‘Light the Way’ meets people where they are

Jesus met fishermen Simon and Peter as they cast their nets into the sea and called them, instead, to fish for people. Traveling through Jericho, he met Zacchaeus and, to the astonishment of many, invited himself to the tax collector’s house. Jesus met the Samaritan woman as she drew water from the well and called her to repentance and new life.

Jesus didn’t sit in the synagogue waiting for people to come to him. He went out and met people where they were. He created a model of how to build the church, one person at a time.

That’s the philosophy behind the West Ohio Annual Conference’s “Light the Way” campaign. The goal is to multiply the number of vibrant, robust and effective congregations and, in turn, the number of people who choose to live in the hope of Jesus Christ.

The effort to raise $5 million was announced at the 2017 annual conference. “We began with a sacrificial offering and launched the campaign in January of 2018,” said the Rev. Stan Ling, interim director of the conference Council on Development. “We will complete Phase 1 in June at annual conference with a goal of $2.5 million and begin Phase 2 that will run through 2020.

“When we started down this road with Light the Way,” he continued, “we were beginning from scratch with new church starts.” Previous efforts had met with varying degrees of success. Brad Aycock, conference director of new church development, encouraged a focused purpose of starting new churches.

“Brad’s systematic approach of casting a vision for hope/possibility, the careful assessment of potential planters and an eight-month training period called ‘the Greenhouse’ provided the readiness each planter needed for a successful effort,” Ling said. “Now, we have evidence, testimonies, baptisms and lives changed that help us to know that we are really lighting the way.”

“Light the Way,” Aycock said, “is helping us launch a new West Ohio. In our new faith communities, we’re reaching people in places and in ways that we’ve not been able to reach in a long time. We’ve had over 25 years of decline as a denomination. Light the Way is helping us slow the decline, maybe, to lead in a new direction.”

Already, the conference reports success stories. One is Little Arrows Play Café in Newark, Ohio. Begun in July 2017 by members of Marne United Methodist Church and the Rev. Dave Warner, the nonprofit, self-sustaining play café provides safe space for children and respite for parents. About 30 people participate each day the café is open.

“Our sweet spot,” Warner said, “is the young mom or single mom going back to school or working from home. They find connection with other moms in our space as well as the freedom to allow their children to play freely”

But there’s more.  

“From the connections we have made at LAPC,” Warner noted, “we have launched four discipleship groups and invited several other groups to meet in our space. On Thursday afternoons, we host tutoring for teen moms. We watch the babies, and the moms receive tutoring toward their diplomas or GED [certificates].” 

‘I knew this was home’

Worship is an integral aspect of Little Arrows. Last spring, Engage Newark, a new church start, was introduced. Warner described it as “a more traditional understanding of ‘church’ with a very contemporary worship service that meets in a historically renovated ballroom on the floor above Little Arrows.” Average Sunday morning attendance is 85, with much of the congregation coming because of relationships developed through the play café.

Warner directs Little Arrows and serves as pastor of Engage Newark Church. “We are grateful for the support of our conference and Bishop Gregory V. Palmer to allow us to do ministry in a unique and creative way,” he said. “We have seen the name of Jesus proclaimed, the people of God transformed and the power of the Holy Spirit made evident!”

Participant Sigrid Nielson agrees.

“If not for Little Arrows,” she said, “I still wouldn't have any connections to other adults, and I would not be attending church. … I owe a lot of my growth [in the past year] to finding Little Arrows Play Café.”

Another new church start is Mosaic Church in Dayton. Birthed from two United Methodist churches – Christ, Kettering, and Ginghamsburg, Tipp City – Mosaic is led by the Rev. Rosario “Roz” Picardo and the Rev. Wayne Botkin.

“Our English-as-a-Second Language classes,” Picardo said, “minister to a wide range of people new to our country. We have 15 nations represented on any given night. We just started a monthly worship gathering completely in Portuguese with our friends from Brazil. In addition to these opportunities, we offer a biweekly Bible study to Arabic speakers.”

“Mosaic,” Botkin noted, “is just scratching the surface of living into the vision God has given us about becoming a dynamic mosaic of Jesus followers.”

Kris Yearsley attends Mosaic and loves it. “From the very first service,” she said, “I knew this was ‘home.’ The messages are meaningful to the day-to-day life situations we all face. Mosaic is a welcoming, uplifting church.”

The Rev. Jonathan Kollmann is pastor of new connections and new ministry development for Anderson Hills United Methodist Church, Cincinnati. He leads Fresh Expression, which provides worship experiences in a brewery and an art studio.

“Faith & Friends on Tap,” he said, “is held at The Little Miami Brewing Company” in Milford. Sixty to 70 people, most of whom do not have a church home, attend worship on the first and third Saturdays of the month. The team also takes the ministry to the larger Rhinegeist Brewery in downtown Cincinnati.  

The Faith & Friends Art Experience is held at Colorful Cupboard Arts in Withamsville. “This ministry,” Kollman said, “is always filled with a maximum of 25 people per experience.” Participants worship as they paint a thematic picture on a canvas. 

