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Century-Old Church Celebrates Legacy of Young Leadership

From its first to most recent senior pastor, Evangel Church has experienced a rich anointing under uniquely young leadership.
At its 100-year anniversary, an East-coast church experienced a rebirth which, as with its original launch, boomed under the direction of one of its youngest leaders.

A sweeping revival of the early 1900s which flooded the hearts of Christians in Germany would soon roll into the United States via the shores of New Jersey.

Among a small group of emigrants called to Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the midst of the Welsh Rival was Wilhelmina “Minna” Simmat. She and her husband, who was skeptical of his wife’s call, finally made their way to the US and began hosting a prayer meeting in their home for German speakers.

This prayer meeting began to grow and experience a move of the Holy Spirit, just like what was being seen in Europe at the time. It became apparent that there was a need for a formal pastor so the group could officially unite as a church.

Simmat saw a 16-year-old boy who had been faithfully attending the prayer meetings and felt that he was being anointed as their first leader. Carl Loenser, at the request of Simmat, went off to attend Bible school at Bethany College in Newark, New Jersey.

Following his graduation, Loenser was ordained and named senior pastor of the booming church. In 1914, with a new storefront location, the church officially established as Ebenezer Church, now Evangel Church, founded on 1 Samuel 7:12.

The church continued to grow and in the 1920s and 1930s, a new wave of immigrants came to the community. Several young Italians, who had heard powerful testimonies of Evangel Church, began unexpectedly attending the predominately German services.

Despite the unusual circumstances of this new group of young members, the church embraced the diversity and changed the language of the services to English to accommodate their new brothers and sisters in Christ.

Now a thriving community, the church continued to experience the faithfulness of God and by the 1970s and 1980s, was holding a morning and evening service on Sundays, lasting at least two hours, and Wednesday night meetings for adults and children.

Though it experienced ups and downs, Evangel Church continued to be a life-giving ministry throughout the 1990s and reached a peak number of attendees in 2006. However, a few years later as the pastor at the time began his transition out of the church, the congregation started to decline in its growth and hit a plateau in 2011.

In 2012, the church, who had been searching for a new lead pastor for almost nine months, would take another chance on a young man with a tender heart for ministry.

The pastoral search had been long and the list of criteria for leading this 100-year-old church was specific. However, as the church’s youngest staff member filled the pulpit as an interim pastor, it was quickly realized that this “youngster” was who God had appointed to be the next senior leader.

Darryl J. Russo, 54, who had attended the church his entire life, was serving as chairman of the church board when Morante’s name came up as a potential pastoral candidate.

“I remember one of the first meetings I had with Chris. I just kept thinking 26-year-olds don’t talk like this, in terms of mission, vision, and leadership. He was a man who had been gifted by God and was granted wisdom beyond his years,” Russo says.

In 2013, 27-year-old Chris Morante was elected as the official pastor of Evangel Church.

As the cycle of young leadership renewed nearly a century later, Morante began to ask God for a renewal of His presence and a fresh vision for the next 100 years.

“God began to give me a vision of changed lives changing communities,” says Morante.

And with that, the church’s passion for local missions was revived.

“The change that came with Pastor Chris was that the emphasis shifted from the typical Sunday morning experience to a more outward focus. It went from an internal mindset to an outward one,” says Russo.

Evangel was given a chance to exercise this new vision by serving an incredible need that presented itself when their community was devastated by hurricane Sandy. By opening the church as a warming shelter and meeting the physical needs of those who had lost everything due to the hurricane, Evangel church mobilized hundreds of new volunteers from within its congregation.

The church continued to catch this missional vision by serving during things such as covid and, most recently, hurricane Ida. Evangel also hosts a bi-annual domestic missions trip to their own community called “Service for Service.” On this day, they cancel their traditional Sunday services and encourage their church members to volunteer in the community through pre-determined projects.

This year, the church had over 1,000 volunteers who served on over 80 community projects.

Yet despite all of its outreach efforts, the founding thread of investing in young leaders remains.
Recently, the church expanded and added an entire wing to better reach and equip children and youth to become leaders.

“We believe that the groups we call the ‘next generation’ aren’t the generation of tomorrow, they are the generation of today,” Russo states.

“Our church is such a beautiful picture of the tapestry of heaven,” says Morante. “Evangel is multi-everything; multi-generational, multi-ethnic, and multi-socio-economic class,” he says. “It’s in our DNA because it is the way we were founded.”

Evangel, a church that has reached thousands through the anointing of young leaders and the acceptance of diverse people groups for over 100 years, was recently named one of the country’s fastest growing Assemblies of God churches in America by Outreach magazine.

Ashley B. Grant

Ashley B. Grant has a master's degree in Human Services Marriage and Family Counseling from Liberty University and is a credentialed Christian counselor through the American Association of Christian Counselors. Grant also holds certifications in crisis pregnancy counseling and advanced life coaching. Ashley is a fourth generation Assemblies of God preacher’s kid and has one daughter and three sons.