To put it in biblical terms, Fort Wayne’s St. Joe Community Church has stopped worshipping in tents.
The congregation, planted by the Southern Baptist denomination in 2003, has spent more than a decade of existence wandering from one location to another – in all, three schools and a movie theater, said its pastor, Greg Byman.
In February, Byman said, the 120-member congregation had its first chance to worship in an actual church building, Memorial Baptist Church at 2900 N. Anthony Blvd., after that congregation agreed to a location-sharing arrangement.
Now, Byman says, Memorial has agreed to allow St. Joe to have the building all to itself. The two congregations will celebrate today with a 6 p.m. joint worship service with Memorial’s pastor, the Rev. Dave Mitchell, as St. Joe settles into its first permanent home.
Byman said Memorial, a 70-year-old congregation started by First Baptist Church on Fairfield Avenue in Fort Wayne, witnessed declining membership in recent years. A sanctuary designed to hold 250 was drawing only about two dozen on a typical Sunday, he said.
As leaders pondered closing, the church board decided to give the building and contents to St. Joe at no cost.
"This is not a merger of congregations or a joining of congregations," said Mitchell. "We are endowing them with our property and building for them to carry on our legacy at that location."
Mitchell said he and his wife, Barbara, will attend St. Joe as will some other Memorial members. Others will choose other churches, he said.
"I call it a bittersweet moment," Byman said. "It’s never fun to watch a congregation pass away. But it’s sweet in the sense that we feel blessed to be called to carry on a ministry to the community."
Byman said St. Joe had been looking to buy its own building as rent went up at its former meeting site, the Carmike Cinema at 3930 E. Dupont Road. It had even made an offer on another building farther west, but was turned down, he said.
The congregation also had been contemplating moving to a another donated property with a building at 9709 N. Clinton St. But now it will use that site as a youth ministry center, with the ultimate aim of becoming a multi-site congregation, Byman said.
He added that St. Joe is still working on exactly how it will use the former Memorial Baptist building.
But, after spending so many years without a space to use during the week for small-group sessions, developing those kinds of ministries and a Sunday school will likely be priorities, he said.
"It’s an overwhelming blessing to have the building and be able to use it more than one day a week," the pastor said. "It’s time for us to stop being portable."