Getting to Know the Neighbors: A (Turnaround) Case Study

October 28th, 2013

Epworth UMC, Lexington, Kentucky, circa 1950: a five-hundred-seat sanctuary filled to capacity, a full roster of Sunday school classes, and over one hundred missionaries and pastors sent into vocational ministry around the world. With thriving community involvement, Epworth UMC was the core of its north Lexington neighborhood in the 1950s. Gradually, demographics changed. The membership dwindled, the budget began to be in the red year after year, and the church morphed into a destination church with most of its members driving in from across town.

By 2011, Epworth was on the verge of shutting its doors. The attendance had dwindled to only about forty parishioners each Sunday. With a leaking roof, aging membership, and dismal attendance, something had to be done.

As a last-ditch effort, the district appointed me as the pastor. Until that point, my only experience in ministry was as the church planter of a diverse downtown theater-based church. Now I faced the challenge of winning over and engaging a small, committed group of elderly members who were fastened to a church with a failing facility in a neighborhood that now distrusted the church. The appointment was a joint one; I was to continue with my downtown theater congregation while also leading Epworth, ten blocks north. Fortunately, I was familiar with the Epworth congregation, having served as the church janitor while I was a seminary student. But I’d never imagined myself trying to revitalize that congregation. It was a daunting task.

I began by focusing on relationships, attending community meetings, and getting to know the neighbors. I started to notice not only the strengths of the community, but the needs as well. One of most apparent needs was assistance for neighborhood people with fixed incomes. The people were lacking in funds, but they also lacked a place to come together, experience hospitality, and feel loved. After a few months of prayerful discernment, we launched the Monday night Gathering service. At the Gathering, our doors open early in the afternoon for coffee, prayer, and Bible study. Volunteer chefs arrive to prepare the evening meal, and various groups gather from around the city to stock the food bank. Worship starts at 6 p.m., and preaching, teaching, prayer, and Holy Communion are shared. What started out as a ministry “to” the neighborhood has transformed to ministry that now comes “from” the neighbors. The Gathering has become its own vibrant faith community. That’s not all. The people in the community surrounding our church are being served and connected with Christ, but Epworth’s longtime members are being changed, too. In fact, many of our Sunday morning worshippers return to church on Monday evenings to serve their brothers and sisters at the Gathering.

It was not perfect, and I was stretched thin, leading both Epworth and Embrace, the downtown campus. God answered my prayer with a recent seminary graduate who had a real heart for the Gathering. He was so eager to get involved that he raised his own financial support as an urban missionary in order to become the pastor of this new faith community. Today, he oversees the food bank, sit-down meals, pastoral care, and the weekly worship service.

Now, when the sun is out and the weather is warm, we move everything outdoors and welcome anybody who walks by to come and be a part of what God is doing. This was exemplified in a Memorial Day Gathering cookout that more than three hundred people from our community attended.

The Gathering service has become one of the most vital parts of Epworth’s ministry and has reenergized the church. More than seventy people have made professions of faith on Monday evenings at the Gathering in the past two and a half years. One of the most beautiful aspects of this transformation is that so many of those people were previously unchurched. They were living in the Hispanic trailer park right behind the church and in the community all around us, but had not been reached before the Gathering. What else will God do in this place, with these people? I look forward to seeing that future unfold.

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