loren (left) and erie houltberg stand in front of emmanuel christian center, 1325 e. cloud. the church celebrates its 30th anniversary july 31 with an open house. loren houltberg has been pastor of the church for the last 30 years. (photo by tom dorsey / salina journal) | buy journal photos


email a friend

solid ground


by gary demuth salina journal

in 1971, when loren houltberg returned from military service in vietnam, he was a lost soul.

“i was really messed up,” he said. “then i got to know christ as my savior, met my wife, started going to church and felt the call to preach the word of god.”

this year, the rev. houltberg is preparing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the church he founded in 1980 — emmanuel christian center, 1325 e. cloud.

what started as a gathering of 19 people on that first sunday now has a congregation of more than 600 people who can choose between a saturday night service or two sunday morning services.

emmanuel will celebrate its 30th anniversary with an open house from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. saturday, followed by a 6 p.m. meal and 7 p.m. worship service at the church.

the public is invited to the church’s “front porch,” a new addition that will serve as a combination gathering area and small cafe that serves coffee, specialty drinks and a small breakfast menu.

“we liked the idea of a front porch at our church,” houltberg said. “our society has gotten rid of the front porch, so we wanted our own ‘front porch’ to make people feel welcome here.”

the church’s 30-year celebration also will feature guest speaker jack hayford, founding pastor of the church on the way in van nuys, calif., a congregation he, too, has served for more than 30 years.

hayford, who will speak at 7 p.m. saturday and at sunday’s services, is an author and songwriter who has been named by the magazine christianity today as one of the most influential preachers of the past 50 years.

“he’s nationally known, and we’re excited to have him,” houltberg said.

houltberg, 59, said there might never have been an emmanuel christian center if he hadn’t had the fortune to meet his future wife, erie, after returning to salina after a traumatic tour of duty in vietnam.

“we met in 1972, the day after he gave his life to the lord,” erie said. the couple have been married 37 years.

houltberg met his future wife when both attended a young people’s bible study group. he then began attending first foursquare church, elmhurst and ohio streets, which erie also attended.

after the couple were married in 1973, houltberg enrolled in life pacific bible college in los angeles. in 1978, they decided to move back to their home state. houltberg became a youth pastor at first foursquare church and also pastored a church in abilene.

it was houltberg’s dream to start his own church in salina. after getting permission from the foursquare denomination to form a new church, houltberg preached his first sermon at the newly formed emmanuel christian center on the first sunday of 1980.

“our third son was born the year the church was founded,” erie said. “we gave birth to a baby and a church the same year.”

salinan ken pitts, a church elder who helped start the new church with the houltbergs 30 years ago, said early services were conducted in an old schoolhouse on 11th street.

“we had a rapid growth after that,” he said.

for a time, the church had services at carver center and the friendship center before moving inside a former furniture store behind big cheese pizza near broadway boulevard.

the church built a permanent facility in 1992 after purchasing land east of ohio street on cloud street.

“we’ve been building onto it ever since,” houltberg said.

houltberg believes his church has flourished for 30 years because of its commitment to serving the community.

the church sponsors several outreach programs, including a free meal to community members each saturday, an annual freedom celebration to honor veterans and a law enforcement honor banquet.

the church also has presented easter dramas and christian rock concerts and has gone on world mission trips in 14 countries to help build churches.

“we all came out of the hippie movement, and we’ve kept that spirit about us to be relevant to other generations,” pitts said.

pitts attributes the longevity and success of the church to houltberg, whom he said has maintained a steady and comforting influence on the congregation.

“the leadership sets the tone,” he said. “most people feel welcomed and loved here, and they feel loren has stayed true to the word and stayed focused on our mission.”

erie said it also helps that her husband happens to be an amazing pastor.

“a church is like a family — it’s all about building relationships,” she said. “if you have conflicts, you don’t leave your family, you work it out. loren is a master at working out conflicts and motivating people. when a community sees a pastor here for 30 years, they know the church is here to stay.”

houltberg admitted he’s not getting any younger, so reaching out to young people is vital to keeping the church healthy and growing.

but he’s not yet ready to step down and embrace retirement, either.

“i want to reach out and move people for christ for the next 30 years,” houltberg said. “there’s lots of discouraged people out there, and there’s a real need for a measure of hope. our church wants to help give them that hope.”

nreporter gary demuth can be reached at 822-1405 or by e-mail at [email protected].

email this story to a friend:



sender’s email (required):

enter text seen above: