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Digging Deep in Donegal
The Full Story of how Donegal Presbyterian Church
uses demographics in ministry. . .
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In his old age, at Brandywine,
Undaunted by War's rattle
The men of our own Donegal
By him were led to battle.
* * * * *
Revere him in yourselves and live
Such lives as will not shame him;
His lofty spirit emulate

That ye may justly claim him.
A nobler heritage is your's
Than acres rich and flowery-
Be worthy, children, of the blood
Of Alexander Lowrey.
IIn the midst of a February snowstorm that weighted down a small central Pennsylvania town like a thick Amish quilt, most of the town's multitude of churches had closed its doors, barring all but the faithful from worshiping together. As it turned out, at least one church in Mount Joy—which also happened to be its oldest congregation—kept its doors open, welcoming all who were willing to brave the elements into its centuries-old stone edifice. Donegal Presbyterian Church was a historical landmark that had survived more than a few snowstorms in its 282 years—and even a few wars.

Scotch Presbyterians are a hardy lot. And known to be faithful churchgoers. Some, like Colonel Alexander Lowrey, a Scotch-Irish senator whose father, Lazarus, was resurrected from the death grip of oppressive British rule back in Ulster, Ireland, have hung around Donegal for around 274 years. Alexander, who died in 1805, at the age of 79, is laid to rest in the graveyard that lies adjacent to the church. But on a sweltering hot summer morning in 1777, Lowrey, who was then 51 years old, was in church. Though his body was positioned tense and upright in the neck-high wooden pew, his mind, no doubt, was elsewhere as he listened to the sermon of the Reverend Colin McFarquhar. Lowrey, the commander of the 3rd battalion of The Donegal Township Riflemen of Lancaster County had a lot weighing on his mind. The winds of war were blowing, and he would have to be ready at a moment's notice to defend his home against the encroaching British. That moment came sooner than expected. Donegal Presbyterian was the first place the messenger would come, bringing the bad tidings that the dreaded Red Coats were marching north. Reverend McFarquhar immediately halted his sermon, and the entire congregation, including Colonel Lowrey, amassed outside and gathered around a sturdy oak just beyond the front door of the church. All present joined hands to pray and pledge to fight against the British to the end . . . as God was their witness.

The tree where the soldiers and civilians alike had gathered to pray would become known as The Witness Tree. Sadly, after having survived 250 years, it was cut down on June 3, 1991. The remains, now affectionately called The Witness Stump, are still visible—rooted deep in the soil where the people of Donegal Church once stood, tightly clasping hands together and bowing their heads in fervent prayer to intercede for their new country.

Healthy Choice

In the year 2000, 281 years after the original church was formed, Donegal was a healthy church. In part, this was due to the faithfulness and devotion of its members, but a large part was due to the vitality of its youthful members. Less than 25% are over the age of 65, a statistic that already makes them distinct among many Presbyterian churches. But despite these factors, not long ago Donegal came to realize that they had become somewhat insular, too comfortable in their centuries-old historic church. Donegal has always had a heart for the hurting, but until then their missions methodology was what many churches employ: the proverbial "shotgun approach."
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Ruthann Dwyer, a deacon at Donegal, has seen the effect of that hit-and-miss shotgun kind of planning in more than one church.

"Many churches, including Donegal, have tons and tons of good ideas. . .but you often just end up doing a little bit here and a little bit there," says Dwyer. "And while they're wonderful ideas and worthy of being done, the fact is that not all ideas are really what your church should be doing because that is not what God intends for that church."

Finding out what God's purpose was for their church became Donegal's all-important quest. Their Presbytery, the Presbytery of Donegal, having seen ReVision used successfully in other churches, recommended Percept's ReVision to (1) help discover God's mission for their church, (2) help locate their target ministry area, and (3) determine what type of ministries they needed to launch that would reach both existing and potential church members. According to Bruce Stevens, the Evangelism & Church Development Associate for the Synod of the Trinity and ReVision facilitator (he's done ReVision for 16 other churches), Donegal was an ideal candidate for ReVision.

"It was clear from the git-go that Donegal went into the process looking for the best for their church—and they were rewarded because of that," says Stevens. "They didn't go into it with the idea of solving a particular problem, or to resolve conflict, or with an agenda. The churches that use ReVision for that purpose invariably fail."

