Its roots strengthened by 37 years of worship, Ephrata Community Church is producing a new offshoot.
The Clay Township congregation is in the midst of a church "plant" that will establish a sister church in Lebanon County. The expansion is intended to serve current parishioners and those living near Annville and Palmyra who don't already have a religious home.
"We want to reach people we aren't reaching well," says Kevin Eshleman, senior pastor at Ephrata Community Church. "It is our desire to grow what will become an autonomous congregation. They'll raise up their own local leaders over time, probably in three to five years."
Planting is a tradition among evangelical Christian denominations, especially those that are missions-based.
ECC has been through the planting process twice before. Both Threshold Church in Millersville and the bilingual Vida Church International in Lancaster stem from the congregation.
ECC's discipleship pastor, Jimmy Nimon, will lead the newest church, called Lifeway. He has spent much of the last year praying about a move into Lebanon County and getting input from others.
Church leaders turned to the Association of Related Churches to help guide their efforts. The organization has helped more than 400 American churches with the planting process, focusing on reaching the "unchurched" and building relationships among congregations.
Moved by God and numbers
Nimon is moved by God and hard numbers. In a poll conducted by ECC, one-third of residents living in or near Annville and Palmyra reported having no religious affiliation. Another third identified themselves as "Christian" but did not belong to a church.
“I'm most interested in that 66 percent," says Nimon, who left his job at the 24-hour Gateway House of Prayer to spearhead the planting about 18 months ago. "(ECC) parishioners from that area can get involved, but we'll take anybody."
Eshleman says the team also studied new housing starts in Lebanon County, which has seen significant residential growth in recent years.
"They'll be looking for new places to worship," he says.
For now, Nimon and a core group of 40 Lifeway members are meeting regularly to plot the logistical and philosophical changes ahead. On tap for 2015: securing a free or leased location along a key stretch of Route 422 and building a "critical mass" of at least 200 attendees before the September launch.
A ‘spirit-filled’ style
Nimon moved to Lancaster County from Texas 16 years ago to start a prayer ministry here. He served as pastor at Living Stones Fellowship in Peach Bottom before moving to Gateway, which shares a site with ECC.
Nimon says Lifeway will mirror the "contemporary, spirit-filled" style of ECC, incorporating special services or groups as dictated by the needs of its Lebanon worshippers. The new church will operate under the motto, "Your life, God's way."
About 1,100 attend Sunday services at ECC. Eshleman expects some will move to Lifeway, and church leaders are encouraging members to choose whichever site best suits them. As Lifeway grows, Eshleman and Nimon expect members will support construction of a permanent church building along the 422 corridor.
During the transition years, ECC will support Lifeway both financially and spiritually. The two churches will also share in services or outreach that Lifeway can't yet provide on its own. ECC is known for its national speakers and missions work, much of that thanks to its partnership with HarvestNet International.
HarvestNet represents 167 ministries worldwide — including Gateway House of Prayer — and is based at ECC.
Lifeway will hold its next interest meeting at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at Ephrata Community Church.