It doesn’t matter whether the church is in an urban, suburban or rural neighborhood. Over the years, the congregation may suddenly find its membership is more reflective of the past than of the neighborhood around the church building.
That is a topic the Rev. John Edgar, pastor of The United Methodist Church for All People in Columbus, has discussed with congregations he’s served as a district superintendent and, later, as a church consultant.
Most people, he said, began attending a church in their neighborhood and, because of the strong ties they’d built in the congregation, continued their membership there even after moving from the community. Gradually, membership no longer mirrored the people living near the church.
“It’s a disconnect that gets exacerbated over time,” Edgar said. “While that’s been a trend that’s been going on for well over 50 years, that level of disconnect doesn’t have to be inevitable, doesn’t have to get worse.”
Many congregations are aware of the disconnect, he said. They engage in outreach ministries such as food pantries and after-school programs as a way to be relevant in the neighborhood. And while the ministries serve many in the neighborhood, the face of the worshipping community on Sunday bears little or no change.
“How do you use those outreach contacts to invite those folks into the church and then into discipleship?” he asked. “How do you come up with a blueprint to connect with the people in the community who may not be like the people in the pews?”
Blueprints for change
Those questions were the topic of many discussions between Edgar and the Rev. Dee Stickley-Miner, Director of Connectional Ministries for The West Ohio Annual Conference, Edgar said.
“How do you get people inside the building? How do you connect with them once they’re in? How do you build relational evangelism and invite people into the life of the church?” he asked.
“If people come into the church and have something good happen to them, they’ll be inclined to wonder if more good things will happen if they come more often,” he said. “If you’re a white church offering an after-school program and you have a lot of black folks in the community, when a parent walks in to pick up their child and no one invites them to church on Sunday, they think they aren’t wanted.
“You’re communicating even when you don’t think you are,” he said.
The discussions between Edgar and Stickley-Miner evolved into the Connection Blueprint. The Blueprint, he said, offers congregations tools - even ammunition - for positive changes. The emphasis is on learning how to invite those already coming into the church during the week into discipleship and worship.
Evolving for flexibility
Last year, Edgar and Stickley-Miner presented the idea for Connection Blueprint to the Bishop and Cabinet. Superintendents were asked to suggest churches that had expressed a desire to change.
Representative clergy and lay members from 19 churches began to meet, spending a significant amount of time in small groups. “We can be teachers for each other,” Edgar said. “We can share, even if it’s that something didn’t work and here’s what we learned from the experience.”
The Blueprint tools include an assessment of what is already happening in the church, and how those offerings could be used to forge relationships.
“We have to have relationships that are mutually balanced,” Edgar said. “There has never been a meaningful relationship in my life where I haven’t known the people’s names.
“Do you know the names of the people who come to eat? Who help set the table? Clean up? Do people know each other’s names? Do they know something about each other’s stories? Do they care enough to know about their hopes and dreams? Do they believe the people who come to dinner will want to pray for them?"
The Blueprint is flexible and adaptable to the needs and experiences of different congregations.
Throughout the year, participants were asked to set goals, such as what the congregation would change and do differently. “Our goals were very much around changing behaviors,” Edgar said. For example, he said, “if you have a community dinner, the goal is that everyone serving takes time to sit down and talk with people at the tables, to share stories. It’s one thing to invite people to come in and have a meal, and another to invite them to come help prepare the meal and learn about each other, sharing where God is in our life.”
In April, the last training session with the first 19 churches was held.
“I do believe the program has proven itself effective,” Edgar said. “It varies from congregation to congregation, pastor to pastor, layperson to layperson. Overall, it’s been well worth the investment of time because we’re seeing positive change in the people, who are saying life is different in their churches.”
A new group of churches will be nominated to participate in the training beginning in August.