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Church has place in new planned community

"Live. Shop. Play."

When he saw the billboard three years ago inviting people to become part of a new planned community in Middle Tennessee, the Rev. Jacob Alexander thought an important verb was missing.

"I thought, 'Why not live, shop, worship, play?'" he recalled. "Why (isn't the church) at the table for new communities?"

Three years later, Alexander is the founding pastor of Providence United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., 15 miles east of Nashville. The first weekly worship service on Sept. 7 drew 230 adults and children. The following Sunday brought 280 people.

Alexander told the story of Providence's beginning to members and staff of the United Methodist Commission on Communication as they visited Grace United Methodist Church, Providence's "mother church," on Sept. 26. As one of three field trips to introduce commissioners to the four areas of focus adopted by the 2008 General Conference, the visit to Grace focused on congregational and leadership development. Others emphasized the global health initiative and ministry with the poor.

Meeting in an elementary school, the new congregation brings "worship" to the planned community of Providence, which is anchored by an 830,000-square-foot outdoor retail complex.

Providence United Methodist Church is a place "for the unchurched, the de-churched and the not-recently-in-church," he said. The vision is "to reach those who feel disconnected from God and the church and to introduce them to hope, healing and wholeness through Jesus Christ."

Alexander expected to receive 75 members on Sept. 28, hear 16 professions of faith and conduct three adult baptisms. New members covenant to fulfill the church's mission to seek God, welcome people, offer Christ and respond by serving.

New church grant funds messages

Alexander was appointed to Grace as an associate pastor responsible for planting Providence. He quickly applied for a New Church Grant from United Methodist Communications, which awarded 19 grants totaling $185,000 in 2008. Ten will be awarded each year during 2009-2012.

Grant recipients receive funds and guidance to develop marketing plans and materials to build community awareness with the aim of launching worship services with a significant number of people in attendance. United Methodist Communications also offers hospitality and inviting training.

The Providence church team rented a billboard bearing a simple illustration and its Web site address, and a similar message was on three mass mailings to Providence residents. Newspaper ads had the same themes. The United Methodist tie is clear. The overriding message, said Alexander, is: "We are a new church, and we're here."

The messages "are reinforcers for your invitations," he told his core congregation, which was formed in March to prepare for a September launch. Some first-time attendees indicate they are "responding to an ad or a mailing," he said, "but mostly they are being invited by friends or co-workers."

Support for the new church start has come from other parts of the denomination.

The Tennessee Annual (regional) Conference is paying all of Alexander's salary this year and a decreasing percentage for the next four years, in addition to providing a new church coach. The salary support allows all money given to the church to be used for ministry and outreach. The conference also sent him to the annual School of Congregational Development.

Grace—itself born in the 1990s after two local congregations merged—helped to identify the need for another United Methodist church in the growing residential area near Nashville International Airport. Pastors in the conference's Cumberland district opened their pulpits for Alexander to share the vision for the new church and invite people to help.

Ministry in the community

Since its inception in March, the Providence team has been in ministry in the community to build for a September launch.

The Saturday before Easter, team members joined 3,000 children for an Easter egg hunt in a city park, where they painted faces and invited people to a sunrise service the next morning. Alexander noted that, driving to the park, the team passed numerous churches holding Easter egg hunts and wondered aloud if the children they would meet that day did not have a church home. Later in the afternoon, they visited an apartment complex, talking to residents and distributing information.

Summer brought hotdog cookouts in trailer parks, a prayer wall for Armed Forces Day, Neighborhood Night Out activities and meals served in churches.

Congregants met monthly from April to July for worship. A "soft launch" in August brought weekly services at the school on the first four Sundays. Worship includes a praise band and projected lyrics, and use of the United Methodist Hymnal when Alexander performs a baptism or celebrates Holy Communion.

The church's initial Website is being redesigned and expanded. The simplicity was intentional. "We didn't want to give the idea we were a full-service church," Alexander said. It now promotes "The Reign Forest" children's ministry and—for adults—small groups for Bible study, fellowship, prayer and accountability.

As a church planter—a call he first experienced in seminary—Alexander is clear that he was "led to start a new United Methodist church." It's a calling that means making sure the church is included "at the table" when new communities are developed.

He described how his calling was affirmed as he found himself meeting with the developer of Providence community to negotiate inclusion of the word Providence in the new church's name. Sitting at the mahogany table and looking around the glass-enclosed board room, he realized, "Wow, now I am at the table."

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*Noble is editor of Interpreter magazine and Interpreter OnLine, www.interpretermagazine.org.

News media contact: Kathy Noble, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5441 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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