Remarketing, Not Reinventing

April 27th, 2012
This article is featured in the Change (May/June/July 2012) issue of Circuit Rider

Changing Neighborhoods, Part 2

The average Protestant church in the U.S. was founded in 1940. Yours might be a little older or a little younger than that, but unless you’ve just moved to your current facility, chances are, the neighborhood around your church has changed a bit since its founding. The area might be poorer, richer, younger, more commercial, more diverse, or less religious. Urban decline and regentrification can result in a church that is notably out of step with the people around it. Long-time members may find themselves increasingly isolated (and fewer in number) as cohorts die, move away, or find the commute to their old neighborhood no longer reasonable.

The Changing Neighborhoods series highlights three congregations who have adapted well to the economic, cultural, and demographic shifts in their communities and are responding to the needs and expectations of their new neighbors. Read Part 1 and Part 3.

Remarketing, Not Reinventing

Kilgo, A United Methodist Faith Community, is looked at in our district and conference as a budding success story. But it hasn’t been easy or quick. Kilgo has been declining along with the historical decline of mainline churches for the last thirty years. We are not visible from any major roads. Our only strength is that we are in the heart of a thriving neighborhood.

The community around our church has transformed from families who settled here after World War II, to young professionals with families who want to be close to work and activities in uptown Charlotte. Like many other churches in areas like ours, Kilgo has struggled to keep up with the changing community. I think we are all aware that nondenominational megachurches are taking the place of the small neighborhood mainline church. People today are looking for God in different ways and their expectations are different from what many of our faith communities offer and even understand.

Every church I have ever served has sold itself as “small in size but big in spirit” or “a loving and friendly church,” never realizing the message they share is not one that entices younger generations. Although the history and heritage of the institution is important, the mission is rarely embraced or communicated effectively to today’s generation. Many of our churches know they have to change, grow, and bring new life or they will soon do what many have done before: die and close. In practice, we share Jesus as long as the people come to us and want to do what we do the way that we do it. We want to change just enough not to die. Unfortunately, people today are speaking with their attendance and allegiances by attending and joining elsewhere.

Four years ago, I was told that I was Kilgo’s one last chance. I was told by most of the white-haired men and women that made up the majority of the congregation that all they needed was a young pastor with kids to bring in four or five young families. I was 35 with a beautiful wife and four amazing children all under ten years old. I had to be the solution.

Our success at Kilgo has been both dramatic and slow to realize. Four years ago our average attendance was about 45 and today about 80. If you look at the congregation today, you will see as many as ten new families and many young visitors with and without children. We have gained new members and many by professions of faith. But our success has really been because we have said “yes”—a lot.

I came in the door and people had dreams and ideas and desires to reach out. Our whole focus shifted from what we can do inside the church to make people want to come in, to what we can do for others, that people may want to be a part of. We give permission for people to try new things, to fail and still try something else new. We say yes, and then figure out logistics. We offer help when someone is passionate about something they want to pursue. We are now known as the church that reaches out and does things for and with the neighborhood.

We sponsor neighborhood food drives. We house homeless persons in the winter. We give opportunities for believers and non believers to gather safely in one place and help other people.  We are open to dialogue and discussion.

Kilgo held events every now and then and sometimes thought to invite the neighborhood to attend. Now we intentionally plan events for the community. This year we held our fourth annual neighborhood Christmas tree lighting and our 3rd annual live Nativity with real camels, sheep, and a cow too. We have a Fall Festival and a Spring Fling. Both are carnival-like events with animals, rides, face painting, etc. We have movies on the lawn and Trunk or Treat. We host a Fourth of July water fun day and patriotic concert. We have been covered by a multitude of media outlets. (I am a sucker for free publicity.)

We have started a new monthly “Revolution” service—not your ordinary praise and worship or traditional service. A little edgy and still not fitting everyone. We average 120 on the Sundays we have both traditional and Revolution services. They are split pretty evenly. Christmas Eve used to be poorly attended, averaging 20; we now average 125 by inviting the community to participate with us.

The biggest change at Kilgo is the fact that we tell people who we are and what we are about. My sales and marketing experience told me that Kilgo and mainline churches have a lot to offer; they just don’t know how to sell themselves. The people of Kilgo are loving, generous, and faithful followers of Jesus Christ. They have wonderful ideas and had implemented many of them. The community just didn’t know much about them. So we created a new logo, added a statement of purpose, updated the website, and started talking to strangers. It’s transformative. People started believing in themselves. They stopped looking at themselves as a dying congregation. Instead they started complaining that I was treating them like a big church!

We are not able to offer everything to all people as the big boxes can, but we are offering something to those who want to stay close to home, meet people where they are (like Jesus did), and make a difference in the lives of the people in and around their community. We have become the center of the community. Isn’t that what church used to be? We haven’t lost who we are; we have just come to realize who and what we should be. And God is still calling us to go and make disciples.

Step outside the church and see where God may be calling you.

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