Founder of local iChurch excited about future for congregation
Mars' newest congregation iChurch has put the “i” back in church.
It's a name with a purpose for this novice organization now nine weeks old.
For the Rev. Ben Rath, 33, of Mars, connection with iChurch should transform the statement “I came to church” to “I am the church.”
“The ‘church' is not a physical building,” he said, “but the ‘called-out ones,' the ecclesia, the Greek word for church, set about for a purpose.”
“You can be the church if you find a need and meet it, find a hurt and heal it, find a wrong and right it.”
He and his wife, Alicia, and another couple, took their idea for a local worship site to others who came onboard with time and talents. After months of planning, the launch was held Sept. 30 in the Mars Area High School auditorium. More than 160 people attended the 10 a.m. non-denominational service. Mailers, yard signs and word-of-mouth invitations had attracted the congregation.
“Friends, family and members from other local churches came to the service to help create the feeling that something was going on here,” he said.
After having visited many area churches, Rath, a Butler-area native, decided that Mars would be the place to begin. Statistics proved the need was here.
“God's got Cranberry under control,” Rath said, “but within a 10-mile radius of Mars, there are 20,000 households with two and one-half people in each one.”
Broader statistics show 81 percent of the population in Pennsylvania doesn't attend church on a regular basis, he said. Extrapolating, that means there are 40,000 unchurched people in the immediate area.
The Association of Related Churches or ARC, with headquarters in Birmingham, Ala., had given Rath the training, assessment skills and support he needed to begin. ARC was organized 10 years ago to help young, growing churches prosper. Half of the church plants fail after 18 months, according to the ARC website. However, ARC churches have a 90-percent success rate after five years.
After months of training, supplemented by videos and phone coaching, the Rev. Larry Bettencourt of Champion Life Church in Beaver Falls became Rath's mentor. Bettencourt's church launched on April 17, 2011 in Blackhawk High School auditorium. Since then, he has seen lives impacted.
“We're making a difference in people's lives,” he said.
“Success is the story of people's changed lives. If you make a difference in one, you've made a difference.”
Bettencourt finds the Raths to be genuine and caring.
“Ben is passionate for what he's doing,” Bettencourt said.
“This is where he wants to spend his life.”
In designing his church, Rath hoped to counter the reasons why people don't attend weekly church services. For him, there are four: services are boring, people are unfriendly, churches just want money and concerns about children's safety. And so, iChurch focuses on exciting and dynamic services, care for young families and their children, and background checks for those in ministry.
“There is no huge emphasis on money, but instead, on what we're doing with it,” he said.
Recently, the congregation collected $1,400 to be sent to a New York City church to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy. For the young pastor, helping five to 10 families in need there is a gratifying outreach.
Rath and his leadership team acknowledge the importance of every Sabbath service.
“During Sunday's worship experience, the potential is there to have an encounter with God,” he said.
“We create the environment for that to happen – through songs, preaching and giving.”
The goal, ultimately, is the same as that of Jesus' 11 disciples, Rath explained, “becoming more like the Rabbi, doing the things he did, saying the things he said.”
Rath continues to follow Bettencourt's advice: “Just be you. You and God are writing your story.”
The church team has experienced that “authorship” firsthand as the church was shaped to reach out to the “unchurched and dechurched.” For Rath, God's providence has been tangible.
“It's a wild thing. It blows my mind,” he said.
“This is the story of God's faithfulness. God already had a plan.”
Everyone is welcome at iChurch, Rath said. And he has no problem with those who attend and find iChurch not to their liking.
“They're not bad persons that this is not the church for them,” he said.
“But if someone were to launch a church across the street, I'd support it. We're on the same team. I love what God is doing in Pennsylvania.”
Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or firstname.lastname@example.org.