray explained how he did real estate for a living. Before worship started Jim and Lisa also came up and shook my hand. So the church felt welcoming. I stood behind Todd Nathan and his wife in the church service. 

As worship started and people began to engage I paid attention. The worship was mostly contemporary with a couple of hymns mixed it. As people sat in their seats I noticed the large  number of empty chairs. Blairstown did communion and I felt like it was odd to do that knowing the conflict and what had taken place in the church. Then Todd preached about the topic of depression (which by the way I noticed was not uploaded into the website) I tried counting the people in the rows. A rough guess was about 125 to 140 possibly was in attendance. When Todd preached about depression I sat there and contemplated the stories people told me about their home church allegedly throwing them out and how many people were dealing with illness. As Todd preached I noticed that Christine, who was sitting next to me, was taking quite a bit of notes and was aggressive in writing.  As the service came to a close I started to walk away and Beth Halliwell the wife of the elder chair of Blairstown almost ran across the section to say hi, and she encouraged me to come back. I smiled and told her that I would. As I was leaving I checked out the library and studied it. Honestly I thought if was one of the better libraries that I have seen in an EFCA church. What also was good about it is that it was balanced in subject matter and in some ways differing theological viewpoints, Before I stepped out I bumped into John Veber at the door. He said hi and introduced himself, and I shook his hand. We exchanged pleasantries and I left. 

 

I Most Likely Would Not Have Known…

If I was just a regular visitor Blairstown would have seemed like a normal and healthy church. But before attending I studied a lot of documents I was provided and met with a number of people. So I went in knowing what took place behind the scenes. The only give away for me would have been the many vacant seats. For an established church like Blairstown that seemed odd. And in some rural areas people drive from miles away to attend their church. But looks can be deceiving. For those that think Blairstown is fine the challenge they will run into is that they also will run the risk of experiencing problems as well.  

 

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