For 105 years, West Side Christian Church members served Wichita.
The church building with a rich history has sat largely empty since it closed in March. But it’s about to start hosting Sunday morning services again as a much younger church moves in.
For just 22 years, New Life Covenant Church has met in a variety of locations. They were the “church at the zoo” for half that time, meeting in the Cargill Learning Center at the Sedgwick County Zoo.
Now, members of New Life Covenant finally have a space to call their own. They know this may not be quite the future that West Side attendees wanted for their church, but hope to honor their building’s history in Wichita.
New Life’s first service in the former West Side Christian Church building, at 1819 W. Douglas in Delano, will be Dec. 17.
West Side Christian closed after shrinking in membership since its peak in the 1950s and ‘60s, when membership was around 1,500. West Side planted at least seven other churches over the years, including Pathway Church and Riverlawn Christian Church.
When it closed, many lamented the loss of the church that had its roots in a women’s Bible study that met in West Wichita around 1908. People shared stories of marrying, worshipping and making lifelong friends in the building.
For Pam Gearhart, children’s director at New Life, moving into West Side is a bit like coming full circle. She married her first husband, who is now deceased, at West Side in the 1970s.
“When we bought the church I thought OK, nothing is by happenstance, nothing is by accident. There is a purpose and plan in every situation,” Gearhart said. “How exciting to be walking the hallways I used to walk 40 years ago.”
The Rev. Tim Fruits, associate pastor at New Life Covenant, said the church has grown over the past four years to about 400 attendees on an average Sunday morning.
For years the church has talked about building a sanctuary, even buying land near Goddard, but the plan never materialized. Eventually they started to look for a property in Wichita and learned about West Side’s closure.
When the news was announced that they finally had a building of their own, some people came to tears, Fruits said.
“There’s just an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness to God and it’s re-upped every expectation for what our community is capable of, the reach we can have, the good we can do,” Fruits said. “We’re not here just to have a church and hold a service, as we make the move to Delano we want to invest in and reach out to the neighborhood, the people who call this home.”
Fruits said they were also excited that the board of West Side Christian Church plans to use the proceeds to benefit the community. New Life paid about $1 million for the building.
While the board of West Side still exists, the church is in the process of being absorbed into Riverlawn.
T.J. Lawson, former teaching pastor at West Side and current pastor-in-residence at Riverlawn, said they aren’t entirely sure what they’ll do with the proceeds of the sale, but that the goal is “to turn around and start churches or bless other churches.”
Lawson said West Side’s goal was always to “extend churches outside our walls.”
“It means a lot to see another church getting to meet and worship and gather,” Lawson said. “While it is always hard to see things transition like that, it’s been really exciting to see what God had in store.”
Now, members of New Life have been at work getting their new building ready for services. They’ve been renovating, painting walls and listening to stories about West Side’s history. They will change the name of the building, but say they want to walk in the legacy West Side has left for them.
“This has been a building where prayers have been prayed and people have believed for big things for decades now,” Fruits said. “We’re excited to take it on for the next 100 years and establish with new zeal what I’m sure they felt like when they built their first building here 90 years ago.”