Post Author: Bonnie McCubbin
In Seminary, a professor had a “Dead Church Swear Jar.” If we said local congregations, denominations, or the Church universal was dying or dead, we had to put money in the jar. The point was that God is still alive and moving – and that will never change.
Yes, God is still alive and moving. Our rapidly-growing community was recently named one of the top 10 hottest neighborhoods in the nation. Everyone wants to live here, visit here, eat here, and enjoy the fun urban vibe we have. But very few people want to worship here. My own congregation – the largest protestant church in the neighborhood – is stuck at 50 people who are dying at a rate of 15% per year.
Statistically, in 5 years, the congregation will cease to exist. It is hard to think of the neighborhood churches – who aren’t engaged in mission and ministry and simply try to take in enough money to keep the lights on – as anything but “dead.”
But I’m an eternal optimist, and I refuse to go down without a fight. I began dreaming of ways to grow my congregation. I tried the relational model. I tried flyers, social media, websites, videos, free ice cream. You name it, I tried it. But I had minimal success. Visitor after visitor would approach me after worshipping with us for a week or a month and tell me, “I love you and your sermons, but these people! I just can’t do it.” They looked around the congregation and didn’t see anyone who looked like them. They saw that one third of the congregation is in their 90s. It didn’t matter that 15 kids were running around. They only saw a 1940’s church and couldn’t see themselves as part of that.
Our neighborhood, Hampden, is rapidly gentrifying. Thousands of homes are being built within one mile of the church. The older, blue collar mill workers stayed in the neighborhood after the mills closed, after the shops were boarded up and the houses were falling down. About ten years ago, a resurgence began. The artists came. The restaurants came. The shops came. And with these things came the college-educated – most with doctorate degrees and six-figure salaries – displacing the long-time residents who never graduated high school and barely survive on social security.
It’s a tale of two neighborhoods. To change Sunday morning worship to reflect the changing community would only remove the last thing the “Old Hampden” people could hold onto as being theirs. Yet, there is no future in this style of worship and approach to ministry. We needed something new.
When I hired a new youth director to run our free after school program (which is our greatest sign of vitality), I chose a man with skills in building new ministries, with the hope that we could partner to bring new life into an old wineskin. We discerned that the only future a congregation in our space could have would require us to reach the new people moving into the area. And the only way to make them feel welcome was to have activities that did not meet with the main congregation on Sunday morning.
We began last year by offering wildly popular “Dinner & A Movie” nights every third Friday where, for a one-dollar donation, attendees were served a spaghetti dinner, and watched a kid-friendly movie while munching on popcorn. This monthly event attracted both our target audience and members of the “Old Hampden” community.
Listening to the families, we heard they wanted something deeper. We launched “Family Night” on the remaining Fridays each month that included games and a short devotional time. In essence, these activities became our “proof of concept” before launching a new worship service.
This fall, in an attempt to continue to develop the faith of the new and unchurched people in our community, we launched “The Table” on Saturday nights. We are currently meeting monthly, with the hope of making it a weekly program at some point, either this spring or next fall.
Designed for students and their families, we gather for about two hours on a Saturday night for a shared meal (still one dollar per person), an activity, and a reflection time that is intended to be worshipful, all centered around a table. Most of our families only sit at a table together when they are at The Table. We want to nurture the family in whatever form it is.
The reflection time is currently about ten minutes long because the people attending have not experienced worship on a regular basis. We are teaching them how to worship and plan to expand this time in the future.
In October, we ate pulled chicken BBQ, carved pumpkins, and learned the “Pumpkin Prayer.” In November, we invited attendees to wear their favorite jersey or team colors to eat “tailgate food” before playing tabletop games and hearing a message about teamwork. In December, we had a gift giveaway where children could pick out a gift for themselves and one for a family member.
So far, we have had over twenty households attend, and expect that number to rise dramatically as we continue. In an overwhelmingly white community, The Table is only fifty percent white. We promote The Table through our after school program, youth ballet classes, community meetings, and regular church publications – but most people come to The Table because a friend brought them. When children enjoy what they are doing and feel safe, they want to bring a friend or cousin.
Ultimately, we pray that The Table will become a stand-alone, self-sufficient worship experience. To make that happen, we are currently working to bring together a team of core leaders so that the staff has help and the community has buy-in. This is a challenge because, except for one family, no one is churched or has held leadership roles in church before. We need to recruit and then do extensive training to get our core team together.
Our hope is that when we launch our weekly program, we will focus on a different central component of our faith each week of the month. Our Four Areas of Focus are:
- Fellowship (games and movies)
- Service (looking beyond ourselves)
- Bible Study (teaching people how to read the Bible and engage in Spiritual disciplines)
- Extended Worship (a full-length creative worship experience to build on the ten minute weekly introduction to worship)
The Table is still a work in progress that we are treating like a church plant. It is not self-sufficient at this time, and is supported financially by the Sunday morning congregation. We anticipate that over time, as people see value in what we offer, they will give more. However, teaching about stewardship will need to be a priority.
We experiment with everything, letting the Holy Spirit guide us in the hope (and prayer) that something works. God has not left our community. Our community is not dead! We are finding new ways to be the Church in the world today.
You can find out more about The Table at www.goodshepherdhampden.com.
Bonnie McCubbin is one-half of a clergy couple and enjoys researching obscure topics, cheering on Baltimore sports teams, and eating ice cream at her favorite local shop. She serves as the Pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in the quirky Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore City, MD, and as a Community Police Chaplain with the Baltimore City Police.
Image by: Bonnie McCubbin
Used with permission