HOLLEY — For the first time in its nearly 150-year history, the Holley Christian Church is sporting Christmas lights thanks to an anonymous donor.
Sunday night, a couple hundred people of all ages celebrated the event with an official lighting countdown, photos, a visit by Santa and the Sweet Home Husky mascot, music and refreshments.
“The donor thought the church would look very pretty all lit up,” Pastor Kevin Hill said as a crowd gathered outside the church doors. “Someone put together a photo of what they thought it would look like with lights and we said let’s do it.”
Hill, who has guided the church for 18 years, said volunteers jumped in and on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, 30 to 40 church members strung most of the lights.
“It took all day,” Hill said. “But maybe, we’ll have even more lights next year.”
The lights will be on every night, from dusk until dawn through Christmas.
A smaller detail of volunteers worked a few hours per day for another five or six days to put on the finishing touches.
For several members of the congregation, Holley Christian has been their “forever church” where generations of their families have been baptized, married and buried.
Kellie Kem and her husband Dave are newcomers who started attending services in April.
“We love this church,” Kem said. “We feel like we are a part of the family here. The pastor and his wife call us on the phone and see how we’re doing. “
The Kems own Sweet Home Choppers and on Father’s Day, at the request of Pastor Hill, they brought out some motorcycles for a biker-themed celebration.
“This is a happy church and people gravitate to happiness,” Kem said.
The church was founded in 1871 with services held in the Splawn Schoolhouse. In 1887, the church moved into a small building on Fern Ridge outside of Sweet Home and on Thanksgiving Day 1897, the first service was held in what is the current church building, although only portions of the original building remain.
Pastor Hill and his wife Jennifer, the church administrator, never thought they would lead the church for so many years.
“God has his own plan,” Hill said.
The church mission: love God, love others and serve.
But Hill said the church does have a problem. Not the usual lack of folks to fill the pews, or that the congregation is primarily gray-haired seniors and few if any children.
No, Holley Christian’s problem is that both of its Sunday services — 9:30 and 11 a.m. — are full to the point Hill is considering adding a third service.
“We have about 100 people per service and that makes the church really full,” Hill said.
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And, 50 to 75 of those church members are kids, Hill said.
That also makes the church motto, “We’re saving a seat for you,” a bit difficult — but not impossible — to live up to.
The church website hints at why attendance is booming.
“At Holley, we don’t care how you’re dressed, how many tattoos you have, who you voted for or whether you’re a Duck or Beavers fan. We’re a church full of broken, imperfect people, with every story imaginable, who have been changed by Jesus. We want to know your story and we’re saving a seat for you!”
Hill said he views his church “like a family reunion, which is what church should be.”
And that family includes guests.
“Lots of churches talk about making guests feel welcome, we really mean it,” Hill said. “We focus on guests right away and try to make them feel welcome. We then follow up their visit with a survey about what they liked or disliked.”
Hill said many visitors admit they have not had a positive experience with religion.
“We aren’t for everyone, but we are the church for a lot of people,” Hill said. “And that doesn’t mean we are the only church, but everyone should be excited about their church.”
Hill said the church members reach out to the community of both Holley and nearby Sweet Home in many ways.
“We provide gifts to every school district employee — from bus drivers to the superintendent — every fall,” Hill said. “This year, we took clay pots and painted them to look like gumball machines and filled them with candy. People love the gifts and look forward to them every year.”
Hill said the church provides money to gas stations to help those in need of a little extra cash, distributes movie coupons and sponsors the indoor soccer league teams in Sweet Home — all of them.
“I’ve seen churches that have a lot of wealthy members,” Hill said. “Most of our members aren’t wealthy, but they are generous. We have our own angel tree to provide Christmas gifts to needy children and our members also participate in the Fire Department’s Sharing Tree.”
On Super Bowl Sunday, the church hosts a Souper Bowl fundraiser for the Sweet Home Ecumenical Ministries.
“We also help start churches in rural areas,” Hill said. “We’ve been working with a church in Monroe that was down to 10 members. After two weeks, there are 50 at services. Everyone talks about helping churches in big cities, but the truth is, rural communities are really in need.”
The church has helped other churches in Prineville, LaPine, Burns and Myrtle Point as well, Hill said.
Although Holley was once a thriving small town, the church is one of only three key buildings left along with the elementary school and Holley Market.
Hill said church activities are an important community asset.
“We want everyone to know we are vested here,” Hill said.