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New look, new attitude — same basic beliefs

Pastor Rich Doebler (left) of Journey Christian Church (formerly Cloquet Gospel Tabernacle) and Jeff Gilboy, family life pastor, show off the church’s new name on the electronic sign in front of the church, which is located at 1400 Washington Avenue in Cloquet. Wendy Johnson/ 1 / 2
Journey Christian Church’s Family Life Pastor Jeff Gilboy (left), Pastor Rich Doebler and office manager Mary Wirtz go through some of the prototypes of the newly renamed church’s updated logo. Wendy Johnson/ 2 / 2

There was a time when pretty much every small town in the Upper Midwest had a Lutheran, a Catholic, and maybe a Methodist or Presbyterian church. Today, those “mainline” churches and others are no longer a given.

According to the Huffington Post, every year since about 1965 the membership of many of the major denominations — and the number of their respective churches — have decreased. In the early 1950s, the combined membership of these denominations was somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 million members or active attendees. Last year, the Post reported, that number had shrunk to approximately 15 million — a startling decline of nearly 60 percent.

Now, many of those churches are emerging in a brand new form and they are joined by new — or newly reinvented — churches that have decided to go it on their own in order to more effectively keep and recruit members and make religion more applicable to the lives of today’s churchgoers.

A few weeks ago, the 80-year-old Cloquet Gospel Tabernacle transitioned to become Journey Christian Church, with a new look, a new attitude ... and the same basic beliefs.

“It’s our methods — not our message — that we’re changing,” explained Pastor Rich Doebler. “God certainly hasn’t changed.”

As to why the church decided to change its name and its approach, Doebler said it’s an idea whose time had come.

“This has been in the works ever since a dozen years or so ago,” said Doebler. “We just weren’t ready to do it at that time, but we finally decided to go ahead and make the change. Change is always difficult because it requires stretching, but we’ve actually been changing all along.”

Doebler went on to explain that when the Cloquet church was first started in the late 1920s and later incorporated in the 1930s, it was considered an offshoot of the Duluth Gospel Tabernacle, though it was always separate and independent of them. He explained “Gospel Tabernacle” is not a denomination in and of itself, though it was a very popular name attached to a great many churches during that time period.

“It communicated well with that generation,” Doebler said, “though today’s generation tends to associate it with other things and other religions. The name ‘Tabernacle’ is unclear to many today, but we all know what it means to be on a ‘journey.’ Our culture faces new challenges that no one could have imagined 80 years ago. We decided to step away from that confusion and try to focus on the community and its needs. We hope this will bring them a better tool.”

Aside from the recent name change, the church has been gradually switching gears in its programming as well in order to better connect with people, including a number of non-traditional activities such as the church’s indoor playland for young families (whether they’re a part of the church or not); a twice-annual “free-for-all” event, giving donated items away free to whoever can use them; a “work-for-pay” volunteer program; and even a weekly “God Hockey” group held at the Cloquet hockey shelter.

Doebler said the church continues to expand its array of church ministries as well, with a strong emphasis on the spiritual needs of young families. Several of the church staff members minister in the areas of family life, children and youth, and a number of “life” groups provide outlets for members with diverse interests and needs.

“We want our place to be a ‘community center’ for many,” said Doebler, “but it isn’t only about what we do. We’ve also had to adjust how we think. The church’s new name — Journey Christian Church — grew out of the recognition that Christians are not perfect and are still in the process of becoming something better, still needing each other’s help to reach their goal.”

The church is already sporting the new name on a member-created logo on much of its internal and external signage, and staff and church members are planning on putting up an expansive photo mural in the front entry of the church this week that will depict the life and activities of the church and its role in community life.

“It’s like putting a new picture on an old page,” summed up Doebler. “It’s the same goods — just in a new package.”

Cloquet’s Grace Baptist Church underwent a similar metamorphosis two years ago when it became simply “Grace Church.” Pastor Ted Youker said things have been going very well ever since.

“The church has really grown considerably since the name change,” said Youker. “We still have the same affiliation, but we no longer focus on the denomination but on loving God and living life with other people.”

Much like the Gospel Tabernacle, Grace Church realized that considerable confusion was generated by its former name, since there are so many different Baptist churches in the United States with so many different approaches.

“It seems like all the church jokes end in Baptist!” quipped Youker.

And so when former pastor Doug Green, who had been with the church for 27 years, retired in 2013, the church decided to take the opportunity to try “a little different approach,” explained Youker, by focusing more on family ministry. By all indications, it’s working.

“We now have all sorts of toddlers running all over the place,” he said. “Now we have to figure out where to put them all!”

He admitted that while the church still has some older folks who would like to hold on to the Baptist moniker, the younger folks are seeking both “the authority of the scriptures being taught and a church that ministers to families.”

With that in mind, the church has not only changed its Sunday School and worship times, but has gone to a “modern” worship format with four separate praise bands and new ministries as well that cater to families, youngsters and even the men of the church. One of the latest, said Youker, is called “God’s Great Outdoors,” which will feature a fishing tournament this summer, a 3-on-3 basketball league, game feeds, archery and even a pistol shoot.

“We like to say, ‘It’s a great time to be at Grace’ — and that’s true!” said Youker.

Pastor Mike Stevens of Good Hope Church in Cloquet, whose Assemblies of God congregation now occupies the building that formerly housed Pine Valley Covenant, was matter-of-fact about the updated focus of many of today’s churches.

“People can have a negative experience with a denomination that might color their experience with the local church,” he said. “Sometimes it’s helpful not to facilitate those misunderstandings.”

Youker said no matter what the packaging, he’s enthusiastic about where the new approach is heading.

“This is a time of new growth at our church,” Youker summed up. “It’s an exciting time to be here.”