Vital churches: Four stories of churches alive in mission
Dundalk–Edgemere churches are coming together & coming unplugged
BY ALAN B. WARD
SPECIAL TO UMCONNECTION
Sometimes vitality is about revitalization – reclaiming a legacy of mission and growth, and realizing we're all in this together.
There are five United Methodist congregations located within about 10 miles of each other in the Dundalk and Edgemere communities of Southeast Baltimore. A generation or two ago, each church found its niche and served a unique segment of the community and the pews were full on Sunday.
Today, the people of people of Dundalk–Graceland Cooperative Parish, Patapsco–Lodge Forest Cooperative Parish, and St. Matthew UMC struggle.
But fortunately as United Methodists, we are not left on our own as isolated congregations; we are part of a connectional denomination.
In part on our own initiative and in part as a result of impetus provided by changes in the bishop's appointments, in early 2009 representatives from our five churches began meeting together. In November 2009, the United Methodists of Dundalk and Edgemere (UMODE) were formally recognized.
The effort to work together has not been without complications but we have persevered together, united behind a common vision – that we can accomplish much more for the Kingdom of God as five churches working together than we can as five congregations working independently.
The first step was getting to know one another better. We've worked to deepen our existing relationships and establish a new one by offering opportunities for people to worship and serve together.
Building on those initial efforts in the summer of 2010, UMODE took another step forward in faith together. In an innovative arrangement, the five churches agreed to pool their resources (plus a grant from the Board of Child Care) to hire a pastor to work with youth and young adults in our churches and community. In December 2010, L.A. McCrae began her role.
At least as important as what McCrae has done in our churches is the work she has done outside our doors — reaching out to the community around us that, for many reasons, doesn't choose to "go to church on Sunday.
McCrae has spent the last six months forging relationships with the people who walk the streets and frequent the coffee shops and other gathering places throughout Dundalk and Edgemere. In her travels, she has met many in our community who have a deep interest in discussing matters of spirituality and theology but who, for any of a host of reasons, no longer feel comfortable or welcome in traditional church settings.
And now we have taken an exciting next step. We have started an informal worship gathering we call "Unplugged— held at a coffee shop in the heart of historic Dundalk. Our initial gathering was very successful; 72 people came throughout the evening as well as others who stayed on the fringe, not yet sure if they were invited.
We intend to make it clear through our love, understanding, peace and encouragement (L.U.P.E.) that all are truly welcome in God's village.
As we sang songs, heard poetry and spoken word, and enjoyed food and fellowship with one another, we felt God with us, Christ in us, and the Spirit on the move. And that was just the first night. We are excited to see what God has in store and we continue to do church in The Village.
'Be The Change' seeks to end homelessness
BY MANDI JANIS
SPECIAL TO UMCONNECTION
Vital churches set God-sized goals.
In Washington, D.C., several United Methodist churches have joined together, working together through the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), to address a huge goal – they intend to end homelessness in the District.
Under the leadership of Bishop John Schol, the churches have started a partnership with area experts to form the Be the Change Development Corporation (BTC).
Be The Change is a nonprofit organization with the mission of inventing "creative, caring and permanent solutions to homelessness, such as permanent supportive housing. The board is made up of conference leaders and local pastors and is partnering with Community Solutions, a development partner with expertise and a track record in permanent supportive housing initiatives.
"Be The Change is inspired by the words of Gandhi to be the change we want to see in the world, said Bishop Schol. "The members of the Baltimore-Washington Conference want to see homelessness end in our communities, and we are taking concrete steps to make this a reality.
Be the Change plans to redevelop vacant United Methodist church property and other properties in the District as permanent supportive housing. One of the group's first projects is Calvary Place, which is located in the 1400 block of Columbia Road NW, a Columbia Heights neighborhood. A United Methodist congregation worshipping at the church closed last year and the property has gone largely unused since then.
"The area United Methodist Churches are rich in commitment to doing something about homelessness, said Greater Washington District Superintendent Rev. Evan Young. "With Be The Change's active steps towards building permanent supportive housing, it's a true testimony to faith in action.
Approximately 1,400 more housing units are needed to house the chronically homeless in the District, based on the original goal of 2,500 in the 10-year plan developed by WIN. From feasibility studies of the property, Calvary Place can be redeveloped into 79 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans. Unit by unit, Be the Change will be ending homelessness in DC through projects like Calvary Place.
Church adds splash of Spirit to programs
BY CARRIE MADREN
Change was already brewing last summer when the Rev. Meredith Wilkins-Arnold became pastor at Solomons UMC on the southern tip of Calvert County. Since then, she's joined the congregation in a Spirit-led adventure that's taught her and Solomons UMC about becoming a truly vital church.
The recent growth at Solomons has been exciting, said Wilkins-Arnold, who's on loan from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and transferring her credentials to The United Methodist Church. "When I got here, we had a lot of mid-lifers and older folks, but the people that were here wanted to have younger folks and had a desire to try new things, she said.
