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April 2011 Report

Steps toward a Church Planting Movement in Buffalo, NY

On February 9, 2009 the Harris Hill Mennonite Church decided close with the understanding that New York Mennonite Conference would utilize the church’s assets to try to plant at least one new church in the Buffalo area. A key verse guiding the Harris Hill Mennonite Church through this difficult time was John 12:24   “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

This was the beginning of a thorough process of discernment by a diverse team of 12 leaders and conversations with many other people.  We have sensed that it is critically important to cover this in prayer—with fasting,  waiting on God, prayer meetings, and prayer walks.  The needs and challenges are great.  We enter as learners with a commitment to building the greater Kingdom of God in Buffalo. We are committed to listening and supporting the various places where God is at work in Buffalo.  Buffalo has many needs; but it is also a strategic, gateway city.

“’Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit’, says the Lord Almighty.”   Zech 4:6

This initiative is bringing different groups to the table, who don't often work together - people from different  local Mennonite Churches, people from different Christian faith traditions, different races, and backgrounds .     Reconciliation has emerged as one of our core values for this work.  We are working toward healing on several fronts, including our own history of Mennonite ministry in the West Side.

Our focus is on the lower West Side of Buffalo with its poverty, violence and diverse population. This area is only a few blocks from the Peace Bridge to the north and the city center on the south.  There are few churches;   especially needed are churches with an active, holistic ministry.  We envision a church plant in the lower West Side of Buffalo with a vibrant ministry that is thoroughly Anabaptist in its theology and practice.  Core values are radical discipleship, authentic community, and reconciliation.  We expect to see new expressions of church emerging in this church planting movement.

God has been surprising us throughout this process (perhaps we are to expect surprises).  Eighteen months ago we hoped to plant one church.  Now there are developments on several fronts.

1. In June 2010 a small group with interest in Mennonite values started meeting each Wednesday evening for hymn singing, fellowship and food.  It includes young adults who had been part of the Sojourners Fellowship in Houghton and a few who had been part of the Mennonite church on the upper west side that closed about 5 years ago.  Becca Ballard leads this with support from Chuck Massey, a Houghton College faculty member in Buffalo.

2.  In December 2010 we made contact (via Brian Bauman from Mennonite Church Eastern Canada) with a Burmese Chin house fellowship of 90 people.   Now they are called the Buffalo Chin Emmanuel Church.  Pastor Jehu, a Mennonite pastor from Kitchener, and I continue to work closely with them.  They have a deep and powerful faith that can encourage us. There is a vision for ministry to Burmese immigrants beyond Buffalo.  I believe this relationship will continue to develop in mutually beneficial ways.

3. In January 2011 the oversight group of the Harris Hill Mennonite Church facility decided to rent the building at a reduced rate to NorthGate, a new church plant with a focused ministry to the large University of Buffalo campus which includes 8000 international students. Attendance is over 100 people and growing.  The pastor of Northgate, Jon Hasselbeck, is a long time member and former pastor of the Harris Hill Mennonite Church.  Jon describes  himself as Anabaptist in theology.

4. We continue to seek the catalytic leader for the new church with a holistic ministry on the lower West Side.  We envision this church becoming the anchor of a church planting movement.  Mennonite Church USA is calling for the establishment of 15 regional training centers across the US to help lead a missional transformation in the Mennonite Church.  Can some kind of urban ministry training center be established in Buffalo?

So where is God leading us?  We don’t really know, but we do want to listen for his voice.  Does he intend that we plant Mennonite Churches across the New York State thruway from Buffalo to Albany?  The need is real with only 5% of the population in these cities in a church service on a given weekend. Can the Empire state be transformed into his Kingdom state?  How can we work with our Canadian brothers and sisters in mutually beneficial ways?

Gene Miller    March 24, 2011