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New London congregation buys Decision Hills Bible Camp for new church home

Pastor Steve Bakke, left, and Darwin Thue, from the Open Door Christian Church in New London, stand by three crosses at the former Decision Hills Bible Camp near Spicer. Carolyn Lange / Forum News Service1 / 6
Darwin Thue, left, and Pastor Steve Bakke from the Open Door Christian Church in New London stand by the former gym at the Decision Hills Bible Camp near Spicer that will serve as the church's worship space. Carolyn Lange / Forum News Service2 / 6
Camps sites equipped with water and electricty are part of the nearly 72-acre Decision Hills Bible Camp near Spicer that was purchased in mid-August by the Open Door Christian Church in New London. Carolyn Lange / Forum News Service 3 / 6
Three crosses on a hill overlooking George Lake are part of the nearly 72-acre Decision Hills Bible Camp near Spicer that was purchased in mid-August fpr $2.5 million by members of the Open Door Christian Church in New London. Carolyn Lange / Forum News Service4 / 6
In mid-August, members of the Open Door Christian Church in New London purchased the Decision Hills Bible Camp near Spicer for $2.5 million. They are in the process of transforming existing buildings and nearly 72-acres of woods, trails, campgrounds and sandy beach into their new church home. Carolyn Lange / Forum News Service5 / 6
Pastor Steve Bakke, from the Open Door Christian Church in New London, motions toward a portion of land that's included in the nearly 72-acre Decision Hills Bible Camp near Spicer that church members purchased in mid-August. Carolyn Lange / Forum News Service6 / 6

SPICER, Minn. — Sweeping his arm across as he viewed the sprawling property — 71 acres of thick woods, sandy beach, rolling prairie, trails, campsites, a 6,600-square-foot gym, a house, numerous cabins, a dining hall, shower house and shop — Pastor Steve Bakke said his congregation members at Open Door Christian Church are not the new owners but the new "caretakers."

The possibilities for using the land and facilities are exciting and overwhelming, Bakke said.

But one thing is sure, he said, the property will continue to have the same mission as it has for the last 60 years — bringing people into a closer relationship with Jesus.

In mid-August the growing congregation, which started in 2010 with 46 members and is now housed in a modest building in New London's industrial park, purchased the former Decision Hills Bible Camp for $2.5 million.

For the last couple of weeks, church volunteers and a full-time maintenance supervisor who lives on the site have been at the camp many hours every day, mowing, cleaning and making preparations to move the congregation to its new home.

The first service there is at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 10 in the gym, which will serve as the worship space.

The former camp director's house will be used for youth education classes.

Located on the shore of George Lake near Spicer, the camp was started in 1957 by the United Methodist Church for its summer youth programs. It was decommissioned in fall 2014 and the real estate was put on the market.

Two offers were made to purchase the property, including one from a developer, according to an article on the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church's website.

The offer from Open Door Church was higher.

"What makes me feel good is that the sale honors the legacy of this camp, and this congregation understands that it's sacred ground and not simply a beautiful piece of real estate," said the Rev. Robert Braudt in the article. Braudt is chairman of the board involved with selling the camp.

Open Door had been looking for a property to buy for several years.

Darwin Thue, a member of Open Door who was involved with the search for property, said they had looked at numerous parcels of bare land and also looked at existing buildings, but could not find the right fit.

After touring the Decisions Hill property on Memorial Day, a 10-year contract for deed sale was finalized Aug. 15.

"Our church has been praying for a new church for many years, and Decision Hills has been praying for a church to buy it for three years," Thue said.

Bakke said he's heard from George Lake property owners who are relieved the property will not be developed for housing, but will instead maintain its past purpose and much of its current look.

While there are no definite plans, Bakke said if the church continues to grow, a new worship space may be built in the future and there are bare lots that could potentially be turned into short-term housing for missionaries. The church expects to maintain the existing hiking trails, RV and tent campsites and restore buildings that have been shuttered for three years.

"We're going to move slowly because it can be overwhelming," Bakke said.

But in the meantime, tall grass is being mowed, the beach is being raked and the volleyball court is being restored on the outside grounds, where Bakke said he hopes church families can spend time together.

Inside the high-roofed gym, hundreds of sound panels are being installed and audio-visual equipment set up to create a worship space.

Since 2002, the New London-Spicer School District had rented the Decision Hills gym for its gymnastics program. Last month the equipment was moved to a new school gym that was built in New London in anticipation of the Decision Hills property being sold.

Bakke said he hopes the church's purchase of the camp is seen as a "win for the community" and that other churches consider them partners and not competition trying to woo members away. He said Open Door's goal is to provide a church home to people who have been away from church or who have never had a church home before.

To honor the property's history, Bakke said the church intends to call the site Open Door Christian Church at Decision Hills Bible Camp.

Although their worship and education space will be at the lake property, the church will maintain its administrative office at the former Fischer Eye Clinic in New London. The church intends to sell or rent its current industrial park building.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750