Connection Blueprint teaches churches to forge partnerships – and share God’s love – with their neighbors.
Look at your church’s neighborhood. Do you know your neighbors by name? Do they know yours?
As director of faith formation and community engagement for the West Ohio Annual Conference, the Rev. Sam Rodriguez considers these important questions. He wants congregations to answer with honesty and conviction and, then, to be intentional about initiating conversations and building relationships with people outside the church walls. Connection Blueprint, a hands-on learning process, he believes, is one way to do that.
“The goal,” he said, “is for the church to expand its reach into the community at large.” By becoming more invitational, “congregants are blessed by the efforts they make to build new relationships of mutuality and potentially grow in their discipleship journey, as they seek to disciple others.”
Since 2017, teams of lay and clergy leaders from West Ohio churches have been involved in Connection Blueprint. Gathering one Saturday per month for eight months, they study such topics as radical hospitality, asset-based ministry, integrating faith sharing and invitation into congregational life, and the power of partnerships.
The interactive sessions allow them “to practice what they are learning,” Rodriguez said. “It also provides the opportunity for peer-to-peer, church-to-church learning.”
After each session, congregations have practical homework. Each session moves toward the next one.
“The homework for the first session,” said the Rev. Dee Stickley-Miner, conference director of connectional ministries, “is focused on meeting people – getting to know their names and learning who they are, while also sharing about yourself.” Participants are asked to:
- Identify a group of people with whom they want to build relationships and invite into church.
- Commit to intentional conversations with at least three people in this group, recording what they heard after, not during, their conversation. “The idea,” she said, “is to multiply the points of contact and conversation with the same people in order to deepen the friendship.”
- Identify the assets of team members, the congregation, the community and the people with whom they seek to connect. “This shifts the perspective to what we have and helps us see gifts in others,” Stickley-Miner said. “People learn how to share their faith story and how to invite people to church. The invitation process is very intentional, [with] a plan on how to continue deepening the relationship once someone attends.”
The Rev. Erma Metzger serves Arcadia United Methodist Church in the conference’s Northwest Plains District. Arcadia, a village of about 600 residents, is surrounded by farm homesteads. Sunday worship attendance averages 115.
When Metzger heard about Connection Blueprint last summer, she viewed it as one way to help the church enrich its strong children’s ministries.
“We have children’s church during worship every Sunday except the first Sunday of each month,” Metzger said. At least 100 children attend summer vacation Bible school. Special seasonal events for children draw a good attendance as well.
“Our team has chosen to work within these already successful programs for children and to make intentional efforts to reach out to parents, guardians and grandparents – to invite them into the full life of our church and community of faith,” the pastor continued.
“We are making specific invitations to the parents of the kids for our upcoming Advent Bible school to come to a time of informal gathering and refreshments,” Metzger said. “We hope for this to be a positive time that will connect our church with family members and begin building relationships with them.”
In 2020, Arcadia will launch “The Story,” a yearlong sermon series that will guide the congregation through the Bible from beginning to end. Children’s church will feature companion lessons. “We plan intentional invitations for families to join us for the series,” Metzger said.
“We are praying for and visualizing where God will take us as we do all we can to be faithful to the call of making disciples of Jesus for the transformation of this community and the world. God is in the midst of it all!”
Another current Connection Blueprint participant is Summit on 16th United Methodist Church.
“We are a small church located in the heart of Columbus, less than a block from the campus of The Ohio State University,” said the Rev. Kimberly Wisecup. “Summit is a diverse community that is made up of and welcomes people of all ages, races, sexual orientations, family configurations, gender identities, economic abilities and mental and physical capacities. We believe that when we embrace our diversity, love one another and learn to walk together as one, we catch a glimpse of the beauty of the kingdom of God and help others see that there is always a place for them at Christ’s table.”
Involved in Connection Blueprint since September, church leaders already have found the sessions helpful.
“The teaching unit on hospitality challenged us to think about the relationships we currently have with the many groups who use our building,” Wisecup said. “It pushed us to consider how we might deepen those relationships.”
The Summit team also was encouraged to think differently, she said, “about what is right before our eyes. We realized that Summit has a great number of strengths – its people, a sizeable building, its location, and its commitment to social justice and desire to transform the world. As we began to look at what we do have, new dreams and possibilities took root in our hearts.
“We recognized that we have had a long commitment to fighting food insecurity, that many of our partners share that commitment, and it is a real need on college campuses. We are exploring how we might bring all of these things together to best offer God’s grace to our community.”
For many years, Rodriguez said, congregations have relied on people coming to church “simply because it is there. In our post-Christian culture, churches must seek to build relationships with those who live in their community, both inside and outside of the church.”
Congregants, Rodriguez added, “must be willing to extend grace to those they do not know in order to build trust. Extending grace includes a willingness to be uncomfortable, listen to and stay engaged in conversation that, at times, challenge our own values.”
Both Metzger and Wisecup are enthusiastic about Connection Blueprint.
“What sets it apart,” Wisecup said, “is the way that it helps us take the broader vision and break it down to bite-sized, manageable pieces. It really helps to reinforce the idea that every church has everything it needs to take the next step of faith. I am excited to see where this journey takes us.”
Barbara Dunlap-Berg is a freelance writer and editor.