A stop in Statesville: The Rev. Gerald Bontrager one Sunday found himself a pastor without a church – at a church in Statesville without a pastor.
Bontrager had left a long-term pastor's job in Ohio after feeling burned out.
Months later, on a drive to Florida to interview at several churches, he stopped in Statesville, spent the night and attended Front Street Baptist the next day.
A greeter at the church door asked Bontrager if he was new, then told him the church did not have a pastor.
“To make a long story short, I became pastor of that church for five years,” Bontrager said.
But his passion was for church planting, and when Front Street Baptist decided to start three churches in the summer of 2004, Bontrager agreed to lead the group headed to Mooresville.
Small groups began meeting in people's houses in Mooresville, then moved to Lakeshore Elementary/Middle School for Sunday services. Bontrager led Front Street Baptist and Grace Fellowship by the Lake for two years and, in 2006, became Grace's full-time pastor.
Today, the church will meet for the first time on 15 acres it is buying on Bluefield Road, though there are no plans for a building yet.
Relationships and ministry: Members of the growing church never intended to meet at schools long-term, and Bontrager said he drove by the Bluefield Road property on his way to work.
“There was this one piece of property that always jumped out at me,” he said. “Finally, I just felt the nudging from the Spirit to check on it.”
When church members called the property owners, who are building a retirement community across the street, the owners were thrilled.
Grace Fellowship is now buying the land, and leaders already have talked about how to minister to their future neighbors across the street.
Ministry at Grace Fellowship focuses on building relationships between people and between people and God. Small groups meet throughout the week, and the church offers ministries for children and middle-schoolers.
The church just hired worship pastor Jason Hudson to lead its praise band.
“We don't want to do church in the same way that every other church does church,” Bontrager said. “We want to be creative, to be different, to be unique and put more emphasis on relationships.”
Building a memory: Every family has been asked to bring a large stone to today's service on the Bluefield Road property, where they will build a memorial of their faith journey. The memorial will be a reminder that God has worked through Grace Fellowship's small congregation, Bontrager said.
“That will stand as a memorial to what God did, not to what we did,” Bontrager said.
The congregation of about 150 is raising money to pay for the land through a challenge Bontrager drew from the Bible. In August, each church member received an envelope with $1, $2 or $5 and was asked to invest it, following an example in one of Jesus' parables.
“We said, ‘Look, as crazy as this sounds, take this little bit of seed money and invest it,'” Bontrager said.
He said children have made money from lemonade stands and selling cookies, and some adults have held a community yard sale.
Bontrager used his $1 to print fliers asking people to sponsor him in a half-marathon he'll run in November. He's already received around $31,000 in pledges.
The investment challenge will end after Thanksgiving, and today Bontrager will encourage people to continue investing and reinvesting their seed money despite recent economic difficulties.
The community is invited to today's service on Bluefield Road, Bontrager said, and he tells newcomers that this is not a church of “blender-inners.”
“Our goal is not to be the largest church in Mooresville,” he said. “We want to be the church that has the greatest impact.”
Grace Fellowship will meet at 10 a.m. today at its new property, which is 1.5 miles north of the intersection of N.C. 150 and Williamson/Bluefield Road or one mile south on Bluefield off Cornelius Road.
For more information, visit www.gf-lake.org or call Bontrager at 704-682-0975.
The church's regular Sunday service is at 10 a.m. at Lakeshore Elementary/Middle School in Mooresville.