Love God. Love others. Make disciples.
A simple statement, yet a very sincere goal for three churches located in the Northwestern region of Pennsylvania.
“We want to make disciples who end up making disciples, because Jesus’ last words on earth should be our first priority, [and] He said, ‘Go make disciples,’” said Millcreek Community Church (MCC) Pastor Todd Cyphers.
Pastor Cyphers’ church, found just north of Pennsylvania’s snowbelt, and below Lake Erie, was the first church established in a network of disciple-making churches in the Erie area.
“I met Dr. Ed Stetzer in the mid-1990’s in our doctoral program, and he kept telling me that he’d like to have me come up and learn how to start churches and help him with the start of this church, which he had started here at Millcreek Church,” said Cyphers. (Editor’s note: Millcreek was a replant.)
Cyphers continued to explain that Stetzer eventually talked him into coming to the Erie area. He has been serving at MCC for a total of 24 years, and has watched the once 50-person church grow to be a sending church for two other local churches: Harborcreek Community Church (HCC) and Edinboro Community Church (ECC).
HCC initially came to be when Pastor Jim Hodge felt called to leave his ministry in Florida in 2005 and plant a Southern Baptist church in the Erie area.
“We thought we were coming back to plant a Southern Baptist Church, that was really on my heart. I had people behind me from Florida that were talking about support in all that and so, we were looking for a church to serve in while we were investigating the area,” said Hodge.
He continued: “We ended up at Millcreek Community Church just to visit, and I remember clearly hearing Todd preach and the praise team…we felt that this is exactly where we want to connect and serve while we waited on God.”
One day, over lunch, Hodge shared with Cyphers that God had put on his heart to plant a Southern Baptist church. It was then that Cyphers stunned Hodge by saying, “We are a Southern Baptist church.”
Later that year, Hodge joined MCC’s staff.
“That fast forwards now to 2017, the Lakepoint church that MCC had started well over 20 years ago had a real horrific ending, a very sad tragedy of splitting. There were 20 people in that church that weren’t a part of all the anger [and] were Shepherdess…it just grabbed my heart.”
Hodge continued: “So, I went to the MCC elders to ask them permission to see what God would do in the Harborcreek area with those 20 people…that’s been four years ago this August.”
Following the replanting of HCC, Pastor Brad Wingler, now ECC’s lead pastor, realized that there was another group of people in MCC’s congregation in need of a closer church home.
“For us at ECC, it was [when] Jim started to start things at HCC and going through the process and thinking, ‘Who’s over there, who can we have go with him and send with him?’ There wasn’t a ton of MCC attendees on that side of town. So, we started looking and we looked at the zip codes where Edinboro is…and I still remember, there was like 160 people in those surrounding zip codes,” said Wingler.
With so many MCC attendees in the Edinboro area, and 30 of them willing to help plant a church in the community, Cyphers, Hodge, and Wingler seriously considered adding another church to their budding church network.
“I think it had been on my heart [and] I knew I didn’t want to do anything different than what we were doing. So, if I felt called somewhere else I’d have to really change a lot of things more than likely….[but] we sat down and said, ‘Well, should we start a church there and just make it a network?” explained Wingler.
He continued: “It was just something the Lord did and, kind of, really just threw in our laps… because, like Todd said, we didn’t say, ‘By this date, we’re going to plant this many churches.’ It was, here was an opportunity, and I think Jim and I just felt called and ready to do it.”
Cyphers echoed this desire for a joint effort and similar “DNA” within the three churches.
“Our passion, being together so long, was that if we planted churches we wanted to do it somehow together. We didn’t have a great idea, or vision, or necessarily something on paper all those years. It’s when these opportunities came up, then we realized this was fulfilling what we were already desiring and as they came up we saw what God was doing.”
Cyphers continued: “So, really that’s how the network birthed. As people got desires and saw opportunities, we just saw it fit with our vision of staying together and having the same DNA – to love God, love others, and make disciples.”
Both HCC and ECC were established in 2018, and have been growing in their communities for nearly three years now.
“So, being able to say, ‘Now we have people in Harborcreek, so we’re going to love on that community, and then we have people in Edinboro [and] we’re going to focus’ – like we just don’t do things in the city of Erie, because we’re thirty minutes away. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about the city of Erie, we help in areas as we can, but our main focus is our community,” said Wingler.
Hodge added to Wingler’s thought by discussing how beneficial the discipleship model has been for the Harborcreek community.
“Our focus was going to be multiplying, you know, people actually discipling, investing their time into another person, who would invest their time into another person and that is different on the side of the town that I’m on. The loving God, loving others, and making disciples has made all the difference in the world for us as a church,” said Hodge.
Although they each focus on making disciples in a specific community, the three pastors often take time to pray together and share resources.
“We share resources whether it’s about children’s ministry or a video we found, and the little things add up to where you’re not having to use all your time to do everything. That’s been really good for us to be a family of churches, and that’s really what we are, a family,” said Cyphers.
Listen to the podcast interview:
The “50 Stories of Transformation” series, told in honor of the Baptist Resource Network’s 50th anniversary, highlights the many ways God has moved throughout Pennsylvania, South Jersey and beyond. Your generous support of the Cooperative Program makes this ministry possible and fuels evangelism and outreach in our local churches and all over the world! Thank you!