How our small church made big changes (and survived)

February 9th, 2015

Summer Grove United Methodist Church in Shreveport, La. faces the challenges of many United Methodist churches in the United States — aging membership, changing racial demographics of the neighborhood and a declining economic base.

The all-white church moved to its current location in a mostly white neighborhood in the early 80s — and its new neighborhood began to change. In addition to a racial change, the neighborhood’s major employers moved to other places. And we realized we needed to bring in younger, more diverse members to help our church thrive.

Our church had to make big changes or die.

About three years ago, as the pastor, I embarked on a challenging journey of change:

• First, I began a conversation with the person in charge of congregational transformations and new church starts for the Louisiana Annual Conference. Those talks led to the first step in our church making changes in the way we did things — and helped me commit to making hard decisions with my congregation.

• Four lay leaders and I attended a process called SHIFTS, conducted by Dr. Phil Maynard through the Louisiana Annual Conference. That process focused on becoming more inviting and having more vibrant worship. This was a good start and helped this core group begin to talk about our path. But honestly we needed more than a shift.

• We asked to go through the UM Discovering the Possibilities program, a churchwide process conducted by worship leader and coach Stacy Hood. Most of our congregation spent a half day looking at and celebrating the past, assessing our current reality (giving and attendance), analyzing demographics of the neighborhood (60 percent white to 40 percent African-American) and then we looked to the future.

• Knowing it would be tough to follow through, we hired a short-term local church consultant (Judy Christie) to keep us on an intentional process of change. She began her work in June 2014 by meeting with the congregation and asking if there was support for change. With some reluctance and some excitement, nearly all members agreed we had to do something.

At the end of November 2014, we began a new worship service. You may think that is not so different. Yet what we did was huge for us.

We combined our traditional worship service with our contemporary worship service. I used no labels to describe the new worship experience other than it would be a worship celebration.

Leading up to this change the entire church studied Adam Hamilton’s book “Revival.” New small groups were formed (and still are meeting) and people began to become revived.

The leadership of the church decided to make the service more contemporary in style with our musical praise team as music leaders. It was truly our prayer that we could find a worship leader who could connect with those who were outside the church walls and increase the diversity of our congregation.

A couple of weeks before the new service was to launch, we found that person — a young African-American man who is a middle school choir director. Both he and our church were willing to try what for us was a big change.

Not all has gone perfectly. There are those who grieve the loss of certain elements of a traditional worship service. We decided ahead of time to retain some of those elements but not include them every Sunday. Our worship leader has been intentional to include a hymn or two weekly, mixed with contemporary music. The results to this change so far (over two months in) have been exciting. Before the changes our average combined worship attendance of the two services was 80-90 weekly. Since our change our attendance has averaged 110, with as many as 118. There is a new energy in worship.

Of course a change in worship is not the complete answer. There is much work to be done to engage in ministry with our neighbors. We have, for example, added a free meal for people in the neighborhood and increased our food pantry ministry. Church members have committed as volunteers.

While our diversity is increasing, we must continue efforts to reflect the racial makeup of our neighborhood. But after much prayer, strong lay leadership and a willingness by many to be courageous, change has come.

The good news: We have made the change from survival mode to the hope of thriving. I share this not to brag but to say that your church can make the necessary changes needed and live to tell the story. 

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