Embracing Change at LifeWay

By Wayne Stapleton
VP of Cross-Cultural Engagement & Emerging Leader Engagement

Change in the church can be challenging and is often resisted. But change we must if we are to be faithful to the Great Commission over time. Change for the sake of change alone is not the goal, but ministry must be applicable to the community in which it exists to represent Christ in a meaningful way to the neighborhood. One way or another, change has been a kind of theme at LifeWay Community Church in Lansing, Michigan, for over one hundred years.

The church now known as LifeWay Community was founded from two home Bible studies of German-speaking people. Calling themselves the Baptist German American Mission, they came together during the first World War to be a cultural refuge, as it was difficult to be German in America during this time. Pastors were sent from the Detroit area to lead worship a couple times per month, and as a show of support from an NAB sister church, about twenty-five people relocated there from Bethel Baptist Church in St. Clair Shores, about one-hundred miles away, to help grow the church. In 1922, the church legally incorporated with sixty-three members and was renamed The First German American Baptist Church.

During this time, the services had both English and German elements. Since the church had been a refuge for German Americans, changes to reach new people were occasionally hard to agree upon. But the German language in church services was fading away in NAB churches. The decision to drop German from the services was met with a lot of passion, and some attenders left the church as a result.

LifeWay has been at its current location on Boston Boulevard in Lansing since 1954. The community worshipped in the basement before the first floor was built. The church was re-named Colonial Village Baptist Church in the 1950s. Initially, the Colonial Village neighborhood where the church is located was a premier community. It is comprised of smaller homes, which served as starter homes for young families over the decades, families the church was able to attract. During this time, there were strong children’s and youth ministries. Randy Morgan, who served at the aforementioned Bethel Baptist Church as an associate pastor, came to Colonial Village in 1988 as an associate pastor before being appointed to the lead pastor role in 1996.

With the housing crisis and recession of 2008, younger families moved out and retiring Baby Boomers moved in, leading church leadership to change church programming and ministry focus. They also felt the need to change their name. Colonial Village didn’t connect with the community as it once did, so the church changed their name to LifeWay Community to reflect another new beginning for themselves. Some people struggled with the change, but the ministry’s name was no longer to be about location but about ministry purpose.

The mantle of leadership was eventually transferred from Randy to his son, Bryon, the current lead pastor, but it wasn’t direct; it was more like a process. About 2019, Randy felt it was time for him to step down, but he didn’t want to leave during COVID-19.

At the time, Bryon had been on staff as an associate pastor for nearly fifteen years. Previously, he was the chief officer of Communications and Development of another Christian organization, Christian Resources International. In 2002, Bryon was the first student to graduate from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary with their Interdisciplinary Master’s Degree, in which he mixed master of Divinity Courses with missiology. Bryon is very interested in the impact of culture from the perspective of a missionary. To help his messages connect with people, he studied stand-up comedy instead of homiletics.

Having experienced fruitful ministry volunteering with young adults, Bryon joined the church staff in December of 2005, while it was still known as Colonial Village Baptist. When Bryon started as an associate pastor, he felt it was temporary. In his words, his job was to “try to get fired.” He took a lot of risks, but he grew into his role, and the people saw his effectiveness; he was connecting.

In 2021, Randy announced it was time for him to retire. Church leadership felt the need for change, for a leader uniquely gifted to reach younger people, someone with cultural awareness of the changing, younger demographic.

In September of 2021, Bryon took on the role of lead pastor, following his dad’s tenure. LifeWay is currently in a time of re-visioning. About a third of the church did not return after COVID. Bryon is working through what LifeWay Community Church is about, seeking to bring clarity and communicating vision and purpose to the church family. LifeWay is composed of people with a variety of spiritual backgrounds, including Catholic, Lutheran, and Pentecostal. Different attenders have different expectations of what church is like. Bryon seeks to bring clarity and focus to LifeWay’s sense of mission.

Bryon shared that his driving motivation is to communicate hope in Christ. Bryon sees hope as the city of Lansing’s biggest need.

A key quote that guides Bryon’s ministry perspective is from Haddon Robinson: “The art that Christian preachers need is the art of storytelling.” In really seeking to do this well, Byron employs unique teaching methods; during his sermons, he has his listeners interact with each other, inviting them to do exercises to help them “own” the big idea of the message. He breeds interaction into the congregation by asking them to talk to someone they didn’t come to church with.

Bryon is excited about what God is doing:

  • Those who attend Lifeway know the services are experiential, and they are excited about the fact there are a lot of different educational methods employed to teach on Sundays.
  • There is a good connectedness among those who attend, which they express, and people are telling their friends.

Change has not been easy to come by over the years at LifeWay Community Church. But change has gotten easier as demographics have been transformed and the ministry context they find themselves in is different. And with continued change, LifeWay is being shaped by God into a community formed to reach its neighbors with the love and creativity of Jesus Christ.