Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors: Into the Future
|Church of the Shepherd (St. Peters, Mo.) sends an antique fire truck with church banners to area parades.|
By Diane Samms Rush
You’re driving down a familiar residential street and see a yard sign proclaiming, “It’s a Boy!” On the other end of the block you see another “It’s a Boy!” sign. By the time you drive a couple more blocks, you have seen several more “It’s a Boy!” signs, and you stop to read the rest of the message.
“Come celebrate God’s child,” it says, followed by the name of a church and the time of its Christmas Eve service.
The Rev. Larry Homitsky doesn’t remember the name of the church that planted 200 yard signs, but he uses the story to illustrate a creative way that churches can draw newcomers, or seekers, as they are called in Igniting Ministry, the denomination’s welcoming ministry and television campaign.
Homitsky is director of connectional ministries for the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference. He became involved in Igniting Ministry nine years ago, before it even had a name. He leads a major church leaders’ training workshop somewhere in the country once a month and offers training in his home conference or a surrounding conference almost every week.
During the 2001 quadrennium, about 30,000 people participated in Igniting Ministry training. Roughly 20,000 churches have launched campaigns or in other ways have subscribed to the “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” promise and philosophy to create their own welcoming ministries.
At the 2000 General Conference, delegates allocated $20 million for the ministry for advertising on national cable TV channels and to provide matching grants to churches and annual conferences that wanted to buy advertising on local channels with their name added. World Service Fund receipts allowed $17 million to be spent on advertising time and grants.
For the 2005 quadrennium, $25 million has been allocated, and grants can be used to advertise on TV, radio, billboards and in movie theaters.
United Methodist Communications developed face-to-face training events, local church-based and online training, planning kits, small-group studies, campaign marketing materials and two Web sites: one for seekers to learn more about the church and another for church leaders to learn about the ministry. New materials are being developed based on recent research about the characteristics of 25- to 54-year-old seekers — the target audience for the television ads.
“Igniting Ministry really has focused the denomination on mission in a new way,” said the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief staff executive of United Methodist Communications.
The television ads began airing only two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In the aftermath, the church seized the opportunity to reach out. A four-story billboard was placed a block from Ground Zero in New York City that read, “Fear is not the only force at work in the world.” It was signed, “The People of the United Methodist Church” and included the promise, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”
“It wasn’t only the United States that changed after 9/11; the church changed as well,” Hollon said. “Igniting Ministry was able to make a statement about the post-9/11 world that was both bold and hopeful.”
The ministry also addresses everyone in the pews, Hollon said.
“The challenge before us is to open the door and go through the door and be a people who are affirming, understanding and working with others to change the world.”
Change is difficult. Spencer Church is in an old neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Most members are in their 80s and have been involved in the church for a long time. They aren’t interested in change for fear they will lose the “closeness.”
Yet attendance has dwindled to around 100, and the Rev. Paolo Da Silva sees the handwriting on the wall. “The church has to bring diversity now if they don’t want to be in trouble five years from now,” he said.
The church has bought billboards, advertised on cable TV and sent postcards to neighborhood residents, many of whom are young families. The result is a 12 percent increase in attendance at Spencer’s contemporary worship, Da Silva said. He designed the contemporary service for the younger generation from his philosophy that “everything begins from worship.”
Consideration for aging members of the congregation spurred one church to redesign and expand its narthex. Spirit of Hope Church in Golden Valley, Minn., was built in the 1950s and had a split-level entry, explained the Rev. James Haun. Older members had trouble negotiating the stairs, and everyone who wanted to visit after services was cramped in the small narthex.
|Spirit of Hope Church in Golden Valley, Minn., installed a coffee bar in its narhex with tables and chairs that invite conversation.|
Now the church has a coffee bar in its narthex with tables and chairs that invite conversation. There are two other seating areas. An artist in the congregation do-nated paintings of nature scenes for an art gallery effect.
Hospitality guided the church in its redesign. The result is an area that is welcoming, a place to linger, a place to meet new people. Igniting Ministry materials are displayed in the new narthex, available to seekers who may be new to the transitional neighborhood.
Minnesota has 14 Certified Welcoming Congregations, churches that have gone the extra mile to complete surveys and submit action plans for becoming more welcoming and hospitable.
Park Church in Brainerd, Minn., is a Certified Welcoming Congregation for the second year. Its setting is a growing area of lakes and resorts that have attracted both retirees and young families.
