BANGOR, Maine — Pastor Kirk Winters was a bundle of nerves, apprehensively switching his gaze from the clock to the entrance of the newly renovated Rock Church just before a 4 p.m. Christmas Eve service Monday.
“We probably won’t have as good a crowd because we’re trying something different and it’s earlier than we usually do it, but we’ll see,” said the 44-year-old Winters, father of four and the founder of the nondenominational Rock Church, which began in Portland in 1999 and expanded to Bangor in 2005.
Just a few minutes later, a nearly solid stream of people started filling up the rows of black, green and blue chairs arranged in front of a large stage.
As the timer superimposed on each of the two large, on-screen screens showing “A Charlie Brown Christmas” counted down the minutes and seconds left before the start of two consecutive Christmas Eve services, empty seats became very scarce.
By the time Winters walked onto the stage to welcome everyone, it was standing room only at the church at the intersection of Finson Road and Ohio Street.
“It’s such an extreme pleasure for us to have you all here for Christmas Eve service at our new church,” Winters said with a broad smile. “We didn’t know if anyone would come.”
About 350 church members and guests alike came to celebrate Christ’s birth in addition to the rebirth of their place of worship.
“It was wonderful to see everyone together,” said longtime Rock Church member and volunteer Jan Doucette, who previously attended and volunteered at the Rock Church in Brewer before it shut down last summer. “It’s bringing both our families together. It’s not Brewer or Bangor. It’s the Rock Church all in one.”
The City of Brewer’s code enforcement officer refused to approve an expansion permit application by Brewer’s Rock Church last January due to city zoning laws. That forced the Brewer congregation to move into the original Bangor location, which had a maximum seating capacity of 150.
“It was unfortunate the way things turned out, but it was a blessing in disguise,” said Doucette, an Old Town resident and site manager for Penquis Child Development. “It was hard to leave what we’d created as a home for three years in Brewer for a lot of us, but to be able to come into one building and connect or reconnect with everybody, that’s a great thing.”
Monday night there were slightly more than 350 seats — of various colors and styles.
“These chairs are borrowed from Abundant Life Church,” Winters said of a particular set. “These green ones are old, original chairs, and the black ones came over from Brewer. We had to mix and match them. It’s not the Taj Mahal.”
The $613,000 church expansion project — which added another 6,000 square feet to the previously existing 4,800-square-foot church space — was essentially finished in 2½ months, allowing church services to start two Sundays ago.
The 150-seat building is now being used to hold Sunday school services for children in fifth grade or younger.
“I love having my people all together in one place,” said Marion Syversen, a self-described “quirky member” and volunteer who was greeting people and handing out service programs.
“I’m a quirky girl who sometimes drops an F-bomb now and again, and that doesn’t always fit in every place, but this seems to be the best of all worlds for me,” she said. “I was a girl who did a lot of drugs, was messed up, and got found. I love the attitude here, and It feels really cozy and comfortable having more people I know all here together.”
To accommodate the 600-member congregation, Winters was holding four services — one Saturday night and three Sunday morning. Now he’ll have just two on Sunday mornings.
“For the last almost year or so we’ve been together under one roof, it’s been hard to be able to come in and get a seat,” Doucette said. “It was sad to see it [Brewer location] go, but it was also for a short time and this is a rebirth for us in this one big church to help us all be one big family again.”