As it turns out, by using ReVision, Donegal was rewarded well beyond what they envisioned. After the initial presentation of the demographic data from Percept's Context report, a total of 80 out of 218 members (Revision recommends at least 25%) participated in ReVision's small groups, then spread their new-found enthusiasm to the rest of the congregation. From these groups five new ministries were born.

The demographic data about their 7-mile ministry area held a few surprises for many members. For example, Ruthann Dwyer was surprised to find that both the church attendance and the faith receptivity was lower than the national average—especially since they were in the middle of what was considered the Pennsylvania Bible Belt. "We thought everybody in town was in church—now we say, "Boy, there really is a big mission field!" says Dwyer.

Leaving the Back Door Open

One of the more significant results of the ReVision process was the working of a miracle—Scots parting with their money. Approved by the Session just a month ago, a 1.2 to 1.5 million building budget will officially be presented to the entire congregation on March 30th. It will hardly be a frivolous expenditure. Space at Donegal is sorely needed, especially with the rapid growth of the second service, named The Back Door Church by the Revision-birthed committee.

Providing a different kind of Presbyterian experience, this more contemporary style service (beginning right after the Christian Education classes) was conceived out of criteria identified by Revision's congregational survey concerning their own needs, as well as the surrounding community's, for worship.

Frank Harvey, who joined ReVision late in the process (he and his wife are new to the church) was on the
Second Service committee and instrumental in launching The Back Door Church. He admits that when first hearing of the need for a second service, he thought it would suffice to just re-run the first service. Harvey even thought the name "Back Door" was too down market.

But being Presbyterians, who practically order dinner by committee, they could pretty much guarantee that what kind of church they'd start, or even what it would be called, would not be up to just one person. That's because committees, which could be termed the modern- day version of the gathering of the Highland Clan (without the swords and kilts) are the lifeblood of most Presbyterian churches.

"Many voices—pro and con, good ideas and not-so-good ideas—were heard," says Harvey. "Because the beauty of a committee is that you're able to share ideas, pray and think about those ideas and actually look at them as non threatening to your own."

Fortunately, the name, "The Back Door Church," quickly grew on Harvey. Perhaps that's because it's hard to argue with success. In their first few weeks alone, the new service had 50 or so people—double what they expected. Fifteen of those people were new to Donegal altogether—a promising sign that they weren't just providing a transfusion for existing members. Apparently the Arlo Guthrie "Come on in, it's around the back, just a half mile off the railroad track" approach had served to break down barriers both within and without the church.

"The way The Back Door Church is structured, and the style of the service, makes the congregation feel less like a congregation and more
like a group of friends—it's much more intimate," says Harvey. "Even though I personally prefer a more traditional approach, others, some of whom surprisingly are in my age range, prefer the less formal service. That's true particularly of people coming from the outside, because I think even the word Presbyterian tends to be regarded as rather uptight, opposed to having a good time and so on. So I think naming the service as 'The Back Door Church' was very helpful in overcoming those preconceptions."

"The Back Door Church is getting rave reviews," says Pastor McKinnon. "It's a very exciting and meaningful experience, and what's amazing is that it all came out of the team that ReVision produced."

Becoming a People of Vision

Part of the reason all five of the committees were successful is because they were formed by people who had gone through ReVision's 8-week Reflection Series, a portion of the process that Stevens believes is the heart of ReVision. It's here where church members bond and the vision begins to be formed. It's also an equipping pastor's dream.

"As a result of ReVision, laity is now doing things that free me up to do projects that are more church-growth orientated, says McKinnon. "And our stewardship over the last few years has been going gangbusters."

According to McKinnon, both prayer and biblical reflection were the motivating force for the groups, as well as for the retreat where both the vision and the mission statement were formulated. During the entire process McKinnon used a hands-off approach, giving permission for the lay leaders to fail. His main participation was as a cheerleader, helping to fan the flame of excitement by each Sunday having group members share what was going on in each of the ReVision groups.

And, as is often the case with ReVision, out of the small groups, more small groups were spun. "It's a sneaky way to start regular, ongoing small groups," says Stevens, "but that just goes to prove the power of that experience."

Ruthann Dwyer believes that ReVision helped to give people the authority to investigate. "The usual way of having meetings wouldn't have done it—people would just be sitting around talking, but never have the authority or the backing of Session to get it done," says Dwyer.

