Built in 1890, the First Evangelical Lutheran Church has the distinction of not being the earliest constructed building in Eagle County, but the oldest still standing. Facing dwindling parishioners, the 124-year-old church on the corner of Eagle Street and Second in Gypsum, Colorado is now looking to that long history for its salvation.
"Within fairly recent memory, we've had 170 or more worshiping in this little tiny church on a Sunday," said Intern Pastor Dan Tisdel. "But the last six or seven years they were down to averaging about 15 on a Sunday."
The church has been in a maintenance mode of late, just trying to keep their doors open.
"They've been selling little bits of property for the last five or six years," Tisdel remarked. "They sold what was their parish hall about a year and a half before I came in, just to try and stay afloat. To stay alive."
Rare for the time, the church was built by area Lutherans, but designed to be open to any denomination. It was even the location of the Eagle High School graduation for 50 years. No other public buildings were able to accommodate large gatherings as well as First Evangelical, so it became the community hub, like many churches in those days.
"One of the things that hit me fairly early on was how rich the history was," Tisdel said.
Since joining the church as an intern from divinity school, Tisdel has created a mini-museum of shorts right at the entrance. Dozens of old hymnals sit on an antique book shelf. What is believed to be the original wooden cross, once painted gold and could be seen for miles around, now sits on a stained glass window ledge, the paint long disintegrated.
"The kind of revelation [I had] was I found a transfer of membership letter from 1914, which is a pretty common thing among churches," Tisdel said. "And it was written with a quill pen. And I was like, 'oh my goodness' this is a treasure."
It's the little treasures like that, hidden in the nooks and crannies of the old church - as well as in member's homes – that will help sustain First Evangelical in the future. Tisdel wants to change the culture, to see the church "as more than just something you do on Sunday."
He believes the role First Evangelical once played as a public place in the past will build numbers today, or at least recognition.
"For the church to grow it has to be relevant. And that comes in worship, but it also comes outside of worship too," Tisdel said. "The church building and the church community is more relevant to people if they're showing up for their 4H meetings or for their AA meetings or for whatever. Whatever it is, the church becomes part of the community because people identify it with something."
The pastor's ideas are starting to work. The congregation currently averages around 30 members. Not large my any means, but an increase nonetheless.
Tisdel's internship with the church is scheduled to end once he graduates. But he's hoping it will be his official "first calling" or first church where he's a full pastor when he does graduate.
It's only fitting since, technically, he was baptized into the church when he was born.
"I was born in Rifle in 1969, and at that point Rifle was one of the five parishes - Rifle, Glenwood Springs, and the church here in Gypsum, the church in Snowmass and than a church in Vail, served by two pastors that rotated through and served all five together," he said.
Just another example of the First Evangelical's history lending a hand to its future.