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Life Church has grown to 7 houses of worship, 5,000 members in Lehigh Valley. As founders hand off full-time duties, here’s what’s next.

The Revs. Randy and Maribel Landis, right, are seen with the Revs. Jon and Andrea Schwartz, left, Wednesday, May 15, 2024, at Life Church in Allentown. The Landises are stepping down from leading the church and passing leadership to the Schwartzes. (Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)
The Revs. Randy and Maribel Landis, right, are seen with the Revs. Jon and Andrea Schwartz, left, Wednesday, May 15, 2024, at Life Church in Allentown. The Landises are stepping down from leading the church and passing leadership to the Schwartzes. (Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)
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In the 3½ decades since the Revs. Randy and Maribel Landis began their congregation, Life Church has undergone changes in outreach, demographics and growth.

From beginning in 1990 with services in a former hotel, and later renting a large, renovated warehouse in Whitehall Township for services, now has six locations in Lehigh, Northampton and Berks counties that serve about 5,000 members.

A seventh, permanent church is planned for Upper Saucon Township, where worship is held now once at month at the Centennial conference center at the Homewood Suites.

It expects to continue to expand, but will do so under new leadership: The Landises last year began transitioning lead pastor duties to the Revs. Jon and Andrea Schwartz.

“He [Randy] likened it to pilot, co-pilot,” Jon Schwartz said during a recent interview in Allentown. “As of January 2023, we became the pilots, but [the Landises] were still the co-pilots.”

The Landises officially passed on their responsibilities to the Schwartzes on March 27, in front of hundreds of people during a worship service at their Allentown church on South Eighth Street.

“Take it into the future and continue to expand and build on the mission and the vision,” Randy Landis said of his successors’ charge. “That’s exactly what they’re doing.”

The Landises, who live in Emmaus, plan to remain with the congregation — Maribel is executive pastor of worship and creative — with the couple also involved as “founding pastors.”

  • The Revs. Randy and Maribel Landis, right, are seen with...

    The Revs. Randy and Maribel Landis, right, are seen with the Revs. Jon and Andrea Schwartz, left, Wednesday, May 15, 2024, at Life Church in Allentown. The Landises are passing leadership of the church to the Schwartzes. (Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

  • The Revs. Randy and Maribel Landis are seen Wednesday, May...

    The Revs. Randy and Maribel Landis are seen Wednesday, May 15, 2024, at Life Church in Allentown. The couple are stepping down from leading the church full time. (Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

  • The Revs. Jon and Andrea Schwartz are seen Wednesday, May...

    The Revs. Jon and Andrea Schwartz are seen Wednesday, May 15, 2024, at Life Church in Allentown. The Schwartzes have assumed leadership of the nondenominational church from longtime pastors, the Revs. Randy and Maribel Landis. (Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

  • The Rev. Maribel Landis, right, speaks while her husband, the...

    The Rev. Maribel Landis, right, speaks while her husband, the Rev. Randy Landis, listens, Wednesday, May 15, 2024, at Life Church in Allentown. The Landises are passing leadership of the church to the Revs. Jon and Andrea Schwartz. (Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

  • The Rev. Randy Landis, longtime pastor of Life Church with...

    The Rev. Randy Landis, longtime pastor of Life Church with his wife, the Rev. Maribel Landis, speaks Wednesday, May 15, 2024, at one of the church's spiritual campuses on South Eighth Street in Allentown. (Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

  • The Revs. Randy and Maribel Landis, right, are seen with...

    The Revs. Randy and Maribel Landis, right, are seen with the Revs. Jon and Andrea Schwartz, left, Wednesday, May 15, 2024, at Life Church in Allentown. The Landises are passing leadership of the church to the Schwartzes. (Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

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Spiritually, the Landises said, the success of comes down to fundamental beliefs espoused by Jesus Christ. Randy Landis pointed to a wall in a room of the Allentown church campus with an image of a cross and heart.

“Jesus was set apart from all religious leaders,” he said. “When you drill down into who he was, he was so accepted; he was so welcoming.”

He said that message from the cross and heart relates to another trait in Christ: love

“It’s loving people unconditionally, from all walks of life,” he said. “We refer to Life Church as one house, many rooms, because we see ourselves as a house, just like you have a family … whereas people walk through those doors, we want the first counter to be like ‘I belong here. There’s a place for me here.’ ”

Randy Landis said that’s Life Church’s second priority.

“No. 1 priority is pointing people to Jesus,” he said. “The church is not the answer; we’re not the answer. We’re just as human as anyone else, trying to figure it out, even as we go into our 60s.”

During a recent, wide-ranging interview, the couples discussed the changes at Life Church and prospects for the nondenominational Christian ministry that features fervent prayer, vibrant music and topical preaching. A nondenominational church follows the teachings of Jesus Christ but holds no connection with a specific denomination.

Some of the conversation touched on outreach, demographic changes and growth.

Outreach: ‘The backyard is our community’

The Schwartzes, as lead pastors, now hold the main church campus at the Life Church in Lower Nazareth Township (the church maintains a main office in downtown Allentown).

