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Church's vision ignites dramatic possibilities for ministry


Issue Date: 
Wed, 06/18/2008

BY MELISSA LAUBER
UMCONNECTION STAFF

Person-by-person, relationship-by-relationship, the Rev. G. Lind Taylor and the congregation of Mt. Zion UMC is creating a church that might be "all things to all people" within their Baltimore neighborhood.

It's a tremendous vision, Taylor admits. But that just may be the point, "to create a vision that's able to grow to be larger than the visionary."

This year, for example, to celebrate its 128th anniversary, the 300-member church is challenging itself to bring in 128 new members. So far they've taken in 11.

But wanting to accomplish this, and even just believing that it might be possible, "is a faith story unto itself," said Taylor, who was appointed to the church on Liberty Road a year ago and is delighted that people in the pews now see opportunities where they once viewed only challenges.

In a number of Bible studies, the congregation has explored and adopted an Old Testament understanding of the church as temple or palace - central to the community and responsible for the wholeness and welfare of all who live within the shadow of the steeple.

This is a new understanding for many of the members. The ebb and flow of conditions in the church and community made it difficult in the past for them to accomplish everything they wanted.

In his first year, Taylor worked to help the laity discover that they are ministers. "They are to become partners with God," he said.

It's an inspiring invitation, and one that people like Mary Jones responded to with zeal. A health professional, she was invited to bring her skills into ministry.

Jones resisted, but once she saw that she had the potential and calling, she felt empowered and began to create a comprehensive program, which is still evolving, that includes a health fair, a congregational walk on Saturdays and guest speakers to help members be proactive about their wellness.

"Our members come with many gifts," Taylor said. "They're out in the world. They're doing interesting and important things. We're trying to give people a mission, an opportunity to use those gifts. We say, ‘don't park your brain at the steeple steps.'"

It's a message that many in the congregation are embracing.

On June 28, they begin their first training session in the Communities of Shalom program. Mt. Zion is one of seven churches in the Baltimore-Washington Conference adopting this comprehensive community em-powerment strategy for bringing "God's preferred reality," to the community.

Shalom Zones, explained the Rev. Bruce Haskins, who is leading the conference's Shalom Zone ministry, is not about short-term fixes or direct services. Shalom brings systemic change that transforms neighborhoods, he said.

Communities of Shalom are a den-ominational initiative, started in 1992.

They are designed to focus on building partnerships with business, civic, government, religious and other community groups to address issues of spiritual growth, economic development, multi-cultural relationships and health, wholeness and healing.

In their initial conversations, members at Mt. Zion have already begun to envision a community sports league for youth that operates in partnership with the city and a corridor for small business development in the region around the church.

They have also already begun a Friday evening event at the church with concerts, dances and other activities. Plans are also in the works for a financial fitness session to help people learn sound practices when dealing with their money.

Before coming to Baltimore in 2003, Taylor worked in a number of ministries, each of which he tried to mark with a sense of creativity and bold truth-telling.

A child born in Los Angeles, he has been a Baptist pastor and a professor of preaching; he worked in the movie industry; served in the Signal Corps in the Navy; bought a town hall for the church he pastored in West Virginia; helped shape understandings of what intentional interim pastors can do; started churches in the South; reduced hate crimes as a director of community affairs for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and all the while "grappled and wrestled" with what God is calling him to do.

He thinks he might have found an answer in Baltimore, where he believes something big and meaningful might be unfolding across the cityscape.

Among the most rewarding things as the church builds its future, Taylor said, is watching

people discover "that they are a vital part of something important, something larger than themselves.

"Everything we do in the church is Christian education. Everything is a teaching moment," he said, anticipating the next lesson God might have in store.