Winona Lake Community Church, 902 College Ave., Winona Lake, was formed by the merger of Winona Lake Free Methodist Church and Oak Grove Community Church. Monday afternoon, the church had a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the Kosciusko County Chamber of Commerce. Pictured (L to R) in the front row are Rob Parker, Chamber president and CEO; Ben Snyder, Chamber ambassador; Pastor Rick Hurley and his wife Kelly; church members Elaine Hand and Bonnie Church; Nikki and her husband Pastor Doug Lemon; Glenn Hall, Chamber ambassador; and Scott Wiley, Chamber member relations manager. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
Winona Lake Community Church, 902 College Ave., Winona Lake, was formed by the merger of Winona Lake Free Methodist Church and Oak Grove Community Church. Monday afternoon, the church had a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the Kosciusko County Chamber of Commerce. Pictured (L to R) in the front row are Rob Parker, Chamber president and CEO; Ben Snyder, Chamber ambassador; Pastor Rick Hurley and his wife Kelly; church members Elaine Hand and Bonnie Church; Nikki and her husband Pastor Doug Lemon; Glenn Hall, Chamber ambassador; and Scott Wiley, Chamber member relations manager. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
WINONA LAKE - Schisms over Christian theology have led to new denominations and churches as far back as the 4th century A.D.

However, two local churches are taking a different approach to forming a new church - they’re merging.

Oak Grove Community Church and Winona Lake Free Methodist Church (WLFMC) have merged to form Winona Lake Community Church at 902 College Ave., Winona Lake. On Monday, they had an open house and ribbon-cutting ceremony with the Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce.

Doug Lemon, who served as the pastor at Oak Grove, said Oak Grove was meeting at a different church for several years. WLFMC had been at the College Avenue location since 1935.

“And so in January of ‘21, we consummated a merger of those two churches and we’re now the Winona Lake Community Church,” Lemon said.

It’s not uncommon to hear about a new church forming from division within a pre-existing one, Lemon and Pastor Rick Hurley acknowledged. So how did Oak Grove and Winona Lake Free Methodist merge?

“It really happened - God knew what he was doing - but it was COVID. The building that our church was meeting in closed and they had reopened and started meeting live again and our folks at our church were just tired of doing Zoom,” Lemon said. “So I reached out to Rick and said, ‘Hey, how about if our people come over and worship together with you guys?’ And the idea was until our building reopened.”

The two churches began worshipping together.

“Right away, he and I just kind of did it together and would rotate preaching from week to week, and within a month everybody was asking why aren’t we just doing this for good. So that led to a pretty quick discussion about doing a merger,” Lemon said.

They wanted the emerging church to be its own new thing, so that’s a reason why they came up with a new name - Winona Lake Community Church.

Hurley and Lemon found sharing the pulpit to be easy.

“If he’s got a series he wants to preach, he can preach, and I’ll jump in when he wants, or vice versa,” Hurley said. “But, normally we try to go every other week. We like to preach through books of the Bible, so he’ll take a section or chapter and then I’ll follow him behind and we’ll just go through the whole thing. So if you don’t like my preaching, come next Sunday you’ll like Doug’s.”

“Or vice versa!” Lemon said.

Hurley said he thought it was refreshing for parishioners. “I think they like it. I really do. So they’re not stuck listening to the same person all the time and I think they like to have that mix that we have,” he said.

Lemon and Hurley said they haven’t come across a big disagreement on theology yet, but expect that they may.

“And you deal with it in a way that Scripture says: Grace and understanding,” Lemon said. “But, it’s highly unlikely that we’re ever going to have a disagreement over some major doctrinal issue. It’s a lot of what we talked through.”

Hurley said when they put their transition team together, which was the two churches’ boards, “that’s what we worked through. We worked through all the doctrinal stuff and everything worked out and we just decided to become a church.”

It kind of worked out “neatly,” he said.

“The world was saying, ‘Everybody stay home. It’s COVID. Shut the doors of the church’ and all this. And God was bringing this congregation together and it was just amazing. We’ve been getting new people every week, it seems like,” Hurley continued.

Both pastors agreed the church is growing. It started around 60-70 people combined, but is now up to over 100 people. Hurley said they have 64 people on the books as members of the church, “which is double for us.”

Lemon said, “We’re rapidly approaching a point where - we may be there, if not we’re getting there - we’re getting close to a point where there are more people attending and connecting with the church who are from neither church than there are people from the two churches. Since we’ve started this journey, we’ve welcomed a lot of new faces through the door, and some families who have really found a connection here and they’re getting plugged in and ministering to others and engaging in fellowship. It’s pretty cool.”

Hurley said they’re still a Free Methodist Church and a denominational church. “But if I was to describe our church, I think it’s just a church of imperfect people in an imperfect world searching for God and that’s what we’re doing here. None of us are perfect. If I was going to ‘sell’ my church, I would say, ‘If you want to come to a place where you’re going to be loved - we’re still small enough that individuals count. You’re not going to get lost in the crowd, but I think you’re really going to feel the love of God if you come to this church. I really do,’” he said.

The parishioners aren’t afraid to say hello and welcome new faces. “And they’re sincere. And they want to build those connections,” Hurley said.

At 10 a.m. Sundays, before the 10:30 a.m. Sunday service, there’s coffee and doughnuts.

“You can’t get into the cafe for all the people in there just talking to one another. A lot of the ministries that we have in this church come out of that cafe before Sunday morning,” he said.

They’ve got a women’s group and a men’s group “that is going like crazy,” Hurley said. “We’ve got children’s ministries, as far as our daycare and our preschool. That’s a 45-year ministry that’s been running in this church and it just grows every year.”

Winona Lake Community Church has a Wednesday night prayer meeting, which Hurley said may be turning into a Wednesday night service in a few weeks. They also have Sunday school and a Senior Saints group that meets at 11 a.m. Tuesdays. Senior Saints is for older folks who don’t want to get out at night; they’re given a meal and have Bible study together.

Hurley said a typical church service tries to incorporate both hymns and praise music every Sunday.

“Come and give it a try,” he said. “It’s hard to put into words, but you just have to experience it. We’re Free Methodist but we’re not United Methodist congregation. Theology-wise, we’re the same, but politics we’re a little different. We’re more conservative, but we’re our own denomination and I would just say, ‘Come and give it a try.’”

No need to dress up. “Come as you are,” Hurley said.