(April 5, 2019) Much about Coastal Community Church remains unfamiliar to its congregation, even after waiting a decade for its completion.

Some still call the newly opened church on Ocean Gateway in Berlin by its once longtime name, Ocean City Worship Center. Others still head to the old church, a short drive to the west on Route 50, for Sunday service because two decades of good Christian habits are difficult to break.

Pastor Bryan Pugner, who has led this congregation for 15 years, even needs time to grow accustomed to the 25 acres of former soybean fields that he vows will serve as sanctuary for a steadily growing community of more than 500 congregants in ways other than the most obvious.

“We really want our church to feel like a family, like a living room, when people come in,” Pugner said, referring to 20,000 square feet of space inside a main building that features a relaxing foyer and modern sanctuary flanked by eight classrooms and meeting rooms, but in his mind includes the covered outdoor pavilion, playground, Little League ballfield and sand volleyball court that reside behind that building.

Mark Pugh, a congregant for six years who teaches weekly youth classes, has witnessed the new church’s immediate impact, specifically with the level of interest among local kids. 

“They get a lot of kids that aren’t regular attenders at that church. I have kids that involved in that Wednesday night ministry that aren’t members of the church,” he said. “It gives us a lot of outreach to people who aren’t even members of the church. I am excited because it is a tool for God to reach more people in our community. That’s how I see it.”

Pugner marvels at the simplistic elegance, and the emphasis on function over extravagance, as he walks through the building that will enjoy its grand opening this Sunday during regular 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. services, but has been in operation since its opening service in February.

At times in past years, Pugner said, he wondered if the project would stay on course or fall short of completion because of overall cost, even as they attempted to meticulously follow a conservative, cost-effective approach since purchasing the property 10 years ago.

“We were close. There was one time in particular about three to four years ago when I told my wife that ‘I think the dream is dead,’” Pugner recalled. “The bids were coming back. The building was just too extravagant. It felt like we weren’t going to be able to afford to build it.”

But, Pugner and fellow church leaders kept the original plan in mind while reevaluating the roughly $4.5 million project.

“We wanted it to be something for our entire community,” Pugner said. “It would be something they would look forward to go to, something that would be a blessing to our community, keep our kids out of trouble [and provide] positive things to do.”

Meanwhile, the congregation stayed faithful in church leaders and patient with the project, and that faith officially pays off with this weekend’s grand opening. 

“It’s just so exciting to be able to welcome family and friends and neighbors and the community to join us, and knowing that we have the space for them,” said Beth Knerr, a congregant for six years. “It’s powerful, and we’re just ready to open our doors and welcome our community.”

Now, Pugner said he focuses on building the laid-back yet positive atmosphere that stems from Coastal Community Church’s philosophy as a “contemporary, casual, Christian church.” Pugner often wears jeans and a button-down shirt while giving sermons. 

“Our youth pastor would be in sneakers. Members of our congregation would be in shorts and T-shirts,” Pugner said. “Our approach, our language, the way we communicate is very much modern day. When I study in the course of a week, I look at Scriptures and (ask myself) how does this make sense to me. How can I communicate this to our congregation in such a way that we would grasp something out of it.”

Still, Pugner said, church leaders are looking toward the future. The congregation reached 700 people for Sunday services two weeks ago. So the increase in size, from 9,000 square feet the church had for 20 years in its previous location to 20,000 square feet, already is being challenged, and likely will be to a greater degree with the anticipated move to three Sunday services starting in September.

Pugner hopes the project’s opening phase leads to additional classrooms, and a gymnasium that doubles as a fellowship hall, which would allow the church to host special events such as wedding receptions and anniversary parties. The Coastal Community Church congregation deserves it, he said. 

“People have been really kind and really faithful,” Pugner said. “It’s been average people just saying we believe in the mission of this church. We believe in the vision and direction, and we’re going to sacrificially give to see this take place. I think everyone feels like we did this together.”

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