The congregation at First Baptist Church isn’t huge – about 250 people – but its building at 216 E. Second St. is. It’s home to one of the oldest congregations in town, founded in 1873. Today, it’s made up of mostly older people.
The congregation at City Life Church, on the other hand, is huge – about 600 people – and it just keeps growing. It’s one of the city’s newest congregations, founded in 2011, and it’s made up mostly of those younger than 40.
But both churches share the same mission, their leaders say: serving God and serving the city of Wichita.
On Sunday, the two congregations will become one in a move that church leaders say will create a singular church community that is stronger together than it is apart.
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It’s two congregations located in downtown with a common sense of mission and a belief that God is bringing us together to accomplish more.
Casey Casamento, founder and lead pastor of City Life Church
“It’s a strategic decision,” said Casey Casamento, the founder and lead pastor of City Life Church. “It’s two congregations located in downtown with a common sense of mission and a belief that God is bringing us together to accomplish more.”
The combined church will call First Baptist’s 120,000-square-foot building home, but it will go by the name City Life Church. City Life is buying the First Baptist building, and Casamento will be the head pastor. Steve Toews, senior pastor at First Baptist for the past six years, will remain on the pastoral team. The pastors would not say how much City Life paid for the building.
The union will require both congregations to adjust their worship styles. Toews’ older congregation is more traditional and has deep roots in the city. The congregation is 144 years old, and the oldest part of the building was constructed in 1927. In its 1950s heydey, First Baptist claimed many prominent Wichitans as members. W.C. Coleman, the founder of the Coleman company, shipped the church’s extravagant stained-glass windows to Wichita from Europe.
Casamento’s younger congregants choose a more modern service with contemporary Christian music, complete with a full band. In its short history, congregation members have never met in a traditional church setting and have been leasing the Orpheum Theatre for Sunday services since 2013.
The early days of the union will be focused on finding a path both congregations are comfortable with, the two pastors say.
“We have a wonderful task of leading this transition of two congregations becoming one, and our first focus and our greatest prayer in the months ahead is that, by God’s grace, we will grow in love for one another and that we will grow in unity and thus be a stronger congregation.”
The merger was first proposed last fall by Casamento, who started his church five years ago with just six families. They met at Abode Venue, 1330 E. Douglas, for the first two years before outgrowing it and moving to the Orpheum. The setup has worked well, but without their own space, the members have been limited in the kind of outreach programs they can initiate, Casamento said.
250 congregants at First Baptist Church
600 congregants at City Life Church
Toews, whose congregation was using just a small part of its massive building, said he immediately saw advantages to a merger, and he said he was fine with not being the lead pastor. Since taking over for Dan Hawn, he said, he always privately saw himself as a transitional pastor. It wasn’t clear until Casamento approached him what that transition would be.
The two pastors took the idea to their congregations, and each had “town hall” meetings to discuss the pros and cons. Members of each congregation were encouraged to visit the other on a Sunday to see how their services differed, the pastors said.
Toews said his congregation’s main worry was that City Life’s services would be too contemporary. They also feared losing Toews as their leader. Casamento’s members, meanwhile, worried that the more traditional setting would change the vibe of their congregation and that maintaining such a large building would be financially draining.
When both congregations were asked to vote on the union in May, City Life’s voted 100 percent in favor. First Baptist’s voted 85 percent in favor.
Elements of both
Sunday’s 10:30 a.m. service is being planned by leaders from both congregations. Casamento will preach. Toews will lead prayers. Elements of each group’s former services will be incorporated.
It will feel different to people, but I think in a good way.
Steve Toews, senior pastor at First Baptist
“It will feel different to people,” Toews said, “but I think in a good way.”
Toews said the massive membership swell will give the building new life. It’s been well maintained over the years, he said, but it won’t hurt to have three times as many people contributing to its upkeep. Casamento said his congregants are excited about the possibilities the building provides them and the diversity the union will inject in their ranks. In addition to its 250-member congregation, First Baptist also serves about 200 Chinese, Hispanic, Arabic and Thai/Laotian people who attend various services at First Baptist as part of an outreach fellowship.
The groups will work together to continue the weekly Sunday morning breakfast that First Baptist has offered people in need in the neighborhood for more than 10 years.
Ultimately, Casamento said, he anticipates leading a congregation of between 800 and 1,000 people.
The united congregation will be dedicated to service, with the members’ focus on their downtown neighbors.
“Literally the future is a white board,” he said. “We have this anticipation that City Life Church will be serving the city in unique and beautiful ways.”