It won’t be official until Sunday’s worship service, but longtime Epworth United Methodist Church member Cindi Sturgell said she already has noticed changes at her church.
The congregation is now more diverse, livelier, younger and, well, filling the sanctuary.
On Sunday, the predominantly white congregation at Epworth church officially merges with the predominantly black congregation at Saint Mark United Methodist Church.
The person who first thought of merging the two churches, Gary Brooks, calls it an “Elijah/Elisha” merger, where an older biblical prophet hands the mantle off to a younger, vibrant prophet.
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“This has happened a number of times across the nation where a church is struggling and another church either merges with them or takes them over to give them possibility for a new life,” said Brooks, the United Methodist Church district superintendent for the Wichita east district of the Kansas West Conference.
Epworth, near Lincoln and Grove, was founded during World War II and was once considered one of the prominent Methodist churches in the urban area. In its heyday, Sturgell said, it had more than 1,000 members.
In recent years, those numbers had slipped to less than 200. Some Sundays there were less than 100 people attending church.
Her husband, David, 69, has been a member of the congregation for more six decades; she has been a part of it for the past 30.
“When we first started attending the church, it was very active and had lots of people involved in things,” said Cindi Sturgell, 56. “But then, things started declining and we weren’t able to do things.
“We had an older congregation. We were losing young couples – they were all moving out of the area. We were looking at ways of keeping the building open.”
At the same time, Saint Mark – which has roots nearly a century old in Wichita – was looking to expand. The Epworth church will now be known as the Saint Mark UMC Southeast campus.
Saint Mark, 1525 N. Lorraine, is one of the fastest-growing churches in the Wichita east district, Brooks said.
“Saint Mark is a flourishing congregation with enough resources and capacity to expand its footprint in Wichita,” he said.
Junius Dotson will be the senior pastor for the multi-site congregation.
“I think it is a historical opportunity for the churches to unite to renew their mission and not abandon their mission field,” Dotson said Thursday. “We can merge the strength of a larger congregation with one that is on the verge of dying.
“I am hoping this will bring new life and greater community involvement into the area and that a ministry indigenous to the community will emerge.”
One of the first things to be introduced to the Saint Mark Southeast campus will be the Saint Mark Cafe, a small, bistro-style restaurant that will be adjacent to the church building, Dotson said. It will include coffee and pastries and will be a place for the community to meet and conduct meetings.
He said he anticipates it will open within the next 30 days and be staffed by neighborhood teenagers. He said he is developing a business plan in which the church will provide an entrepreneurship program, teaching youth how to run a business.
“We think this will offer a greater slice of life in every ethnicity and create a good opportunity for a worship experience,” Dotson said.