The church already hosted a contemporary service; after Wilkins-Arnold arrived, they added live music, which helped grow the average
attendance of 10 to 45 in one year. And according to District Superintendent Ianther Mills, the church recently welcomed 40 new members.
"The people were willing to try some things that hadn't been done before, Wilkins-Arnold said.
One of these things is a Wednesday night kids' ministry that pulls in about 16 to 25 children from the community each week for art, music and a short Bible lesson. The kids made mosaics, learned to knit, planted a salad box, made rain sticks and more. "It wasn't cheap – the church put money into it – and we had 17 volunteers who each thought of one thing to teach, she said.
Such a ministry draws community families through church doors. "You don't do it so they join the church, you just keep doing it – they need reasons to walk in the door, said Wilkins-Arnold, who explained that you buy a car when you're in the market for a car; likewise, you join a church when you're in the market.
As the body of Jesus, we need to continue offering opportunities for people to come to the church, she said. Eventually, people will seek him out.
This summer, the church started youth groups for middle schoolers and high schoolers. Wilkins-Arnold asked them what they wanted to do, and overwhelmingly, the students wanted to serve their community. The first project was a respite care party – a planned evening for local children with special needs – that allowed parents an evening out. The first one in August drew six party guests, six youth volunteers and 10 adult volunteers; three local restaurants offered preferential seating coupons to the parents of the special needs kids.
The right atmosphere and attitude is key for vital churches. "So many things are pulling on people's time and loyalties, and there's such a hole in people's lives but they don't know it's named Jesus, Wilkins-Arnold said. "Our job is to show them that the hole is named Jesus and that Jesus fits there.
Vital churches also realize that the Kingdom of God is beyond its congregation. "So they tend not to bicker about things or sweat the small stuff, Wilkins-Arnold said, like the bulletin layout or the hymns. "There's much more of an outward focus, she said.
Another hallmark of vital churches is a willingness to be completely led by the Spirit. There's an acknowledgment that "My opinion is not as important as God's opinion.
"Part of choosing to be a vital church is risking trying and failing for the Gospel, Wilkins-Arnold said, which can mean taking a chance on a ministry that might not bring in new members. "And that has to be OK, she added. "It's all about the Kingdom of God.
Welcome Center serves as a beacon to the community at Nichols-Bethel UMC
BY CARRIE MADREN
Vitality isn't always achieved overnight. More than a decade of effort and hope went into creating a space at Nichols-Bethel UMC that would serve the community.
The Welcome Center opened Sept. 18 as members processed through two mahogany doors with birch crosses on the glass. It is these details that give the center its spiritual focus and made it worth the wait, a member said.
The Welcome Center is a modern, bright space for fellowship, worship, learning and more. "The building was designed to convey a sense of warmth, Humbert said. It can be accessed from the original part of the church building as well as from the outside. To achieve warmth in the nearly 9,000-square-foot wing, the church opted for earthy golden-wheat walls and muted aqua upholstery – with rich woods framing windows and railings.
Though a sanctuary and older, original part of the church building have served Nichols-Bethel members well for decades, buildings tend not to change in the way that people and ministry change, explained Humbert. "So our principal effort has been to try to fashion a facility that matches the ministry to which we are called, he continued. "And an important part of that ministry is the function of welcome – being able to meet people at the point of their need, and find them at the place where they are seeking to define their faith journey. The Odenton community is growing with both young families and retirees, so church leaders sought to create a space that would appeal to both.
On the lower level, there's a bright, light-filled Beacon Café, a gathering space that seats 175 people and has a stage and projection screen, spacious bathrooms with stone tile, a family bathroom with a shower (for the seasonal homeless ministry) and more. A banner made by RevRags will hang in the Beacon Café. Upstairs, accessed by stairs or the elevator, visitors will find an overlook – with a glass-paned, mahogany wood railing – to the café, a fully-furnished youth meeting room, and two adult classrooms or small event rooms. A 'lighthouse' theme that is used throughout the new wing plays off of the beacon-like tower at the front of the new addition.
The spiritual thought incorporated into the new wing goes down to the foundation, which bears the names of the 12 apostles – just like how heaven is described as being built on a foundation inscribed with the names of the apostles.
Inside the Welcome Center, Nichols-Bethel designed six natural wood shelves placed strategically over the apostle names on the building's foundation. Each shelf represents two of the apostles. "Their location is specific, their material is specific, and both are specific to a Bible story and a spiritual need in the present day, Humbert said.
One upstairs shelf station is made of strong poplar wood, to represent two apostles that aren't as well known, but are still foundational in our faith; at this station, visitors would pray for or give thanks for people who are foundational in their lives. Other shelves of olive wood, English walnut, African cedar and more represent other apostles and what they stood for, such as missions or pardon. Visitors will find a washed stone to pray over in a sea grass jar; then the stone is set on the shelf for the next pray-er. Each prayer station is "built on the foundation of two apostles, and we're praying on their shoulders, Humbert said. "And someone else is going to come along and pray for you – on your shoulders.