By John W. Coleman
“God has touched my life through this church,” said teenager Austin Boettlin, sharing how his life has changed during his five years at NorthStar United Methodist Church in Reading. He told the congregation about finding love and acceptance, friendship and enjoyment in the church’s youth fellowship, “a connection with people my age that I didn’t have anywhere else.”
He also credited mission trips with teaching him how deeply gratifying helping others can be. “Every mission trip dramatically changes me for the better,” he said. “I get to help other people, and in return, I learn to get closer to God… I feel that God is telling me to trust Him, and He can lead me to amazing places.”
Austin’s testimony was one of three shared with the NorthStar congregation during its chartering service on Sunday, Sept. 22. As Bishop Peggy Johnson pronounced it an official church of the Eastern PA Conference, the Rev. Wendy Orzolek, pastor, welcomed 51 members of the 10-year-old congregation who signed membership covenants. They join 29 others who became members earlier through confirmation.
Tracy Rudolph received a postcard inviting her family to the new church’s Christmas Eve service nearly a decade ago. “We felt so welcomed that evening that we decided to go back in January. We again felt welcomed and began to regularly attend the monthly services.”
Soon, her son Bryan, then a very shy 7th-grader, began singing with the worship team. “We started to see God working in him,” Tracy recalls. “He was beginning to gain more confidence in himself and started to look more comfortable in front of people. The following school year, he auditioned for the junior high musical and was given a part in the show. Before we knew it, Bryan had made some very close friends. Being on the worship team really helped him discover the gifts God has given him.”
Now in college, Bryan has led worship and joined mission teams, thanks to the discipleship influence of his beloved church.
NorthStar has met for 9 years in the cafeteria of Exeter Township Junior High School, where Orzolek was once a student. Volunteers, known as “roadies,” arrive at 7:30 each Sunday morning to set up the altar, instruments tables, chairs and other furnishings, while the praise team rehearses and others make coffee, arrange breakfast treats and set out information materials. After the roughly one-hour service, they break it all down and the roadies load everything back into the truck until the next Sunday.
“Only about 25 percent of our congregation have been regularly involved in church as adults,” said Orzolek. The others were previously not connected to any church, and some of them had never attended a church.”
“We focus on meeting people where they are,” she explained. “We look at the people God has led to this church and ask what their needs are and how the gospel can speak to what matters to them. People are worried about paying their bills or their children making poor choices, or how to be a good parent, or they feel lonely or are concerned about their future. Everybody has something.”
“The gospel message is relevant to all of these concerns, but people often don’t make that connection,” Orzolek said. “That is especially true for people who haven’t been involved in church in the past. So we are very intentional about making the gospel relevant and about practical applications of the Bible, which was also a hallmark of John Wesley. This comes through in the sermons as well as the ways we serve in the community and the ministries in the church.”
Dealing with family tragedy and illness, Carol Fritz and her family found the loving support and faithful friendship they needed at NorthStar UMC 10 years ago. They first encountered Pastor Wendy and “those very smiley people” at community celebration events, where church members were cheerfully inviting passers-by to play games and offering to take family photos.
Then she kept seeing Wendy “everywhere” in the community. So she and her family visited the church—their first in many years. “I cried through the entire service. It was so moving and like nothing I had ever experienced in a church before,” Fritz recalled. They were so inspired by the worship, the come-as-you-are hospitality and genuine friendship they discovered there that they returned and finally joined.
“NorthStar isn’t a once-a-week church,” said Fritz, for whom the church and its pastor have been present for prayer before surgeries, a wedding and other key moments. “It’s family.” That truth comes across clearly in the fun, upbeat, heart-touching music video members enjoyed seeing themselves in as part of their chartering celebration.
“We have prioritized being a blessing to our community, the school we meet in, and everyone we come into contact with from the very beginning,” said Orzolek. “So it is part of our DNA. I think that has been a major factor in our growth and has helped shape who we are.”
Having members previously uninvolved in church “has pushed us to look at growth and discipleship from different angles,” Orzolek explained. “Rather than have the primary focus on what happens on Sunday morning worship attendance, which is still important, we look at engagement—how people taking steps to become more involved in ministry.”
That includes service opportunities, small groups, ministries with children and youth, or community outreach events, especially for members with busy lives and active families that can limit their church attendance. “We look at each step that a person takes as a ‘win’ and try to be patient,” said the pastor, “remembering that we are there to provide opportunities and encouragement and support, but it is the Holy Spirit who causes the growth.”
Orzolek, who is thankful for the support of her own family—her husband Bob and son Sam—in NorthStar’s growing ministry, is looking at ways to also facilitate spiritual growth outside of Sunday mornings. “We are experimenting with providing tools for parents to have faith conversations with their children while they are driving to a sporting event on a Sunday morning,” she said, “as well as having videoconference Bible studies which allows adults who are already time-strapped to participate without the extra stress of one more place to be at a certain time.”
But Sunday worship is still central to many members’ spiritual lives and their best chance to enjoy face-to-face fellowship with their church family. There they learn lessons of grace and discipleship that can guide their lives, much like the celestial North Star that has served that purpose for many travelers through the ages.
“I look at all the people I didn’t even know 10 years ago…and I am reminded of God’s faithfulness,” said Orzolek, who may have appreciated the testimonies during the chartering service more than anything. “I loved hearing the stories about how God has used this church to bring hope and new life to so many.”
“I think it is a good springboard to intentional discussions about what God is calling us to next.”
Want to learn more about how and why NorthStar UMC does church in creative ways? Read Pastor Wendy’s comments shared in response to our questions:
Also, visit NorthStar UMC for Sunday worship at 10 AM, at Exeter Township Junior High School, 151 E. 39th St, Reading, PA. Or visit their Facebook page. And contact the Rev. Wendy Orzolek at PO Box 4487, Reading, PA 19606, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.