Trading Spaces: Elderly Church Makes Way for Growth

October 29th, 2012
This article is featured in the Outreach 2013 (Nov/Dec/Jan 2012-13) issue of Circuit Rider
Before, as Asbury UMC

During a service last winter that’s been called “moving” and “emotional,” the small, elderly congregation of Asbury United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, handed over the church’s sanctuary to the growing, 20- and 30-something congregation of Servant Church. Members of Asbury will worship in the church’s fellowship hall, where Servant Church used to meet.

With liturgy specially written by Abby Parker, Servant Church’s deacon of connectional ministries with the poor, the service was titled “Honoring Our Legacy” and included moments throughout where an Asbury person would talk about the memories they had of things like education and music and Bible studies, and a Servant Church person would say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and the Asbury person would respond with “Go and do likewise.”

Parker said she wanted the service to be “healing—a way to remember but also a way to prod us forward into the next place.”

“I wanted it to feel like we were honoring one another in a way that bound us together,” Parker said. “And I think it actually worked. There was a part in the service where you could feel the room shift in this way that we hadn’t toward one another. What I kept trying to say is this is not the end. This is the beginning of a new thing.”

The special service happened Feb. 19, Transfiguration Sunday, which Parker said was perfect because “we have been transformed and we are moving into a new relationship with one another.”

Members of Asbury and members of Servant Church shared a fellowship meal after the service.

A Painful Process

The story has been a painful one, especially for the members of Asbury, said Diane Lee, pastor of Asbury. “Most of the people are dealing very well with that pain,” she said. “Most of them really do see Servant Church as the future. Asbury has been declining for years and years.

“We all tend to go to this analogy, and it’s got to do with aging. We’re all going to age. Churches age as well, and what happens in a person when they get to a certain point in their lives is their children have said, ‘Mom, you’re going to have to do this.’ Sometimes the children are cognizant of the pain and all the emotions that my people are experiencing. It’s a loss of control.”

Servant Church, which launched in September 2010 with 50 people, began reaching the fellowship hall’s capacity—100 people—around July 2011, said Eric Vogt, pastor of Servant Church. Leaders knew it was time to look for other options when they were consistently hitting an 80-percent-full room every Sunday.

Asbury, on the other hand, is a declining, elderly, 30-member congregation that was meeting in a sanctuary that could hold 300, Lee said.

Servant Church leaders looked at other places to meet, but they “felt committed” to the neighborhood around Asbury, and it doesn’t have many places to meet, Vogt said. And the elementary school near Asbury was not willing to rent space at the time.

“We definitely looked around and talked to people. Through that whole process, it kept coming back to what would it look like to try to work something out at Asbury?”

“This was a long process of figuring out how it was going to happen and how we could help Asbury process it,” Vogt said. “Some are really happy. They’ve had thirty or more years of steady decline in a very elderly congregation. What’s hard for them is that there are some of them who would really love if we would just join them. It’s hard to walk this line of saying we’re thankful and we want to be supportive, but we’re doing something different."

A Hopeful Future

Lee said members of Asbury are trying to do what they can to make the fellowship hall more “worshipful and reverent."

Servant Church members will also have to work on the sanctuary to create a space that doesn’t seem too “churchy” but has more of a “comfortable living room atmosphere,” which is what they set up in the fellowship hall. He said he doesn’t believe it’s “not a Servant Church thing” to meet in the sanctuary of a church, but leaders want to “be aware for whom it’s a challenge to come just because” they’re meeting in a sanctuary.

The church, he said, is “way more than a group of people that worships together on a Sunday morning” and that the sanctuary meeting place does not define who the congregation is. “We’re creating a space for new people, and hopefully that will energize the people to go out. We don’t want to lose that focus.”

Parker said Servant Church hosts a free meal for the community once a month, and every Sunday, members participate in an act of service—like writing letters to prisoners all throughout last year’s Lenten season, and focusing on human trafficking issues, and learning about mental health issues, and ending the educational time with a party for Austin State Hospital patients.

Parker said she’s also started an Asbury Love Team, and members’ whole job is to find ways to “love Asbury through” the transition.

“I think someday they will look back and say, ‘I’m so glad I went through that because I have this person who comes to my house and gives me rides to my church that I never would have had’ or ‘I have this person who visits me in the hospital that I never would have had.’ I hope that will be their story someday. But we can’t move too quickly past their pain.”


Rachel L. Toalson is Managing Editor of the Southwest Texas Annual Conference’s United Methodist Witness, in which the full version of this article originally appeared under the title New Chapter Begins for Austin Church Plant. Reprinted with permission.

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