When the Landises founded Church on the Move — which later became Life Church — Maribel Landis said it was more “inward focused on discipleship and strengthening the believer. But there was a shift where we felt we needed to be out from the walls and focused on community, both local and global.”

To that end, Life Church has offered resources to residents in the Lehigh Valley and beyond. Randy Landis founded RINO Global Solutions and Foundation, which provides humanitarian aid to other congregations and nonprofits throughout the world.

Randy Landis, right,
Randy Landis, right, is shown working on a house in Honduras in late May for RINO Global Solutions and Foundation. (Courtesy photo)

RINO — the letters stand for the first initials of the Landises’ four children — works with partners who oversee projects around the world. Life Church contributes spiritual and in-person support, whether it is helping an impoverished community find a fresh water supply, or aiding children in Kenya who are victims of sexual mutilation, Jon Schwartz said.

“There is an impact that is more than just what’s happening here,” he said. “I’d like to say, it’s our home — the backyard and then the world, right? The backyard is our community.”

Demographics, without discrimination

On Jan. 7, 1990, the church held its first service in a conference room at the former George Washington Motor Lodge off Routes 22 and 145, where a Home Depot sits today. It expanded in the Allentown area, then branched out, with members attending services at several former houses of worship of other faiths, including a Catholic church in South Bethlehem, a synagogue in Wilson, and the former St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Allentown, which it purchased in 2019.

“If Randy was a CEO in the private sector, he would be a multimillionaire building a multimillion-dollar business,” said Tony Iannelli, president and CEO of Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Iannelli, noting Randy Landis’ tenacity and forward-thinking, also said the couple have balanced saving spiritual souls “with running an amazing growth organization.”

By the mid- to late 1990s, the church began to see a large influx of Hispanics and African Americans. A church predominantly white became more brown, they said. Things initially were difficult, he recalled, “because a lot of our Caucasian members felt the church was no longer for them.”

ALLENTOWN - Pastor Randy Landis, prays with a member of his congregation at Church on the Move, in Allentown, Sunday, Feb. 22, 2004. (FRANK WIESE/TMC)/AM MAG  Headline: Primed for 'Passion' ** Days before movie on Christ opens, it stirs excitement, concern. (2/23/04)
Pastor Randy Landis prays with a member of his congregation at Church on the Move, the forerunner to Life Church, in Allentown, Sunday, Feb. 22, 2004. (Frank Wiese/첥Ƶ)

That reflected the response the Landises said they experienced when they founded the church. Some people, they said, had a hard time accepting an interracial couple.

“Today it has become more accepted. Back then that was tough sledding,” said Randy Landis, who is white. Maribel is a Latina who came to the Lehigh Valley from the Dominican Republic.

Today, Life Church is about “60% noncaucasian,” Jon Schwartz said.

It doesn’t matter the color of people’s skin or their circumstances, according to the four pastors. The church teaches a faith that is nondiscriminating and relevant to its members’ everyday lives, while having a contemporary feel that appeals to young adults, families and minorities the church sees as target audiences, they said.

Spreading hope and love

Life Church’s membership has grown, even as many churches are fading nationwide, and fewer Americans attend religious services. Only 16% of Americans report going to church once a week, according to the most recent Public Religion Research Institute survey, with participation steadily declining. Congregations have dwindled and become incapable of sustaining the houses of worship they long ago created.

Jon Schwartz said it’s not the concept of church that is shrinking; it’s those who are moving out of denominational churches. That is what has spurred growth in the nondenominational world, he said.

“If you look at it from one angle, it can be this negative, but the church of Jesus Christ is still growing and making an impact,” he said.

Lehigh County Sheriff Joe Hanna, who has known the Landises for about 25 years, attended the March 27 transition service. He said the sanctuary of St. Paul’s was standing room only — a tribute to what the couple has done and an affirmation of the Schwartzes in their leadership roles.

“Not only is [Randy Landis’] service inspirational,” said Hanna, who is not a member of Life Church, “he has always been a dynamic, captivating person who has inspired me and so many others.”

He also called Randy Landis a “motivator” and the couple “just two wonderful people” whom he credited with leading Life Church’s growth.

The Landises deflected such praise, saying the growth comes from others who lead Life Church – its board of trustees, the various satellite church pastors and nearly 50 employees described as the backbone and strength of the congregation.

Jon and Andrea Schwartz, who live in Bushkill Township, also credited volunteers whom, he said, “God dropped into our hearts.”

“This isn’t just about the four of us,” said Jon Schwartz, who bears a tattoo on his right forearm of the burning bush from the biblical book of Exodus. He came to the Lehigh Valley from Brooklyn to study accounting and finance at Muhlenberg College, the son of a Jewish father and mother of Colombian descent. Andrea Schwartz, like the other pastors, held another profession before joining the ministry, having worked as a counselor in the Bethlehem Area School District.

Hanna, whose law enforcement career trained him to watch how people interact, was struck by those attending the weeknight service March 27.

“So I’m watching and engaged with these people interacting,” he said. “That’s when you think about hope for humanity, that everybody has that engagement, that love for one another. You felt it that night.”

Morning 첥Ƶ reporter Anthony Salamone can be reached at asalamone@mcall.com.

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