‘Radical affirmation of all people’

The tri-state area includes 44 breweries. “Every community is building a brewery,” explained CORE team member Mary Wessel. “Breweries have become their own little culture.” People of all ages gather for craft beer, a laidback atmosphere and an open, accepting environment. “They hear God's word through a message and music,” Wessel said. “They discuss matters of faith and share life.”

In Columbus, North Broadway (main campus) and Short North (sister campus) United Methodist churches have both shared and separate programs. Together, they fill and donate “blessing bags” year-round and open their buildings to the community. North Broadway’s reconciling ministry offers worship, potlucks, training events and seminars. Short North features Soul Sisters, a women’s small group that gathers monthly for fellowship and discussion, and YoWo (yoga plus worship) that meets Sunday noon and once a month in various community locations.

“North Broadway is such an important part of our family,” remarked Chris Rehs-Dupin, who leads the church’s Reconciling Ministry Team. “We want our children to be raised in a church that strives for radical affirmation of all people. Our children are growing up in a community that believes in kindness and openness.” The Rev. Marcus Atha is senior pastor.

Vicki Bowen Hewes, now a hospitality team member at Short North, recalled her introduction to the church. “After experiencing painful judgment at a place of worship several years ago,” she had sought a church that demonstrates that God loves everyone. “When Short North Church opened their doors, I was cautiously optimistic,” she said. “From our first time as visitors, we were embraced by beautiful faithful souls, completely inclusive hearts, a growing, diverse congregation and the opportunity to give back to the community. The Rev. Amy Barlak Aspey and her remarkably gifted and faithful team don't simply preach love; they live it.”

Over the past 15 months, West Ohio has begun four other Light the Way ministries. Central City, Grandview Heights, dreams of becoming a network of small faith communities engaged in bold faith and mission. Global Village, Dayton, is developing a pipeline for a new generation of people serving in historic African-American congregations. Lifeline Community Dinner, Columbus, features an evening of food, conversation, poetry and live music as it builds a community that embodies the gospel. And New City, Dayton, gathers in a repurposed United Methodist church and reaches people who are in recovery from addictions.

“The new-church-start pastors,” Aycock explained, “were assessed and taken through a training program to help develop their entrepreneurial skills and a long-term sustainable plan.”

The Rev. Kathy Currier remembers 25 years ago, when Epiphany United Methodist in Loveland was a new church start. “It’s only because others came alongside Epiphany and believed in us that we were successful as a church plant,” said Currier, now senior pastor.

Today Epiphany is a thriving, missional congregation. Three worship opportunities – two contemporary and one traditional – draw about 500 people each week. Around 100 young people per week participate in youth and children’s ministries. The Wee 3 Kings Preschool serves about 180 children of the outlying community.

‘An opportunity to give back’

“Epiphany is excited to be a part of supporting new church starts in West Ohio Conference,” Currier said. “As we celebrate a successful first 25 years, we want to be a part of what God is doing in West Ohio Conference.”

“Our next faithful step,” said Palmer, “is to focus on taking a bold leap … in starting new churches and strategically revitalizing others so that more people, more young people, more diverse people meet the risen Christ, who yearns to be in relationship with each of us.”

The cost of beginning a new church and/or multisite ministry varies based on the model, but ranges between $300,000 and $500,000 over a five-year period. Expenses associated with strengthening existing churches ranges from $3,000 to $10,000. Funding is released as churches and ministries reach designated benchmarks.

Church of the Messiah, a 201-year-old United Methodist congregation in Westerville, is another strong advocate of Light the Way.

“Seven families formed us in the beginning,” said the Rev. Jim Wilson II, senior pastor. “They decided to Light the Way [by having] a revival down by the creek. People from all over Ohio came.” 

Today, the congregation of almost 1,800 can select from five weekly worship choices, as well as more than 100 diverse ministries. “Approximately 3,000 people would consider us their spiritual home,” Wilson said. “Our average weekend worship attendance is about 850.

“We stand now at a moment where there needs to be another great revival, an awakening of people,” he continued. “Our investment in Light the Way is one opportunity, not only to give back, but also to give forward for the next new expression of Christianity throughout our annual conference.”

“Light the Way,” Ling said, “has provided established churches a chance to evaluate ministries, consider how communities are being impacted, create new pathways for inviting persons into relationship with Christ and the church, as well as measuring the connection congregations have with their communities.

“For new churches, we are seeing our leaders connect with people in every public place they can find, as well as listening to community leaders, business owners, athletic coaches and nonprofit leaders. We are making connections with people – individuals and groups we haven’t been in touch with before.”

He remains optimistic about the future.

“We are very aware of our denominational challenges,” Ling said. “Yet, we are so moved by the commitment of our new church start leaders, the results of lives changed and communities nurtured in God's grace. They are hopeful examples of God's presence in Ohio.”

--Barbara Dunlap-Berg is a freelance writer and editor.