Congregations Reach Beyond Church For New Disciples

By Marta W. Aldrich

(UMCom) -- There’s nothing “churchy” about The Garden in Indianapolis.

The satellite congregation of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church uses a vacant dinner theater for a sanctuary. People mill around during worship or sit at small tables enjoying bagels and coffee. Instead of singing hymns or even contemporary praise songs, the genre is secular pop music of artists such as Billy Joel, Eric Clapton or Sarah McLachlan. Clips from movies and TV shows complement the message. And a watering can at the door is the closest thing to an offering plate.

By lowering the threshold between the sacred and secular, this alternative worship experience appears to be winning souls among the “unchurched,” survivors of bad church experiences and those who find traditional organized religion boring and irrelevant.

Since launching in 1995, The Garden has expanded to four services at two sites, another in an old mansion, and it averages 700 people every Sunday. Founding pastor Linda McCoy estimates two-thirds previously were unchurched, and that more than half of the Indianapolis population is unchurched. That’s why, she says, the church must reach out in new ways and new places to engage people.
“One of our mottoes is ‘no prior experience required,’” McCoy says. “People who come here don’t have to know the lingo, the secret handshake or the password, when to stand, when to sit. … We’re an alternative to traditional church. It’s not for everybody, but it’s not intended to be.”
Having watched United Methodist membership in the United States drop since 1968, leaders increasingly are planting new churches with unique settings and approaches. The church must do so, says the Rev. Craig Miller, director of new congregational development for the denomination’s Board of Discipleship.

“We’re finding that existing churches may attract people born into the church,” Miller says. “But new faith communities are most effective for attracting people not already part of a local congregation.”

The United Methodist Church historically has put its resources into existing churches and “hasn’t necessarily seen value in resourcing new church development,” Miller says. It also has catered generally to rural areas at the expense of urban settings where more people could be reached.

However, new congregational development is getting increased attention from local, regional and denominational leaders. For example, at the annual School of Congregational Development, a six-day training event for pastors and laity exploring growth strategies, only 60 attended in 1996. In 2004, some 500 participated.

“The School of Congregational Development is still the best kept secret of the United Methodist Church. I’ve seen it change lives,” says the Rev. Doug Ruffle, congregational development director for the church’s Greater New Jersey Annual (regional) Conference.

While conference support and leadership are important, Ruffle cites local church awareness as even more critical to developing new churches and ministries that are effective and timely. “Grassroots works best--when people in local churches keep their eyes and ears open to people living in their midst and then take the initiative,” says Ruffle, a former missionary to Argentina.

In New Jersey, for instance, Ruffle cites a Korean-American pastor who, while serving an Anglo population church in Belmar, recognized an influx of Latinos to the community. “He mobilized his church to find resources to hire part-time lay persons to reach out to the Spanish-speaking people,” Ruffle says.

So how can the church grow again? Congregational development leaders say the church must look beyond itself and its comfort zones to opportunities and needs of the marginalized--whether they are immigrants in Florida, impoverished residents of Appalachia, the homeless in Kansas City, residents of high-crime areas in Baltimore and Washington or even in the primarily Muslim nation of Senegal. In recent years, the United Methodist Church has reached out to all of these areas.

“Some churches have caught the vision and are establishing new churches in unlikely areas,” says the Rev. Keith D. Rae, executive secretary for church development for the Board of Global Ministries, the denomination’s missions agency. “It’s still not as much as we would like to see, but it is happening.”

Marion, Ohio, is an example. With three prisons and a jail on the north side of town, a 3-year-old ministry is reaching out to inmates, ex-inmates and their families-and finding struggling churches invigorated in the process. The Rev. R.J. Davis oversees Grace Place Ministries and is also part-time pastor of Community United Methodist Church, a primarily older congregation with 41 members. Two former inmates recently joined the church, and one serves on the pastor-parish committee.

“Our church has now heard his testimony; they’ve heard his transformation,” Davis says of the ex-convict. “They believe this is the kind of person who will help their church turn around because he has had a life-changing experience with Jesus Christ. That’s the kind of real and exciting relationship with Jesus Christ that will draw people into the church.”

Davis believes too many churches stay in their comfort zones and subsequently lose touch with God. He believes the church needs marginalized people like prisoners, addicts, the poor and the homeless-perhaps even more than the marginalized need the church-to remind us of God’s relevance for our lives.

“I think that’s why the church has lost members,” he says. “We’ve lost touch with our story because nobody has asked us to tell it for so long. And if we haven’t got a story to tell that makes sense and offers something different from the rest of the world, why would anybody join us? But when we interject these kinds of people into our community, it stirs within us the remembrance of the day-to-day, life-changing reality of God in our lives. It reminds us of our story.”

Marta W. Aldrich is a freelance journalist based in Franklin, Tenn.

This feature was developed by, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.


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