Last year, Wilton Center Federated Church, a 100-year-old-plus church at 14101 W. Joliet Road in Manhattan, was as good as dead.
Only 23 people – including its interim pastor Zach Dyrda, a former part-time youth minister, and his young family – came to Sunday services.
But no one wanted the church to die. So they bid the old ways goodbye and made drastic changes, Dyrda said.
The changes are working.
“On Sunday, we had 47 people,” Dyrda said. “We actually had 13 kids with us. … I don’t want to say we’re thriving, but we’re definitely growing. It’s almost as if we had to die to our old self to be renewed for what comes next.”
The church, now called Faith Connection of Wilton Center, is hosting a family day April 23. Cindy Welsh of Wilton Center, a member “off and on” for 40 years, hopes the community sees how special this church is.
“The people are generous and kind,” Welsh said. “If you need something, they are always there to help. I like the closeness of it … even if you don’t hang out with them, when you get to church, it’s a church family.”
Nick Wilke of Crete, who’s avoided church for years, will attend Faith Connection for the sixth time on Easter Sunday.
Several weeks ago, Faith Connection hired him to update its sound system, and he said he “fell in love with the church.”
His two children, ages 5 and 10, love the kid-friendly atmosphere. His wife will attend for the first time Sunday.
“Having worked in the professional AV field, I’ve probably been in 200 churches,” Wilke said. “And I’ve seen a lot of things I didn’t like, a lot of very unChristian, ungodly stuff, and pretty consistently, across the different variants. It was really surprising to hear themes of community and acceptance and inclusiveness. I was really taken aback.”
A history of new identities
In the 1800s, Wilton Center Federated Church was two churches – a United Methodist Church and an American Baptist Church, Dyrda said. In 1919, both churches decided neither had sufficient members to justify two buildings, Dyrda said. So they held separate worship services in one building, which eventually merged into a single service, he said.
Barb Palmer, 80, who’s attended Faith Connection her entire life, said worship took place in the Methodist church building because it was larger.
“After a few years, the state decided to put a curve through the property that put one of the corners of the church right on the guardrail,” Palmer said. “So over the years, we had a lot of accidents hitting the church. One month before a wedding, the front end of a car was sticking right through the church right into where the choir would have sat. People scrambled because nobody was going to cancel that wedding. So we got it all repaired, and that couple still goes to church today.”
Before new members could join Wilton Center Federated Church, a person had to declare one of the two denominations, Dyrda said. Over time, the church stopped keeping track, but members knew who they were.
A larger church was built in 1956 to accommodate growth, Palmer said. Members helped demolish its flagstone foundation and use part of the original materials in the rebuilding, she said. An even larger church was constructed in 2004.
At its peak, from the 1970s to the early 2000s, Wilton Center averaged 70 to 100 people on Sundays and had a robust children’s program, Dyrda said. But membership gradually declined – and the pandemic didn’t help, he said.
“During COVID, we saw a lot of people church shopping,” Dyrda said. “And so I think anybody who was on the fence left.”
After their pastor left, members hired a consultant to help them decide to close or keep trying, Dyrda said.
Dydra said the consultant, who knew Dyrda, contacted Dyrda and asked whether he ever done interim work, whether he knew what Wilton Center was and whether he knew where Manhattan was.
Dyrda’s response was no to all.
Still, he agreed to meet with the members and serve as interim pastor.
“They were lovely people,” Dyrda said. “I definitely could tell they were hurting. And, so, I knew they would need some love. That’s how I approached it. I came in and really liked them.”
Dyrda said he and his family became the youngest members of the congregation. He’s 34. The next youngest was around 60, he said.
“We knew it was different,” Dyrda said. “But they just had the best heart about them.”
‘Let’s go all out’
Dyrda said people of other denominations, such as Catholics or Presbyterians, also attended the church – sometimes for years – but lacked voting privileges because they still identified as Catholic or Presbyterian. Dyrda questioned that policy.
“If you’re part of the ministry, giving your money and showing up to church, how are you not an active member?” he said.
In the 21st century, church membership, overall, is declining, church affiliation is fluid, and the attitude of “I’m a Baptist and so I go to the Baptist church in town” is just not happening anymore, he said. So Dyrda asked them to drop the ‘become a Methodist or Baptist’ policy.
“It’s just creating barriers to people who are telling us that they want to be part of us,” Dyrda said.
Dyrda said members understood they either had to “throw everything at the wall” or just be done.
“This church may mean a lot to you, but it means nothing if nobody is there after you; all those memories will die with you. There will be nobody young to pass it on to,” Dyrda said.
They understood that even if the church could hang on, the 60-year-olds would be 70 in 10 years, and they found themselves questioning whether they would be able to maintain the building.
“I think that started getting to them,” Dyrda said. “And they said, ‘OK, let’s go all out.”
The church was used to persevere in the face of closure, Palmer said.
“Look at what it’s done for people for 100 years,” Palmer said. “You hate to give up on that. God is the same God yesterday and on in the mountain and in the valley. So, he is working right along with us.”
The church changed its name to reflect its ministry and updated its constitution and bylaws, Dyrda said. Members stopped singing to YouTube videos, advertised for a part-time worship leader, joined a church revitalization program, hired Dyrda as its pastor in late 2022, started a streaming service, established its presence on Facebook and Instagram, and sent direct mailings to more than 4,000 homes, he said.
Welsh said one couple attended church on Palm Sunday after receiving the mailing.
“They said they liked it and would be back,” Welsh said.
Dyrda said they’d like membership to rise to 70, and everyone understands that takes time.
Still, Palmer said she is excited.
“A couple of weeks ago, when I was driving home, I got to thinking of a little song I learned in Sunday school – ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ And that’s how we feel,” Palmer said. “We want our light to shine. We don’t want to hide it under a bushel.”
Of course, some things won’t change.
Palmer said Faith Connection still holds monthly ministry projects: donating clothes and furniture for house fire survivors, food for the sick, school supplies, snacks for veterans and so forth. Faith Connection also supports three mission families, including one family in which the wife grew up at Faith Connection, Palmer said.
“And that’s why I think that whoever comes to our church will know that we love the Lord and that he’s done so much for us,” Palmer said.
Dyrda said he’s privileged to be part of the Mass revitalization.
“I see life happening,” Dyrda said. “I see things moving in such a way that it’s really beautiful. I can’t imagine how my Easter message is going to be about this. I could be wrong. But I just feel that something is happening here that is inspiring. That is the Easter message.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Faith Connection of Wilton Center
WHEN: Sundays 8:45 a.m. (adult Bible study) and 10:10 a.m. (worship)
WHERE: 14101 W. Joliet Road, Manhattan
INFO: Call 815-478-3923 or visit faithconnectionwc.com.