“We wanted to be more intentional about how to identify visitors, welcome them and invite them to after-service fellowship,” explained the Rev. Rory Swenson.
The church has used the “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors” promise on its bulletin. It has distributed doorhangers inviting residents to share in worship. It has bought ads on local radio and in the newspaper and underwritten public television programs. Seekers are given a “Cup of Information,” mugs designed with the promise and the church’s name and filled with materials about activities of the congregation and about the United Methodist Church.
Swenson reported increased attendance, and newcomers have said they appreciated the welcoming feeling. That is the payoff for a congregation that learned to “make room for more people in our hearts,” Swenson said.
Several clergy agreed that the success of a welcoming ministry depends on the congregation buying into it. The training and planning materials suggest a self-examination of the congregation:
- Are we welcoming?
- Why do we want to invite others?
- What will we do for and with newcomers?
To cynics who say the church isn’t truly open, Hollon said the promise is a covenant offered. “We never fully arrive,” he said. “We’re always growing, developing.”
Members of some small churches may feel that they have too little with which to reach out. Homitsky pointed to several small-membership churches who have increased their visibility and offered a welcoming hand.
One church wrapped gifts for donations during the holiday season at a sporting goods store. Wrappers tucked notes of invitation, giving the church’s name and worship times, in with packages. Another church slipped similar notes into bags of clothing at its rummage sale. To promote its evangelism event, one church changed its terminology and advertised an “Evening of Inspiration.”
Churches can build on opportunities. The Minnesota State Fair asked Centennial Church in nearby Roseville to provide satellite parking from which the fair could shuttle visitors.
Church members seized on an idea that would catch the attention of parched fairgoers in August. The church bought nearly 1,000 bottles of water, had labels printed with the church’s name, Web address, worship times and the “Open Hearts” promise, and handed them out to those who parked at the church.
Larger churches can do bigger things. Such is the case with the Church of the Shepherd in St. Peters, Mo., a growing suburb west of St. Louis. It started with a coffee cart outside the entrance to the church. (The lobby was too small to hold many lingerers.) As worshippers arrived, they could stop for conversation and refreshment.
The church’s enlarged narthex now houses the Higher Grounds Cafe, which seats about 25 and offers breakfast along with coffee. There is also a bookstore, stocking current religious best-sellers, Bibles and books used in small groups.
Church of the Shepherd has two campuses and five worship services, one at 5 p.m. Saturday. More than 1,000 attend each week. Its Web site boasts more than 80 ministries. It is a Certified Welcoming Congregation.
A free Kids Fair is designed to invite people to the building, where church members paint faces, organize games and sell concessions. The event is advertised in newspapers, on yard signs and by mail. A week or two before the fair, church members donate items they might sell at a garage sale. Thirty or 40 low-income families are invited to come and take what they need from the donations, and children in those families are given tickets to buy concessions at the Kids Fair.
When there is a parade in the area, Church of the Shepherd’s antique fire truck is there, with signs advertising the church.
Karl Griffith is inviting team leader for Church of the Shepherd. He has organized and trained 21 hospitality teams, involving about 200 people.
The teams promote two principles suggested in Igniting Ministry training. One is the “Circle of 10,” in which everyone in the congregation is asked to greet everyone who comes within 10 feet of them. The other is the “Rule of Three,” built on research that says that it takes a seeker three minutes to leave the church after worship. Members are encouraged to pay attention and speak to guests before visiting with people they know.
“We think of hospitality on Saturday and Sunday as evangelism real close to the front door,” Griffith said. “People form an impression before the first note is played.”
Local churches, clusters of churches, annual conferences and other groups may apply for grants to advertise locally at the same time Igniting Ministry television spots are running nationally on selected cable channels during 2005.
2005 grant deadlines:
Back-to-school: May 1-June 1
Advent: May 1-June 1
Lent (2006): Nov. 1-Dec. 1
For more information, visit www.IgnitingMinistry.org, call (877) 281-6535 or e-mail IMMediaServices@umcom.org.
www.IgnitingMinistry.org helps local churches extend and live the “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” promise. Read profiles of welcoming congregations, download free graphics, develop a plan to increase your church’s hospitality, study research about Igniting Ministry, enroll in “Igniting Ministry 101” — and much more.
--Diane Samms Rush is a freelance writer in Wichita, Kan.