Cornerstone unites, grows in cooperative ministry

by Karen L. Willoughby, posted Friday, September 02, 2016 (5 years ago)

LONE TREE, Colo. (BP) -- Visitors might have thought things were good at two Denver-area churches, University Hills and Cornerstone, before their merger in 2008.

Yet both churches, each with a Sunday morning worship attendance between 150 and 175, needed revitalization, internal renewal. The merger was the impetus to fill that need, said Michael Atherton, called in 2005 to pastor University Hills.

"This merger allowed this church to pool the talents, treasures and resources of both churches," said Atherton, who wrote a book about the merger in 2012 called "The Revitalized Church," and co-authored the book "Leadership Principles for Church Revitalization" to be released this year.

"Revitalization has become somewhat of a buzzword," Atherton said. "To us, revitalization is a process during which a church is renewed in a determination to experience healthy and sustained spiritual, numerical and organic growth, by refocusing on their God-given mission as expressed through their obedience to Scripture."

The merger is an illustration of the Cooperative Program in action, Atherton said, noting the way Southern Baptists work together in state conventions, national concerns and global interests.

"Where University Hills was strong, Cornerstone was weak. Where Cornerstone was weak, University Hills was strong," Atherton said. "Just like with the Cooperative Program, we do more together, and better, than either church could do on its own."

The resulting congregation takes the name of Cornerstone Church, SBC (Southern Baptist Convention), and has benefitted from the merger to become what Atherton describes as "a pillar of Southern Baptist work" in south-central Denver.

"One of the major blessings of being part of the Southern Baptist Convention -- apart from doctrine and theology -- is the opportunity to participate in the Cooperative Program," Atherton said. "Cornerstone gets to be part of the greatest mission force in the world. … The difference CP makes is almost indescribable."

Cornerstone gives 10 percent of undesignated offerings to missions through the CP. Atherton frequently shows worshippers at the church's two Sunday services how CP dollars are being used, such as the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief crews who are responding to flood devastation in south Louisiana in mid-August.

When discussing cultural and ethical issues with the congregation, Atherton said he reminds the church that the CP supports such entities as the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which advocates for biblical principles in culture and ethics.

Prior to the merger, University Hills had slowly dwindled as its aging congregation made end-of-life decisions, causing many members to relocate closer to their children. The church also saw its parking diminished when a former shopping center across the street -- and its free parking -- was redeveloped.

The 100 people who remained in the 1,200-seat worship center questioned their purpose and future -- "people who had come to the point of saying, 'We want to make a Kingdom difference,'" Atherton said.

"This group earnestly wanted to see God move. Keenly aware of our challenges -- our demographics, our building size, our parking limitation -- we began asking some tough questions. … 'How does God want us to address our current challenges? How can we preserve the 50-plus years of sacrifice offered by those who went before us? …

"We prayed; oh boy we prayed," the pastor said. "We went through many ideas: parking garage, buying up homes in the neighborhood for parking, moving to a school…. Our prayer was 'Lord, You just tell us what You want and we will do it.'"

The two churches had started working together in missions, with Cornerstone providing youthful energy to take on some of University Hills' initiatives. Then Cornerstone's pastor suggested a merger.

"[Michael Wright] suggested we should merge, and we all laughed it off, but our 'Yes' to whatever God wanted was on the table," Atherton said. "I credit Pastor Wright with a lot of faith. We didn't know if the merger was the right way to go, but Pastor Wright encouraged us all to pray about it and see what God might be up to."

In the end, University Hills sold its landlocked property to a senior housing developer, moved into Cornerstone's building and its $600,000 indebtedness, and took on the younger church's name. Together they paid off the debt and all but $800,000 of a $4.2 million expansion, grew church membership by more than 400, started leadership training, helped plant a church in the west Denver suburb of Thornton, and to date have mentored and sent out 20 pastors and ministry leaders serving across the United States.

The congregation has launched a Leadership Academy -- an 18-month, three-level program of two to four courses in each level -- to help people develop and use their spiritual gifts.

"This has become very much an empowering of the people," Atherton said. "We became equippers in the truest sense of the word. We had a target of 150 people (in the first three years) of the 400 to 500 here on Sunday morning, and reached that in the first year."

Cornerstone also partners with Gateway Seminary's Rocky Mountain Campus, accepting student interns through the mentored master of divinity program. The practical application offered in the internship of 10 hours a week covers a third of the course requirements.

"It's been a tremendous partnership in applied leadership," Atherton said. "We call it our Timothy project. Our hope is to help raise up men and women who are called to vocational ministry and empower them to go out and help lead and revitalize congregations. We know firsthand the Kingdom expansion that happens when a church focuses on their God-given mission through biblical obedience."

On Cornerstone's Sept. 18 Mission Sunday, about 15 of the church's community ministry partners will display an overview of their work.

"The last three to five years have been tremendous years of training and building up the people," Atherton said. "I don't know that we can articulate yet what God wants us to do. Having been trained, we as a church are now awaiting the call to go. When the Lord reveals that to us, we're ready."

Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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