Is this the area's next megachurch?

Posted at 12:00 PM, May 14, 2016

CLEVES, Ohio — Reports of the demise of the Westwood-Cheviot Church of Christ were premature.

After years of decline, the church got healthy, moved to a new building, changed its name to Whitewater Crossing Christian Church and began growing again. On Sunday, the church celebrates its 100th birthday with more members than ever.

“We are an existing church reinventing itself,” senior minister David Vaughan said. It’s rare for a church to peak 60 years ago — during the heyday of church attendance in the United States — then go into a decline and rebound to the degree this one has, he added.

David Vaughan, pastor of Whitewater Crossing Christian Church, and longtime member Diane Kist beside a table filled with mementos from the church’s 100 years of existence (photo by Kevin Eigelbach).

Not only has the church rebounded – it’s well on the way to megachurch status, with an average of 1,600 in attendance for weekend worship services, Vaughan said. In fact, the church has outgrown its 38,000-square-foot building and is in the midst of building a $13.5 million addition that will give it 95,000 square feet of space.

The new sanctuary will seat up to 1,200, which will enable the church to have just two worship services on Sunday instead of three. The addition, which is targeted for completion at the end of this year, will also include a new children’s building and a new café, with the current worship center and offices to become space for student ministries.

In July, the church, which feeds from 1,200 to 1,500 families per month, plans to break ground on the Whitewater Life Center, which will house the church’s food pantry and recovery ministries. It was made possible with a $600,000 grant from Cincinnati-based Covenant Foundation, which gives money to churches and other Christian organizations.

There’s room for more growth, too, at Whitewater, since the church sits on a former 74-acre farm off Ohio 128 in Cleves, a site that it uses very little of.

The church had about 350 regular attendees when it moved there from Glenmore and Meadow avenues in Westwood in 2007. Attendance doubled the first year, Vaughan said, and it has steadily increased since then.

It's somewhat unusual when a long-established church in an old building thrives, often because they are usually found in a city center where there are few residents or the church's worship style doesn't suit current residents, said Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

However, he added, about one in six megachurches in the United States were founded as churches 100 or more years ago. "It is often not the age of the church or the building that determines its vitality, but its willingness to change and be innovative," he said.

Part of the Restoration Movement

The West Side is known as home to many Roman Catholics, and most of the new members at Whitewater are Catholics who no longer observe their childhood faith, Vaughan said. They are attracted in part by his commitment to talk more about grace than he does guilt.

“Faith is a get-to, not a got-to,” he said. “It’s an opportunity, not an obligation.”

Vaughan, who knew nothing of Catholicism as a child, studied churches that had successfully reached former Catholics such as Crossroads Church, Cincinnati’s largest church, and Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, which is that city’s largest. Former Southeast senior pastor Bob Russell is one of Vaughn’s mentors, and he is friends with current senior pastor Dave Stone.

Like Southeast, Whitewater is part of the Restoration Movement, a loose association of non-denomination Christian churches that share a fundamentalist view of the Bible and advocate a return to Christianity as practiced by the early Christians. Other local members include First Church of Christ in Burlington, Kentucky and White Oak Christian Church in Colerain Township.

Worship services at these churches are similar, with music from a praise band, a sermon given in conversational style by a preacher in casual dress, communion, offering and an invitation to faith in Christ.

At Whitewater, children don’t sit with their parents during worship, but with other children in a children’s ministry called Harbortown that has also proven popular with former Catholics, who grew up having to sit in church with their parents, Vaughan said. 

There are as many children in the children’s ministry now as there were in the entire church when it moved to Cleves, said Diane Kist, who has been a member for 50 years.

Attendance Has Seen Highs and Lows

The church had just 48 members when it first met in May of 1916. As part of its anniversary celebration, the church has on display artifacts from those days, such as hymnbooks with tiny print and all the notes for four-part harmony.

There are tables filled with scrapbooks, ledger books and records of 100 years of ministry.

The entire congregation of the Westwood-Cheviot Church of Christ, known now as Whitewater Crossings Christian Church, in this photo from the church’s early years (photo submitted).

Just before Vaughan arrived in 2002, the church had plateaued at about 400 members, Kist said, and it had some problems. “We were in the wilderness,” Kist said. “There were some unhealthy elements in the church that were not dealt with.”

To their credit, Vaughan said, the church elders confronted the negative elements and got the church healthy. When he arrived, he also made changes in the worship, which was old-fashioned, with hymns, organ music and members dressed up for services. 

“I felt the church needed to dream a new dream,” Vaughan said. The building was old, he said, and there was no room for parking or expansion.

About 100 people left the church before the move, but Kist said that was a good thing because sometimes a church needs to shed members to get healthy. Everything seemed to fall into place with the move to Cleves, she said.

A consultant the church had hired more than 20 years ago had recommended a move, she said, but the leaders at the time declined. “I think that was a good thing. We were not ready. We were not healthy. I think if we had moved at that time, we would have fallen on our faces,” she said.

On Sunday, the church commemorates the past, but will also look to the future. 

“The past 100 years have been great, but the next 100 years are going to be the best,” Vaughan said.