Tonawanda News

November 22, 2013

Vanguard Christian Church opens in NT

Vanguard Church plans grand opening at former Grace Lutheran

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Sunday will mark a new beginning — not only for the nearly 90-year-old Grace Lutheran Church building on Payne Avenue, but also for the 32-year-old congregation of Vanguard Christian Church, which purchased the building this summer.

The church will mark its grand opening at 11 a.m. Sunday at its new site at 375 Payne Ave., North Tonawanda. Grace Lutheran closed in early June, selling the church building to Vanguard, which finalized the purchase July 31. A few services have already taken place at the building, but Sunday will make it official, said pastor Justin Collins.

“We’re really a smaller congregation, so everyone’s been working really hard a lot of the time,” said Jessica Collins, who with her husband is pastor of the church. Any given Sunday, 100 to 120 people would be working at the building, which marks a great increase in space from Vanguard’s prior site on 75th Avenue in North Tonawanda.

The work has included new coats of paint for many areas, changes to the front of the sanctuary to accommodate an open stage area, a bit of electrical work, two large flat-screen televisions on either side of the sanctuary and multiple security cameras. As much of the original woodwork has been kept as possible, as well as the pews, Justin said.

“We wanted to have it traditional, although we’ve not necessarily always a traditional church,” he said. “We wanted to keep it intact, we wanted to keep it what it was meant to be. We wanted it to stay the place where you walk in and say, ‘Wow.’ “

A number of programs still meet in the downstairs area, which will include an eventual meeting room, a youth room painted a vivid green, a children’s nursery area filled with toys and children’s church with multi-colored walls. In the fellowship hall — about twice as big as the old church sanctuary — there are plans for other updates and a café-type atmosphere.

Vanguard, which started in 1981 as Community Christian Church, has been located in a variety of sites throughout its 32 years before settling at its prior location of 75 17th Ave. Since May, the church has been led by The Collins, who moved to the area from California for the role.

Justin grew up in Rochester and attended Bethel Christian Fellowship there, while Jessica is originally from Toronto. They met at Elim Bible Institute in Lima, married in 2000 and spent a number of years at churches in the Rochester area before moving to California and becoming involved at Bethel Church in Redding, Calif.

The pastor at Bethel Christian Fellowship, which has a relationship with Vanguard, was the one who connected the Collins family with New York state once again.

“He called me up out of the blue as we were living our California existence and said, ‘I have a position I think you and Jessica would be perfect for. Would you be interested in interviewing for it?’,” Justin recalled. “I said I’d pray about it, internally saying ‘no.’ ”

Praying about it, however, he “felt a shift,” and the family, including their daughter Eleanor and son Judah, was on its way back to New York.

There was a process of becoming accustomed to the established congregation in North Tonawanda, while the congregation become accustomed to them, Justin said. 

“They were one of the big reasons we decided to leave California and come back to New York,” he said of the Vanguard congregation. “We could see a fire that burned inside of them, and how brightly it burned.”

At the same time, the heritage of the Grace Lutheran Building has its own legacy to lend to the mix.

“God has done so much here,” Justin said. “We don’t feel we’ve started something new in this building. ... We get to begin where they left off. Their ceiling has become our floor. There’s a foundation here to build on.”

Dick Stilwell, one of the Vanguard Christian Church elders and a founding member of the church, said the move — from 4,000 to 15,000 square feet in space — will give the church the ability to expand and reach more people.

“I’ve always looked forward to this day,” he said. “... For me, it’s just a dream come true.”

IF YOU GO • WHAT: Grand opening of Vanguard Christian Church • WHEN: 11 a.m. Sunday • WHERE: 375 Payne Ave., North Tonawanda • FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit or call 694-7816.