Sovereign Grace Church of Central Pennsylvania finally has a place to call home.
The five-year-old church has been meeting at various venues in the Altoona area, but now the members have a permanent address at 109 Bellview St. in the city's Garden Heights area.
The Altoona worship center is one of about 80 churches under the Sovereign Grace umbrella. The Christian faith group has been in existence for about 30 years and has its headquarters in Louisville, Ky.
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec)People gather for a prayer meeting at Sovereign Grace Church of Central Pennsylvania. Taking part in the meeting are (from left) Ralph Rispoli, Marilyn Gottshall, Jody and Pastor Tom Kurtz and Jodie and Troy Campbell.
Pastor Tom Kurtz, spiritual leader for Sovereign Grace Church of Central Pennsylvania, said the group of churches follow a Reformed doctrine or one that teaches that God is an active agent in a person's salvation.
"God seeks and saves the lost. The person needs to respond," he said.
He said that in Luke 15, Jesus speaks about the shepherd who has lost a sheep, a woman who has lost a coin and a father who has lost a son. He said all three are joyful when they find what was lost, but the greatest picture of joy comes from the father and that in the same way God is actively seeking and rescuing people.
Sovereign Grace churches also believe in the ongoing work or gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Kurtz said the gifts of the Spirit include a belief that people can be healed and that believers can receive a word from God or Scripture verse to encourage another person or perhaps benefit the entire body. He said such words are usually expressed after consulting with him or another church leader.
"God's spirit is working in his church through every member of the church," Kurtz said.
The church in Altoona started with about 20 to 30 people and now has an average of 80 people in attendance on Sundays.
Kurtz, a former vocational pastor, said he and his wife, Jody, and three children learned about Sovereign Grace churches while visiting one in Gaithersburg, Md., during a vacation about 11 years ago. Kurtz said he and his family were impressed with the Bible-based teaching and that the music's lyrics represented who God is. They also noticed that the members seemed to care for one another and that whole families sat together.
After learning about Sovereign Grace Church of Indiana, Pa., the family began traveling the 50-plus miles every Sunday to worship there in 2004 and were joined by several families from Altoona.
Kurtz, who earned a degree in pastoral studies at Baptist Bible College in Clarks Summit, had previously served part time in several Baptist churches in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Locally, he has been principal at Great Commission School and was a part-time staff member at an area church.
"I have been involved in church ministry since 1988," Kurtz said.
He said he and Jody were praying about starting a Sovereign Grace Church in Altoona when Sovereign Grace of Indiana approached them about planting a church here with Kurtz to be the pastor.
To prepare for this undertaking, Kurtz and his family moved to Gaithersburg where he attended Pastors' College from August 2005 to May 2006. They then moved to Indiana, Pa., where Kurtz did an internship to gain experience in all aspects of ministry.
Sovereign Grace of Central Pennsylvania was established in Altoona in July 2007 with services being held at the Ramada Inn and then at another hotel.
In April of 2008, the church began to rent space from the new owners of the building that had served Christ Second Lutheran Church at 1110 Seventh Ave., before that congregation relocated to Fourth Street.
Although Sovereign Grace believers were united in their efforts to serve God, they longed for a house of worship to call their own.
Kurtz said they wanted a facility that met several criteria: to be in a neighborhood surrounded by people, close to Interstate 99 to make it accessible and to fit the church's price range.
In July 2011, the former Garden Heights United Methodist Church was closed and put up for sale. Kurtz said the initial price was out of Sovereign Grace's range, but it became affordable when the price was reduced to $120,000.
He said the church is in good condition.
"The mechanics are incredible," Kurtz said.
With four classrooms, a kitchen and meeting hall in the basement, the church also offers room to grow.
Brook Gamber and his wife, Karen, of Altoona are among the members who have been with the church during its search for a permanent home. They have been attending Sovereign Grace for about 3 years.
Gamber said he was impressed with Sovereign Grace from his first visit.
"Pastor Tom went out of his way to greet visitors," he said.
Gamber said he also sensed "the incredible warmth of the people. They were very welcoming."
Gamber, who also has a degree in pastoral ministry from a Bible college, said he wanted to serve the church early on, but Kurtz encouraged him to be ministered to and to get to know the people and the church first.
He said that was a different approach from some churches where new attendees are sometimes put to work right away.
Gamber is now part of the leadership team or group of men that make decisions regarding the church. He also leads a prayer meeting with Bible study Tuesdays and is available to preach in Kurtz's absence.
Kurtz said the Bible study used to be held in homes, and now it is held at the church.
He said being established in a community opens up more opportunities to serve the neighborhood, such as an outreach held at Halloween where kids and adults enjoyed kettle corn.
Kurtz said it provided an opportunity for the community and church members to get acquainted.
And in December, Sovereign Grace members will celebrate the birth of Christ with the singing of carols for the first time in their own sanctuary.