My two oldest kids stayed overnight with my mother back in southeastern Oklahoma, so I drove down and picked them up in Henryetta today. On the way back to Oklahoma City, I decided to take a different route. We ventured through downtown and made a stop by an older United Methodist Church off the beaten path, several streets north and west of downtown. As I pulled alongside the church my four year old said, “Wow, it’s dirty.” I said, “why do you think it’s dirty,” and my seven year old daughter said, “because they don’t take good care of it.” I then told them that any church that stops reaching out and bringing people to Christ ends up in even worse condition. At the same time, across the street, I saw two young men. They were dressed in white shirts, black ties, and backpacks and were walking from door to door in the older neighborhood around the church. I pointed them out and said, “They don’t believe the same thing we do, but they are out telling people what they believe.” I then told them how our church would look just like this one if we stopped inviting people to our church to come to know Jesus.
After getting home, I looked up this church online and found the typical non-webpages listing the congregation’s name. However, I also found a defunct website on the Oklahoma City Cooperative Urban parish. Here is an excerpt from that website (I’ve changed the name, because I’m not writing this to embarrass anyone and I think it’s common for many of our congregations regardless of the name),
In 1969 on a typical Sunday morning 365 people gathered for worship in the beautiful Gothic sanctuary at ____________ United Methodist in Oklahoma City. “On Easter, every pew was packed, even in the balcony, and we brought extra chairs in,” recalls a retired United Methodist pastor who was then pastor at ________.
“Our educational building was less than ten years old, and we needed every room in it,” __________ says. Average Sunday school attendance was 368. The church had 206 children from birth through the sixth grade and 184 youth.
Compare this with its current situation at the time,
On a typical Sunday last year, 85 gathered at __________ for worship. Seventy came to Sunday school. The church had 15 children from birth through the sixth grade and three youth.
The neighborhoods weren’t empty, people just moved and stopped commuting back to attend on Sundays. For whatever reason, the church stopped reaching out to their local neighborhood (or any other neighborhood for that matter). So what was our ingenious solution to this dramatic shift? We formed a cooperative urban parish whose purpose statement read,
The Oklahoma City Cooperative Urban Parish is composed of churches and organizations who have a common heritage in the Christian faith; are located in a common geographical area; share common commitment to effective ministry with persons in their congregations and the surrounding community. The members of the Parish covenant to identify resources, establish goals, and develop ministry strategies designed to achieve those goals. In no way does the Parish compromise the integrity of member institutions, but through cooperation strengthens the ministry of each
While I’m sure this doesn’t completely encompass their vision for these congregations, I can’t help but notice Jesus Christ is not mentioned anywhere here other than in their “common heritage in the Christian faith.” In fact, the article said the goals of the urban parish could be summed up with our denomination’s campaign, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.” I also can’t help but notice how uninspired this makes me.
It just so happens we’re approximately ten years removed from what the date of this article. Yes, this means we can judge the effects of this particular approach to revitalizing a series of churches. According to the most recent conference journal, this congregation averaged just over 60 people in worship during 2008. That’s right, down 25 in worship from the time of the intervention.
While I was parked in front of this old building, I took a picture with my phone and sent it to a friend of mine who is beginning to more fully grasp and develop his understanding of God’s call on his life. All I did was take a picture of the exterior, and send him a note with the word, “Calling” in the subject line. His reply? “This made me tear up, let’s do it!”
We have young women and men in our conference who have a deep-seated Spirit-filled longing to lead congregations like this to revitalized ministry for Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, for the glory of God the Father. We have young men and women who are tired of campaigns, sick of non-descript goals and efforts, and dying to be used by God to share the Gospel. My 95 year old Grannie once called these “God-called preachers,” and I’m praying their tribe will increase and be invited to lead. Let’s stop wasting time adding pages to the Book of Resolutions that no one will ever read, and begin to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Who knows what ten years of that might accomplish?