Saving a slowly dying church

12/4/2013

By Susan Cooper, Kansas communications associate director
The scenario at Epworth United Methodist Church in southeast Wichita was a familiar one to many mainline denominations — an aging, dwindling congregation in a changing neighborhood. Churches in this situation generally have two choices. They can change, or they can die.

More than two years ago, their pastor, Rev. Jimmy Taylor, knew the church had to change. He encouraged the congregation to engage the people in the neighborhood. Epworth hosted an event to do just that called DayOne. It was a block-party extraordinaire, with fun and entertainment as well as free children’s clothing, diapers, haircuts, medical care and family portraits. The event was a success, and the church repeated it the following year.

However, the congregation wasn’t growing. Epworth UMC didn’t want to die, but they had some doubts about actually changing.

 

Volunteers pump gas at the Saint Mark UMC Southeast Campus gas giveaway in Wichita, part of a month-long effort to get to know the neighbors around the church. (photo by Susan Cooper)
People gather for the grand opening of the new Café at the Mark at Saint Mark UMC Southeast Campus. The café will be run by church youth to learn how to operate a business and will be open on weekday evenings to the neighborhood. (photo by Susan Cooper)
Wichita East District Superintendent Rev. Gary Brooks proposed a solution, what he called an “Elijah/Elisha” merger with Saint Mark UMC, which is located in northeast Wichita. He likened the process to Elijah passing his mantle — his commission — on to Elisha. The two churches were poised for the process.

“Saint Mark had a yearning to expand its footprint in Wichita through discipleship and great ministries,” Brooks said.

“Epworth made the decision [to merge] in strength, not weakness. Another year, and the situation would be much more dire. They didn’t want to close. But they wanted to live well, not just live.”

Brooks suggested Saint Mark because “it is a larger church with significant strengths.” Both congregations voted in favor of the merger, and Epworth now is called Saint Mark United Methodist Church Southeast Campus. Saint Mark’s senior pastor, Rev. Junius Dotson, preaches at both locations.

Dotson said he and the Saint Mark leadership team decided they would approach the process like starting a new church, not revitalizing an existing church. They wanted to build a new faith community that is relevant to the ever-more-diverse neighborhood.

“One of the things we experienced early on in the midst of change was [wanting] everybody to be OK with the change. But no matter what you do, somebody’s not going to like it. We just had to stay focused on the mission,” Dotson said.

“Our goal, first and foremost, is to win souls for Christ. Secondly, to inspire that community toward redevelopment, giving the community a new sense of pride and energy. Thirdly, relating to the mission and ministry in that area, I think one of the major ministries will be a food pantry, and we’re looking forward to developing that piece there.”

One of the first tasks was figuring out how to reach the people in the neighborhood and get the word out about the church’s ministries. The leadership team decided to have a “launch month” in October that was all about meeting the neighbors.

They had a community prayer walk to knock on doors, introduce themselves and pray with people. The church hosted a neighborhood block party and began serving a hot breakfast on Sunday mornings, a practice that will continue, according to Dotson.

“We’re reconnecting to the neighborhood. [The church] had been there a lot of years, but it had isolated itself,” Dotson said.

On Oct. 19, the church had a gas giveaway at a new Quik Trip convenience store that is near the southeast campus. Saint Mark bought approximately $4,000 in gift cards that were used for $20 of free gas for each car. Quik Trip supplied free beverage gift cards.

During the gas giveaway, church volunteers and the leadership team introduced themselves to the customers, pumped the gas, washed windshields and gave away the beverage gift cards and information about the church. The event was scheduled to start at noon, but cars began lining up around the block at 9 a.m. The gas giveaway ended up providing benefits to both the church and the convenience store.

“Quik Trip was very gracious. Towards the end of the day, they kicked in about $500 in gas,” Dotson said.

“When they were trying to get that location, there was a lot of opposition to it. People didn’t want it. There were some houses that were torn down [to build it]. But it’s been good. They welcomed the opportunity to partner with us. It was win-win. They got to show the neighborhood they’re trying to be a good neighborhood partner.”

The church also had an open house Oct. 29 to launch Café at the Mark, which, initially, will be open in the evenings Monday through Thursday.

“We want it to be a gathering place in the neighborhood, where they can come and hang out,” Dotson said.

“It will be staffed by our youth. We’re trying to create a young entrepreneurial experience. We’re teaching them how to run a business.”

The church has a courtyard area, and there are plans to utilize it in the summer with live music.

Dotson is encouraged by the change in culture at the church, putting the focus outward on mission instead of inward. He said he drives up to the church on Sunday morning and sees the parking lot full of cars and the sanctuary full of people.

“People are saying they’ve never experienced the energy, the worship experience,” Dotson said. “There’s something happening every single day of the week. There’s small groups, praise-sing rehearsals. It’s a major change.”
 


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