Mainline bodies return to church planting – News – new churches started to meet special needs of various groups

David Briggs

The sign outside says St. Patrick Episcopal Church, and the architecture of the steepled brick building with a bell tower and the crushed-stone driveway next to a cemetery evoke a traditional small-town church.

Walk inside on Sunday morning, however, and instead of pews there are metal chairs in a circle, facing a simple wooden table, and multicolored banners along the wall. The music is taped and contemporary, the dress is casual, and the pastor may talk about sex and relationships.

This is a brand-new Episcopal church, one that first started out of an office in a strip mall to meet the needs of the growing community of Brunswick, Ohio, and surrounding towns. Unlike older churches seeking younger blood–but wary of change that may upset the existing congregation–St. Patrick can leave the baggage of old expectations outside in doing mission work to a new generation.

Charles Catanese, 53, a vestry member greeting churchgoers on Sunday wearing a St. Patrick golf shirt, says what brought him back to an active role in church after 26 years was the freedom to worship God without the expectations that everyone will dress and think the same. “We like you as long as you’re like us” is the unspoken rule at many churches, he said. “We’re not like that at this point in time, and I hope we never get that way.”

Mainline Protestant denominations, after decades of worrying about steadily declining and aging memberships, are making a new commitment to mission in an old-fashioned way–starting churches. Instead of trying to teach old churches new evangelistic tricks, more and more denominations are starting fresh by creating new churches to meet the special needs of ethnic or racial groups or to reach out to growing populations of young families in suburban and rural areas.

It is happening around Cleveland and elsewhere in Ohio, for example. The East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church is starting three churches, including one in a growing rural area in southeastern Ohio. The United Church of Christ has started five, from Liberation United Church of Christ in Lakewood, serving a primarily gay membership, to Imani and Buenas Nuevas (Good News) churches serving black and Hispanic churchgoers in Euclid and Cleveland.

The numbers of people in the new churches are small, and added up across the country they are not going to replace the millions of members these church bodies have lost since 1970. But there are signs of hope for churches that are determined to stop focusing on demographics marked by decline and aging and to recapture their historical roots as missionary churches.

Vicky Kelley said the United Methodist circuit riders who helped start churches throughout Ohio in the 19th century could appreciate the new rural congregation she is helping to found in Belmont County. “In our area, there’s a United Methodist church under every rock,” she said. “We’re just getting back to our roots.”

There are concerns within churches about using denominational funds to start new congregations when struggling existing churches have so many needs. However, Kelley said, using money to shore up dying churches has not proved to be an effective solution. “We’ve tried that for the last decade and it hasn’t worked,” said Kelley, pastor of the new Real Life Community of Faith United Methodist Church scheduled to begin services in September at the Union Local Elementary School in Morristown, Ohio.

David Schoen, director for Evangelism Ministry in Local Church Ministries for the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ, said “new churches can start with just a blank slate and be totally mission-oriented.” In the last decade, the UCC has helped start five churches in Cleveland, Lakewood and Euclid, reaching out to gay, black, Hispanic and inner-city communities.

Among the new Cleveland congregations is Christ Church, which recently packed up its worship space from the old diocesan seminary on Ansel Road to move to the Christian Family Outreach Center on Hough Avenue. Its members’ hope, like that of many new congregations, is to one day have their own building.

While it is tough to be without a permanent home the congregation has a close-knit spirit, in part because of the bond created by starting something new together. On Sunday mornings, there is a whole lot of huggin’ going on at Christ Church. Congregants are warmly greeted as they enter, and at the beginning of the service they take a few minutes to go through the church embracing one another.

During her sermon, Pastor Joan Salmon Campbell tells churchgoers to see God in one another. “Where is Jesus, y’all? Where is Jesus?” said Campbell, moving among the congregation. “He’s right here. Go touch him.” Throughout the sanctuary, some 50 worshipers touch one another’s shoulders.

Campbell, who used to travel the country as moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), now is happy as a United Church of Christ minister serving her small congregation. The local church is where the action is, she says. And there is lot of action in a new church. “Do not put a period where God has put a comma,” she said. “There is no set way, no one way, to do ministry in these times.”–David Briggs, RNS

COPYRIGHT 2003 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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