A church grows in Jennersville
Heather Hood and Jake Cartmell (seated) with Johnny Johnson (standing, left) and Jim Conkle (standing, right) at the new Willowdale Chapel Jennersville Campus.
By John Chambless
As the campus pastor of the new Willowdale Chapel Jennersville, Johnny Johnson is still getting used to saying "we" when referring to himself and his staff members. For the last four years, Johnson was the family ministries pastor for Living Faith Community Church in Jennersville, which had grown from its roots as the Church in the Vineyard and moved to a large facility on Jennersville Road about nine years ago.
But the congregation and staff at Living Faith continually struggled with getting traction in the community. "The church wasn't dying, but we also weren't growing," Johnson said. "We had a lot of faithful, loving servants here, but it was a small group of us making the church run."
A year ago, the Living Faith staff members got word that Willowdale Chapel, based in Kennett Square, was looking to expand to the Jennersville area. That news sounded like a death sentence for the struggling church.
But then a plan to merge the two churches was proposed. Board members from Living Faith and Willowdale met last August to discuss whether a cooperative venture would be beneficial for both sides. A series of forums and discussions last spring paved the way for "Better Together," in which Living Faith would be folded into Willowdale. The missions and worship styles of the two churches were similar, and the big picture was attractive: Living Faith would not have to close, and Willowdale would find an already built, modern facility with a congregation already in place.
On June 1, Living Faith held their last service at the large building, and Willowdale began making some changes to the facility for their first service on June 8. A new stage, upgrades to the sound and video equipment and new chairs were put in place, along with decorations in the children's classrooms.
During an interview this week at the new Willowdale Chapel Jennersville Campus, associate pastor Jim Conkle said the process was carefully considered and meticulously put in motion. What could have been a contentious takeover has become a positive move for two congregations.
"I've been on staff at Willowdale for seven years, so I was in on some of the conversations," he said. "For us on the Willowdale side, when we looked at where our people were traveling from, Jennersville was the main population. In some ways, we already had a congregation in Jennersville -- but people were driving into Kennett. We had 150 people here, so when we knew we needed to expand, the obvious place was Jennersville.
"We had anticipated renting something in this area," he added. "Maybe being in a school auditorium. We anticipated some very grassroots beginnings. We never dreamed that it was going to take this turn, but we certainly are excited that it did."
The property has 20,000 square feet of space and sits on 15 acres. It's a close match for the sleek, modern architectural style of the Willowdale building, which welcomes capacity crowds for its Sunday services and a broad range of outreach programs.
Johnson said former Living Faith pastor Chip Roper is doing well after the transition. "He and his family are looking to move up to New York City," Johnson said.
Coming aboard on June 1 was Jake Cartmell, 22, who is the director of music and worship at the new church. "Inheriting the people, the volunteers on my team, has been so amazing," he said. "This last Sunday, I led worship with my whole team made up of Living Faith folks. I am so blessed to have them. I know that sometimes in this kind of process, it can feel like a big church coming in, but the truth is that the volunteers have been welcoming and wonderful."
The contemporary music that's a Willowdale trademark is being duplicated at Jennersville. With a blend of Christian rock and praise music as the basis, even old hymns are given modern arrangements to draw a new generation to worship.
"The goal isn't to have the coolest music in Pennsylvania," Cartmell said. "The goal is to have the people of this church engage in worship well. That is my goal. My focus is on how we help these people, who have gone through such a change, feel at home here."
Stepping in as the head of children's ministry at Jennersville is Heather Hood, who is jumping in quickly with "Wipeout," a sports and arts summer camp that has been a mainstay in Kennett Square and is making the transition to Jennersville from July 14 to 18. The program, modeled on the popular TV show, features kid-friendly attractions like messy obstacles, a zip-lining course, a climbing wall, and lessons in perseverence for children ages kindergarten through fifth grade. "We tell them, 'You know, when you're wiped out, the one person who can make a positive change in your life is God,'" Hood said.
The Kennett Square version was a sellout once again this year, Hood said, and about 135 children are registered at Jennersville, with room for more. More than half of the participants in the summer program are not current Willowdale members, she said, so "Wipeout" is a huge outreach to the community.
"And we're getting about 65 children between the two services on Sundays," Hood said.
During a tour of the children's wing, Hood showed off rooms for high schoolers and middle school students with newly painted walls, as well as a playhouse room that has a stage and musical instruments, with space for a real clubhouse to be built inside during August.
After getting the new team up and running during the summer, Johnson said he and Conkle will be reaching out to the community in October with "One Day," a week of community projects and service opportunities. "For the next couple of months, we'll figure things out inside our walls, but then quickly we'll start serving our community," Conkle said.
The philosophy behind the expansion to Jennersville, Conkle said, was that at the Willowdale location, "we're limited -- the size of the facility was going to cap us at some point. We knew we needed more space. We also knew it's just better to go to a church in your own community, rather than drive half an hour."
Hood said that in March, a sample service put on by Willowdale for the Living Faith congregation made a convert out of her 7-year-old daughter. "She was a little hesitant about who she would know at this campus. The first person we saw was her art teacher from her school. Then we walked into the children's space, and the first child she saw was from her class," Hood said, smiling. "It was great to see the connection points."
It's that sort of community connection that makes a church feel more like a home.
"Willowdale has an amazing children's ministry," Johnson said, "so we're definitely going to duplicate things like that. We're duplicating the middle school and high school ministry here on Sundays mornings as well."
Johnson said that the welcoming philosophy of Willowdale lead pastor Greg Lafferty will also be carried over to the Jennersville site. "We love when visitors come. Our doors are open," Johnson said. "We want you to come here and join us, wherever you are on your faith journey."
Conkle added, "Come and belong to a community. We'll learn things together."
There will be a July 13 welcome lunch at the Jennersville campus to introduce the church and answer any questions from the community. Information about the new campus, and registration for "Wipeout," is also available at www.willowdalechapel.org.