Restoration Church, Levittown, and the firebomb that made them say, “Yeah, we’re not going anywhere”
Church planting & multiplication
Starting a Neighborhood Church In Post-Christian America
Before the firebomb, Restoration Church was struggling to become the neighborhood church Pastors Ross and Emily Manders believed it was meant to be.
The Manders lead Restoration Church, a Converge MidAtlantic church plant in Levittown, Pa. Originally planted as a campus of their parent church, Grace Point in Newtown, Pa., Restoration Church has found effectiveness in a very different neighborhood from Newtown.
But a Molotov cocktail and a wave of featured news stories helped shape and establish them in ways they never would have imagined.
Ross and Emily met as worship leaders at Converge’s Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. Emily’s dad pastored Grace Point for 23 years. Grace Point became a member of Converge MidAtlantic, thanks in part to Emily’s dad. For Ross, Bethel was his first connection to Converge.
After Ross graduated from Bethel Seminary, the Manders helped a classmate plant a Converge church. That’s when God started to give Ross a vision for planting a church too. But he didn’t want to stay in Minnesota despite how much the couple loved it there.
Ross said, “There were lots of thriving churches in Minnesota. We wanted to go somewhere that was more post-Christian and could benefit from a gospel-centered neighborhood church.”
The Assessment: Starting with “Yellow Light”
Ross and Emily called Grace Point for advice on their new vision for planting. Emily’s dad had long since handed the church to a new pastor, but their Global and Community Service Pastor was Brian Weber. (Brian is currently Converge MidAtlantic’s Regional President.) Grace Point wanted to plant a new church in an underserved neighborhood, and Ross and Emily seemed like the perfect fit.
The combination of personality-assessment results, challenging group projects, ministry presentations, and feedback from their assessors “helped us to understand ourselves, each other as a couple, and how we could work together.”
“It was a game changer for us. Not just for understanding our own calling, but for us as a couple too.”
The result of the assessment was a “yellow light.” Or, in other words, caution. Don’t pass go. Don’t collect $200. Yet. Although the assessors saw the Manders’ potential, they pointed out areas for growth.
Ross said, “My only ministry context was college students. And so, for us to go plant a church among adults, they wanted us to diversify our audience.”
They had already decided to move out of their friend’s church plant so Ross could start preaching and leading Bible studies at another church in the Twin Cities—one with greater age diversity. They served there until their move to Pennsylvania.
Over the next year and a half, their parent church cleared the way for Ross to join their staff. Ross began preaching regularly while he and Brian started looking for a potential campus home around greater Philadelphia without success.
However, when Ross asked their parent church’s congregation to pray for a building, a congregation member reached out. Her father was an elder at an Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Levittown that was preparing to close its doors.
Though the building itself needed considerable repair and updating, there was a bright spot. It had a thriving neighborhood preschool leasing space. Grace Point worked out a 15-year lease-to-own, with 100% of the money from the lease going to help plant EPC churches. It was a win-win.
The building itself is “in the heart of the community. It’s on the main road that cuts through Levittown.” It backs up to a community pool with an elementary school just a few blocks away.
Emily said, “It was a restoration project from the very beginning.”
They signed the lease in July 2013, had their third child, and began preparing the building for an October launch with the help of attendees from their parent church. Restoration Church had its own name, but it carried its parent church’s ethos and style. About 80 members of their parent church joined the launch team, including worship musicians. The two campuses coordinated sermon series and shared teachers.
Ross said, “Their generosity set us up. But a highway runs between us and Grace Point, and it’s a cultural dividing line. We are in a different world than Newtown. So to do what they were doing in Newtown didn’t translate to Levittown.”
Levittown is home to one of the highest populations per capita for methamphetamine use, informally known as the drug capital of Philadelphia. It quickly became clear that Restoration Church couldn’t reach the Levittown community using the same model as their parent church in Newtown.
Soon, they wouldn’t have a choice other than to rethink everything.
“We had to grow up real fast.”
In May of the following year, their parent church had a massive leadership transition. It was a difficult season for the established congregation, but Converge MidAtlantic’s former Regional President, Dan Peterson, helped coach them through it and they continue to be a thriving congregation today.
As for Restoration Church, many from their launch team returned to their parent church to help with the transition. Ross stayed on as an elder.
They were still one church legally and financially, but, as Emily said, “We had to grow up real fast.”
But it was an opportunity. Ross said, “It expedited our ability to be the church God had called us to be.” Their parent church voted to release Restoration Church to establish themselves as an independent congregation.
Ross and Emily went to work establishing their elder board, growing their staff, and seeing their neighbors come to Jesus.
