Two years ago, the United Methodist Church in Gilbert faced a tough future. Average worship attendance had declined to 11 people. They could only afford 1/10th of a pastor’s time. And there was a real question about how much longer the church would remain open. Instead of giving up or cutting back on expenses even more, they chose to go all in. They made a commitment to seek a half-time pastor and to learn how to reach their community together. They were going to grow or die trying.
Two years later, after two different pastors and many attempts to reach the community, average worship attendance at Gilbert UMC has nearly doubled to 19. There is an active children’s ministry and the church has a new reputation in town. As one city official commented, “I don’t know what it is with your church. You are always doing something for the community. Other churches just want the community to help them.” Talk to Pastor Mary Lou Sixberry, and she can share with you all the ways the church has sought to bless the Gilbert community. But it takes more than just a willingness to invest and a host of new outreach activities to change the future of a church. It also takes a change of perspective.
Four young sisters from the neighborhood came to a picnic on the church lawn, and they asked about activities for children at the church. (At the time, there were no children’s activities at the church.) The church responded by redeveloping a children’s ministry and welcoming these children into the life of the church. The girls’ mother allowed her children to come, but had no interest in participating in church herself. In fact, she sometimes actively discouraged the youngest from attending by offering to take her out for breakfast if she stayed home and didn’t go to church with her sisters.
Here is where the change of perspective came in. The church leaders didn’t complain about how parents these days don’t support the church like they did in the good old days. Instead they realized that they needed a new perspective. It wasn’t good enough to simply have activities for children. They had to connect with those children in such a deep way that the kids would choose to come to the church no matter how great the pull elsewhere. As one person said, “We learned we have to be better than breakfast with mom.”
Even a church that has grown to 19 can’t offer the kind of glitzy programs and activities that would compete with what others might offer. But it can offer relationships and purpose as followers of Christ. And these can be “better than breakfast with mom.” The Gilbert church immediately sought ways to involve the children in the life of whole church. They hand out worship bulletins, light the candles, even go to the nursing home to minister there. And all the while they are surrounded by members of the church who go out of their way to love them and build relationships with them. Pastor Sixberry says, “It’s like they moved into a church with a bunch of grandparents.”
This year, on Christmas Eve, the girls were not the only ones in church. Mom joined them. And a whole bunch of “grandparents” rejoiced.
Mark Miller is superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference's North Star District.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church