From a men’s prayer breakfast to a pastor’s home, a YWCA meeting room and, finally, to a renovated movie theater, City Church has grown in size, stature and presence over the last 25 years.
That growth and existence was recently celebrated by the Batavia-based church community with a four-day celebration of family activities, an egg hunt with a special bunny, and an Easter Sunday service.
Senior Pastor Marty Macdonald saw the process as one of submission rather than a forced plan.
“That disappoints many people that, you know, are very goal-oriented … and I believe in all that, but I also sometimes believe that your dreams and your goals when submitted to the Lord, you have to be willing to allow him to move in that direction,” he said during an interview with The Batavian. “Because if you live long enough you find out life isn't always what you hoped it would turn out to be. And many times, if you entrust your life to God's process, he'll make it better than what you hoped or thought it would be.”
And it was God’s process, he believes, that took a simple men’s breakfast to draw listeners to Macdonald and ask him where his church was located. “We don’t have a church” was his reply, and that served as the springboard to hold gatherings at the home of Macdonald and his wife Patti.That small group first met for an Easter Sunday service in 1997. Three or four years later, Rose Caccamise of Roxy’s Music Store then suggested to meet at YWCA on North Street, which is where the church settled until its numbers outgrew the space and a larger venue became available.
In 2001, the church moved into the former Mancuso Theater on East Main Street. There has been another spurt of growth in 2016 with an expansion into the former St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church on Liberty Street, on the city’s Southside.
From that first major step to set up at YWCA, Macdonald has reached out to his most reliable guide. He told Caccamise, “Let me pray about it.”
“I hung up the phone. It's kind of funny because I just felt really like the Lord saying to me, do I have to make it any plainer to do? So we did that,” he said. “We didn't have a sound system, and Rose, she gave us the sound system. She said whatever you can pay for, pay for it, because we weren't taking any money at the time; we just were getting together. So that's the formation of, you know, how we began, how it started.”
During an anniversary celebration talk last Thursday, he gave the analogy about a turtle on top of a fence post: you know he didn’t get there on his own, he said.
“And that's the way it is in my life and in the church as well, that a lot of people help,” he said.
One of his friends in Bellevue, Washington even inadvertently helped with the church name. Macdonald was at Dunkin’ Donuts mulling over possible names and thinking about his love for Batavia and the city community. It then came to him: City Church. The friend’s church had the same name so Macdonald asked if he could use it, and the reply was yes. City Church became incorporated as a not-for-profit.
“You can see now, and going back to having goals and visions, my mind worked to that scale. But God, he had a bigger goal and a bigger vision,” he said. “Sometimes our goals and our dreams are much smaller than what God has for us.”
Church leaders pursued the theater once it came up for sale, he said, which was “amazing,” especially given the fact everyone was meeting at his home about four years prior. And then “we're moving into (the theater).”
“It was mammoth, you know, from meeting in your living room into a space to have 600 seats. And that was just a huge undertaking for us back then. But it's proved out to be an incredible place for church and for our multiple outreaches that we do on a regular basis,” he said.
The church has remained nondenominational — which isn’t to say Macdonald is “anti-denominations,” he said — as a community church with origins of being home-based, as early Christians had done. And as time has moved on, the congregation has grown under the tagline of “we do life together.”
“Because I'd hate to do it alone,” he said.
Part of doing life together includes his wife Patricia (Patti), and three sons, Benjamin, married to Amanda, and three children; Ryan, married to Samantha, and two sons; and Garrett, their youngest son. All of them help out at the church, and “I couldn’t have done it without any one of them,” the pastor said. Ryan assists with the ministry full-time and has developed into a polished and mature preacher, the proud dad said, and is doing “just a fabulous, fabulous job.”
“My family means just so much to me. And I'm just so grateful that they're all in church with me,” he said, adding that they all live in the nearby community. “And I'm just incredibly fortunate for that, I really am just fortunate.”
Macdonald credits son Ryan for taking the lead on repairs and revamping St. Anthony’s, plus activities such as open gym night and food distributions.
“He's really just done a phenomenal job, turned that property around,” Macdonald said. “Just think of that. You know that St. Anthony's school was empty for 10 years. Nothing at the church for years … I walked in that church, there were pigeons flying through it. The school had holes in the roof, there was so much water running in there. And that's all been transformed. And largely, that's attributed to him and his gifting in that he's done an incredible job.”
The Generation Center, a large meeting and dining venue on Center Street, is another aspect of City Church, besides its many community programs. There are four weekly church services, small group sessions, open gym, activity night, game rooms, and food distributions every other week at St. Anthony’s for a crowd of up to 1,000 people. There are also celebrate-recovery groups and a food pantry. These programs have made “an incredible difference” to people in need, he said.
Macdonald keeps in touch with some of those needs as an active member on the Downtown Business Improvement District board, Community Justice Advisory Council and as a Notre Dame High School board member. He’s also been known to climb aboard a piece of equipment, say a forklift, and do what’s necessary.
“And so we keep active in the community, and we love our city. We love the people that love our county or region. And I'm just really grateful for where we're at right now, really,” he said. “Now I really believe that God cares for the city, He cares for people. The Bible says ‘when the city is healthy when the city rejoices, people prosper.‘ And I really believe that, I see that in our city. I see our city greater now than I've seen it in the years that I've been there.
“We're always going to have challenges. People are going to think things should be one way or the other. But where the city is at right now, where it's headed, I really think it's amazing to see the changes that are taking place.”
Editor's Note: Howard Owens contributed to this article.
Top photo: Senior Pastor Marty Macdonald leads a service on stage at City Church in Batavia. Ryan Macdonald follows in his dad's footsteps as a full-time ministry assistant at City Church. Senior Pastor Marty Macdonald and members of the congregation participate in an Easter Sunday service at the East Main Street church. Photos by Howard Owens.