But the firebomb landed in a sink in a cinderblock-enclosed room. Thankfully, there was less fire damage than smoke damage, but the congregation couldn’t meet inside for several weeks.
“So even before COVID, we were meeting outside!” Emily said.
“There were a lot of benefits to it,” Ross said. “Several news stations came down, and I was able to share the gospel pretty pointedly. They showed pictures of our youth group gathering around the burnt cross.
“But because we met on the lawn, several of our neighbors came to listen. And many of them stuck with us.
“[As for the arsonist,] I was able to go to the hearings and offer him forgiveness. I was able to share the gospel with him. And several of the local newspapers printed up my perspective on what forgiveness is and why we forgive.”
Emily said, “The devil comes to steal, kill, and destroy, and that was our chance to say, ‘Yeah, we’re not going anywhere.’
“And it made us dig in even more.”
Though they still carried—and carry—a close relationship with Grace Point, Restoration is a unique, independent neighborhood church, thanks in part to the many vision-clarifying challenges in Restoration’s early days.
Emily shared, “On Sundays, you’ll see a large contingency of people at our church who are in rehab. We also have the only AA meeting that offers childcare in the area for women in recovery.”
A Community of Pastors … and Great Friends
Ross and Emily also joined Converge MidAtlantic as an independent church and started meeting other pastors.
Emily said, “They were so smart and wise, and there were conferences we attended…. At one conference, Derek Sanford gave a talk about ‘untapped volunteers.’ This helped us figure out how to honor volunteers and how to develop our own leadership team. It provided a good framework for us.”
For Ross, the connections are equally valuable.
“MidAtlantic is a community of pastors.… I have great pastor friends in Ohio, Erie, central Pennsylvania, and the D.C. area. I feel like if I was ever in need or had questions, I could call them.”
Ross also meets regularly with the Delaware Valley LEAD Team. LEAD teams are groups of local pastors who meet up quarterly to connect (often over lunch).
Ross describes their quarterly meetups like this: “We can have lunch, bounce ideas off of each other, share resources, woes, griefs, and challenges.”
Ross has also shared his model for local missions, one that’s been an asset at Restoration Church and is spreading to other Converge MidAtlantic churches. It’s all about “being incarnational … being in our community, for our community.”
Ross and Emily are excited about Restoration’s future, thanks in part to God’s provision as they approach their 10th year.
In January 2022, Emily attended a conference in Orlando with some fellow Converge leaders. There, Emily learned a new model for leading Restoration Church through a capital campaign. With coaching from Regional President Brian Weber and chairman oversight from her father, Pastor David Ridder, Restoration Church is halfway through their three-year, $400,000 capital campaign.
In alignment with their vision to “build bridges” in Levittown, their campaign seeks to fund various initiatives. First is The Bridge, an independent coffee shop and community space set to open in fall 2023.
Ross said, “We want to focus on the next generation of young people: Gen Z, Millennials, and Alpha. We want kids to want to stay in church. We want to create safe homes or drop-in centers where kids can have a safe place to come and receive mentorship, do homework, and play games … just hang out.”
Restoration Church is also renovating their youth space, upgrading their preschool’s parking lot, planning a vision trip to Poland with Converge global workers Lemuel and Brittany Martinez, and more.
“We’re also thinking about mental health and wanting to offer Jesus-centered restorative counseling at an affordable or free cost.
“We are interested in continued exploration of what it would mean to reach the recovery community: those in recovery or addicts yet to be in recovery. We want to be able to provide transitional help for those getting out of recovery homes. We’d love to have housing for people coming out of recovery and help them get back on their feet.”
Thinking back on the last several years, Emily said, “All of our projects were made possible by funds raised through our capital campaign, and that would never have been possible without Converge’s relationships and resources!”
Can Converge MidAtlantic Help You Be a Unique Neighborhood Church?
Leading a church is an adventure. We need one another.
Converge MidAtlantic is a diverse collection of churches, united in spirit and purpose, collaborating on the same mission: the Great Commission.
For over a century, we’ve been sharing best-in-class resources, training, and relationships so we can all have what we need to thrive. We help partner with churches who want to hold onto their color, flavor, and vision but don’t want to go it alone.
For Ross and Emily, the people of Converge have been there during key parts of their winding but purpose-filled ministry. Ross said that with Converge, “you’re going to get relationships. You need people who have been down this road to come beside you and inspire you on this journey.”
If you’re a church interested in a conversation with us, or if you’re currently a Converge church wanting more resources and deeper connection, reach out.
Converge MidAtlantic is a culturally diverse movement of gospel-centered churches working to help people meet, know, and follow Jesus. We do this by starting and strengthening churches together worldwide.