Connect with Your Neighbor extends the welcome mat
BY LINDA WORTHINGTON
Vital churches that remain vital do two things, said the Rev. Lovett Weems in the opening plenary of the Connect with Your Neighbors conference at Wesley Seminary Nov. 5, held in the renovated chapel on the seminary's campus. They connect people to God and they connect with their communities.
The conference brought participants from seven states and several denominations. All were seeking ways to grow their churches, extend the welcome mat in their neighborhoods and ultimately to connect the individual (both self and others) to God.
In the first instance, vital, inspiring worship is the key. "No congregation can be vital without an ongoing presence of God with its constituents," Weems said. Health care programs, feeding the hungry and education can all be done better by someone else, he said. "But what they can't do is give the Spirit of God – hope – to the people."
The second thing vital churches do is to connect with the community. "The longer a church is in existence, the less likely it is to connect to its community," Weems said.
Why is that? In the early days of the church, the congregation had a strong awareness of the neighborhood because they were working hard at finding members. But as time goes by, the church's attention shifts from the neighbors to nurturing current members.
As times have changed, so has the entry point for new people to come to the church. In the early 1900s it was the Sunday school; then in the 1950s it became worship. Now in the 2000s, it is service. Mission, either nearby or far away, may be the best entry point for new people. "Your first encounter with new people may not happen in your space (the church), but in a service somewhere," Weems said.
"Fall in love with your community again," as you did when your church first started.
Five well attended workshops expanded on the theme of "connect with your neighbor."
Joe Arnold, research manager at the Lewis Center, provided many resources for "Discovering Your Neighbor." They included the free census data from the U.S. Census Bureau, "the mother lode of free information on the Web," and the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Arnold also mentioned two commercial providers familiar to the Baltimore-Washington Conference: Missioninsite and Percept.
Along this vein was another workshop, "Ways to Understand Your Neighbors Better," which during the second round of workshops attracted many of those who attended the "Discover" group earlier.
Two models of evangelism
Ann Michael, associate director of the Lewis Center, in her workshop on "Needs-based Community Outreach" explained two models for evangelism (outreach), the Servant Evangelism as touted by Steve Sjogren of the Vineyard Church movement; and Needs-based Evangelism from Robert Pierson, a United Methodist pastor in Tulsa, Okla.
"Both churched and non-churched hate 'evangelism'," she said.
Servant Evangelism demonstrates the kindness of God by offering to do some act of humble service with no strings attached, absolutely free, Michael said. Each act is accompanied by words or concept that it is "to show God's love in a practical way."
This style of evangelism is quick, simple and easy to organize, and almost anyone can get involved. Limitations include that it is diffuse rather than focused, and might seem gimmicky. "It must be done with enthusiasm and authenticity," Michael said.
Needs-based Evangelism is very different. The task is to lead people to Christ by helping them know God's love. This is done by being present to help wherever the hurt is. It connects the gospel and meeting needs. There are dozens of examples, from many kinds of classes or affinity groups to pre-school and counseling centers to immigrant and homeless ministries.
Needs-based Evangelism follows the model of Jesus' ministry and is what many mainline churches do. "Needs are places of spiritual receptivity," Michael said, and are present in crises such as job loss or divorce, and in life transitions, such as marriage, birth and retirement.
This type of outreach is matched to the strengths and passion of the congregation, which must be assessed to find the congregation's level of commitment, the pastor and church leaders' commitment and what resources are available. And once the outreach is successful, one must embody an openness to receive those who have been connected with.
Two workshops helped participants understand Internet-based technologies: "Using Social Media to Reach New People" and "Your Website is Your Church's Welcome Mat." The attendees at the social media workshop focused on Facebook, determining that what a church's profile looks like will affect who reads it, either new people or members of the congregation, but probably not both, said participant Susan O'Dell, lay leader at Hughes UMC in Wheaton. "You need to ask yourself, 'what is the most effective way a new person can get information that is helpful?'" she said.
The group received several hints on how to make sure the church's Twitter account reached new people. "Your Twitter account will be referenced by others and your initial effort multiplies," O'Dell said.
"It (the workshop) opened my eyes to a way for the church to be present in the community," said the Rev. Martha Meredith from Severna Park UMC. She cited in particular using Twitter to pray for people in the community.
A theology of welcome
In the closing chapel service Rev. Amy G. Oden, dean of Wesley Seminary, spoke on "The Theology of Welcome."
"Think about the levels of welcome in your church," she said. These encompass friendliness, small group experiences where you get to know people and begin to share of yourself, and the welcome we receive from God in important life events, both negative (divorce, job loss) and positive (birth, marriage).
"We experience God's welcome, which makes it possible to expand that welcome to others," she said.
Oden quoted from 2 Corinthians 6:12 as worded in Peterson's The Message, "The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren't small, but you're living them in a small way."
"Folks who come to your church are not looking for their lives to get smaller," she said, but to experience hope and healing. Many people think they're on God's outside, looking in. We can offer them welcome.
"God is welcoming us in all parts of every day, in everything we do," Oden said. Our church word for God's extension of welcome is "salvation," she said. John Wesley said salvation is the "entire work of God."
Many have heard that salvation isn't for everyone, or it happened a long time ago, Oden said, but every moment or molecule, God's welcome is in our lives. "We are all part of God's saving work. God welcomes us and we welcome our neighbor."