Dwyer's small group was the only one that had teenagers attending—a factor she believed really livened up the group and gave everyone a needed perspective on the needs of the youth. One idea from this group was to have a line item put in the church's budget to help fund the youth group's annual missions trip to upper New York state. Before ReVision, the responsibility for raising support lay completely on the youth. Now they feel the church is investing in them financially. The Youth Team has also just started two new youth groups—junior and senior high—which will be led by two co-leaders. Beyond that, they will have different people in the church take turns leading the youth group based on the leaders' individual talents and strengths. That way, more adults will be involved with the youth, which, Dwyer believes, is ultimately good for the church.

From the Local Missions committee came another new ministry—the use of the church manse as interim housing for families who, through one reason or another, have found themselves homeless. Located within walking distance of the church, the manse has had four families live there. Both the Mt. Joy Housing Assistance Program and the church interview the families and if they're accepted, they have about three and
one-half months to live there at no charge. The families get free counseling, plus a mentor supplied by the church. Thus far, the program has been very successful, with all of the families getting back on their feet within the four-month period.

"I think ReVision allowed us to focus and to come to some agreement about what the most pressing needs and concerns for the church were, and that included the youth and the homeless ministry," says Dwyer. "And by being able to say, 'Here are the five main ministries, this is what you have to do now', it was great. And I don't know any other way that our church would have come to an agreement about those five things."

A Room with a View

Part of the process of reaching an agreement meant eliminating the essentials from the non-essentials. Nowhere was this challenge felt more deeply than on the issue of making changes to a historic church, especially when it came to the building itself and the surrounding grounds. There is sort of an untouchable element inherent in this subject which can be antithetical to needed growth. For some, the tearing down of the Witness Tree was equvalent to the Ents in Lord of the Rings being mutilated by the wizard Saruman and his army of Orcs; for others, it was a "non-essential" issue. What was more critical in Dwyer's and other people's minds were problems like the real likelihood of the church's kitchen stove blowing up—it was almost as ancient as the church itself.

Yet fears that the architectural integrity of the historic stone structure would be compromised are unfounded. According to McKinnon, who will unveil the building plans at the end of this month to the entire congregation, the proposed new addition to Donegal is designed with the utmost sensitivity, offering both the needed space and modern conveniences, yet without compromising the historical integrity of the orignial building. (The church was remodeled in 1850.) The windows will be expansive, opening up the view to a dense grove of oaks and a magnificent headwater stream that runs through the property. It will again delight people's senses just as it did the Ulster Scots-Irish who, after escaping religious persecution almost 300 years ago, happened on the same spot where
Donegal now sits. Instantly these Celtic people of the earth were reminded of their beloved Ireland—lush and verdant, with a feeling of divine mystery inherent in the surroundings. It wasn't easy for the wanderlust Scots-Irish to settle anywhere, but here in this new land they knew they had found their home. For today's generation of Scots, Scots-Irish Presbyterians and all people who are looking for a place of spiritual and physical beauty, as well as respite from a chaotic world perhaps poised on the edge of another war, Donegal will provide a much-needed oasis.

Considering their location, their history and the congregation's relative prosperity, it would be easy for Donegal to take the path of least resistance. If as Keats says, "Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty," then Donegal, by its sheer physical beauty, would need to do nothing else but exist. But rather than rest on the laurels of their historic bravery, or become prideful over their own surroundings, this centuries-old church has chosen to step out of their comfort zone and take new risks for the sake of the Kingdom. -Jenni Bruce Keast

In Donegal, in Erin's Isle
Stern Scotia's children dwelling,
Grew restive 'neath Oppression's hand,
Their souls with freedom swelling.
* * * * *
Then up rose Lazarus Lowrey bold,
His wife and bairns beside him,
Resolved to seek for Freedom's home
Whatever fate betide him
* * * * *
The lads grew kingly with the breath
Of Freedom
* * * * *
Nor deemed the simple forest child
The Red man less than brother;
For noble natures recognize
The noble in another.

And when the days of trial came,
Of which we know the story,
No Erin son of Scotia's blood
Was ever found a Tory.
Upon the Constitution's page
Of Penn's blest land is written
Brave Alexander Lowrey's name
As foe to King and Briton.
* * * * *
In his old age, at Brandywine,
Undaunted by War's rattle
The men of our own Donegal
By him were led to battle.
* * * * *
Revere him in yourselves and live
Such lives as will not shame him;
His lofty spirit emulate

That ye may justly claim him.
A. nobler heritage is your's
Than acres rich and flowery-
Be worthy, children, of the blood
Of Alexander Lowrey.

(Written by Mrs. Samuel Evans)

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©  COPYRIGHT 2008 PERCEPT GROUP, INC.
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