NORTH TONAWANDA – With a funky name and two young pastors, iHope Community Church will open with a special launch service at 11 a.m. today with plans to offer a new approach to the Christian faith.
But its message is ageless: “God is greater than anything we can imagine.”
Lead Pastor Matthew Richbart, 26, said the idea of opening his own church to serve the community is something he has felt called to do since high school. Now he believes he has found a perfect location at the historic former St. Peter’s Lutheran Church at the corner of Thompson and Bryant streets.
He said of the church’s name, “We believe that there is hope for this region. With all the churches in Western New York closing, it’s a privilege to help bring one back to life.”
Wearing bright blue sneakers that betray his age, Richbart otherwise appears mature beyond his years as he outlines his plans for his new Bible-based Christian Church.
“I just wanted to reach those who haven’t been to church and don’t have a church home. It was a calling to reach those who have never been connected before,” Richbart said. “We’re going to be rooted in the historic Christian faith, but we want to reach those who never connected to other churches, by having passionate worship and inspirational messages that connect with people’s lives.”
Richbart is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, graduating with a master of divinity degree. He also received a bachelors’ degree in religious studies from Liberty University.
His brother, Michael, 21, the assistant pastor, graduated from Houghton College with a bachelor’s degree in Bible and intercultural studies.
The brothers plan to offer a contemporary church with a relaxed atmosphere, upbeat music and a children’s ministry in a historic church with a rich history that dates back to 1889 with ornate woodwork, well-maintained pews and a working bell tower.
“We hope to build on the rich foundation that has been laid for us and be faithful to the mission God has called us to,” Matthew Richbart said. And of the church itself, he added, “It’s a really neat place, and we want to infuse new life into it and build on the past.”
Michael Richbart said his brother has had the passion to open up his own church for a while, and he felt the calling to help his brother any way he can. The younger Richbart will be heading up the youth ministry.
Both brothers still live at home with their parents in Sanborn and are using rent from the former pastor’s house next door, which is part of the property, to maintain the church.
Matthew Richbart said buying a closed church property was more cost-effective than renting a space once a week for church services. He said at some point he hopes he would be able to move into the pastor’s house
The church had been used continuously up until a couple of years ago and still is used partly by the Niagara Community Action Program, which rents part of the basement from the church to provide a food and clothing pantry for the community.
Matthew Richbart said they also want to work with other churches in the community and have met with other pastors.
It’s not just about young people, he said. They would like to see the whole area transformed.
“In my research, I found that 37.9 (percent) of people in the 14120 ZIP code, that includes North Tonawanda and Wheatfield, have little to no faith involvement of any kind. That represents over 17,000 people just in this ZIP code,” Richbart said. “There’s a huge task ahead of us, and we need lots of churches working together if we are going to reach this community.”
In addition to services, the Richbarts plan to offer Bible study, women’s Bible study and youth ministry that continues the previous church’s “kid’s cafe,” a Friday night program with a message and snacks. The large building also is suited to fellowship, with a number of meeting rooms in the basement, a playroom and a kitchen area for church dinners and pre-Thanksgiving dinners for the needy in the community.
“We want to make people feel comfortable. They don’t need to dress a certain way to be accepted,” Matthew Richbart said of iHope Community Church.
Today’s launch will begin with services at 11 a.m. and will be followed by a barbecue and even a chance to stay and watch the Bills game and continue the fellowship.
Information about the church is available at www.ihopechurch.com.