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New mission can rejuvenate churches

 
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Fourth in a series: Another important transition churches face can be a change in mission – either because the neighborhood around the church has changed or because the church follows a new vision.

1:00 P.M. EST March 16, 2011



SkateChurch was founded by St. John’s United Methodist Church, Davenport, Iowa, after seeing a similar inner-city skate ministry in Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS photo illustration courtesy of St. John’s United Methodist Church.
SkateChurch was founded by St. John’s United Methodist Church, Davenport, Iowa, after seeing a similar inner-city skate ministry in Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS photo illustration courtesy of St. John’s United Methodist Church.

When the youth at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Davenport, Iowa, walked seven times around an empty building that had once held a furniture store and prayed for a skateboard ministry, church member Bill Porter said he couldn’t see how the church could afford it.

“The kids thought anything was possible,” Porter said. Turned out they were right.

Pennie Kellenberger, now director of The Center, which houses SkateChurch and other ministries, said teenagers from the neighborhood who were hanging out in the church parking lot were nervous about going inside St. John’s.

After the youth group went on a mission trip to Nashville, Tenn., and visited Rocketown, an urban ministry with an indoor skate park, stages and a coffee shop, they became interested in skate ministry. Kellenberger’s husband built a skate ramp that they sat up in the parking lot.

“We started with one ramp and a cooler full of soft drinks,” she said.

Eventually, more teens were in the parking lot than in the chapel, and the youth group decided it wanted to launch a full-fledged skate ministry. When the owner of the vacant furniture store lowered the asking price, a donor stepped forward and bought the building for the church.

Now, in addition to SkateChurch, the building houses a thrift store, food pantry, coffee shop and a foundation that helps court-assigned youth earn their GED certificate.

“It’s so obvious God had a direct hand in it,” Porter said. A charity thrift store and a food pantry operated by other churches both lost leases and moved into the building St. John’s had bought.

“People stepped up,” Porter added. “Everything kind of fell into place.

“It’s a mission to reach kids who wouldn’t otherwise have a church experience, and that has happened. If they use the center, they have 15 to 30 minutes of hearing the gospel every time they go,” Porter said.

The ministry hasn’t yet resulted in large numbers of youth who use the center attending St. John’s, but Kellenberger said the SkateChurch has really become a church for the teens that use it.

“They are hearing the gospel, not just in the message, but in how we behave.”

Kellenberger said the ministry has helped St. John’s members “see outside of themselves. They rally around it because it’s something bigger than who they are.”

‘Old model’ no longer works

Mission outside the church itself is one of the key indicators of a healthy congregation, said the Rev. Randy Cross of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

“The parish is not just inside the church walls,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important for churches to continually review their vision.”



In addition to SkateChurch, the church’s outreach ministry includes a thrift store, food pantry, coffee shop and a foundation that helps court-assigned youth get their GED certificates. A UMNS photo courtesy of St. John’s United Methodist Church.
In addition to SkateChurch, the church’s outreach ministry includes a thrift store, food pantry, coffee shop and a foundation that helps court-assigned youth get their GED certificates. A UMNS photo courtesy of St. John’s United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Tina Carter, pastor of Parker Lane United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, believes the old model of the people in the pews paying for the mission work of the church no longer works for every congregation.

Parker Lane was one of 11 churches in the Ecclesiastes Project in the Austin District of the Southwest Texas Annual (regional) Conference. The project engaged downtown Austin churches with fewer than 125 in average worship attendance or which had compelling financial or facility concerns. They participated in a sustainability assessment with an eye toward new life through merger, relocation, partnerships or other creative paths.

“The culture of this church has always been, ‘Let’s start doing what we want to do,’” Carter said. But she added that when she arrived as pastor and the church became part of the Ecclesiastes Project, it was evident that members were weary.

The project provided resources to her and the lay leadership to assess the church property – several buildings on seven acres in the heart of the city.

“The Ecclesiastes Project allowed us to have frank conversations about where we are in worship attendance and where we were going,” Carter said.

Now, Parker Lane provides space for a free health clinic, a food pantry, a thrift store, an after-school program and mental health counseling. The congregation provides most of these ministries through partnerships.

“We are continuing to see a decrease in worship attendance, but we very much have an increase in the number of humans who are going through the campus,” Carter said. “We are starting to be known as the church that cares. Our story is getting out, and it’s a powerful message.”

For instance, Carter said that in 2010, the church had 135 giving units, up from 85 the year before.

“Not all were members. Some gave and stayed home, some gave from far away, and some have joined and are learning about the church. Many gave $500 or less,” she said. “One person who lives far below the poverty level gave every week. She gave a total of $285.”

She is encouraged. Carter says younger people want to do something that matters and unchurched people who come to Parker Lane through one of the ministries are beginning to see that “there is something attractive about church.”

“Our next step this year is to begin to imagine how this church is going to be sustainable,” Carter said.

*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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