Product of an extraordinary church

By John Southwick

After 14 years in the Research Office of the General Board of Global Ministries, I have come to look at churches through evaluative eyes. I look for fruitfulness and whether a church’s branches are barren or bearing fruit. It is in that light that I look back on the church where I got my call to ministry more than three decades ago. This was a spectacular church led by a remarkable senior pastor, but I was clueless to those things, having just come to a true faith in Christ and being oblivious to church distinctions. As I reflect back after many decades, I can identify several characteristics which may have contributed to the greatness of this church.

Park Avenue United Methodist Church had been a comfortable, white church in Minneapolis in the early 1950s and then experienced “white flight.” The members who moved to the suburbs drove back to church and wanted it to stay as it had been. The pastor had a more missional view, though that word was yet to be defined as such. He believed the church should minister to the community it was a part of. Lots of church battles ensued, but the pastor prevailed. During my time there, it had become one of the most diverse UM congregations to be found.

Dr. C. Philip Hinerman served there for 36 years until mandatory retirement. When he retired, Park Avenue had the highest worship attendance in the Minnesota Annual Conference. Most other mainline churches in the neighborhood had either closed or dwindled significantly. Also, while statistics are not available, it is likely that Park was in the upper echelon of UM churches with calls to ministry per member. Many of these were to the ordained ministry, such as myself, while many others were to missions or para-church work.

Park’s outreach to the community was central to its mission. Its summer program was legendary, with such offerings as sports teams, typing lessons, and summer camp experiences. Also, an annual summer event was the Soul Liberation Festival. In the parking lot of this essentially inner-city church, a stage was set up and national caliber Christian recording artists performed nightly, along with top-notch speakers. While many in the church and community turned out, this event had a metro-wide draw and reputation, bringing large outdoor crowds.

Phil Hinerman, a founding board member of Good News, was an exceptional leader in many respects. Though he was not a student of leadership techniques, he was a highly motivated, deeply spiritual man. Aware of his limitations, but trusting in a mighty God, he was a man of prayer. Those close to him knew that he rose early in the morning to pray. From his afternoon schedule, he carved out time to pray – and did again in the evenings. These prayer times could easily be an hour or more in length. In this respect, he sounds a great deal like John Wesley.

Dr. Hinerman was a fine pastor, but he was also an evangelist and yearned deeply for people to come to a saving faith in Christ. Furthermore he frequently called people to totally surrender their lives to the Lord Jesus. I still have a list he wrote on the back of an envelope of areas of one’s life that need to be surrendered, which he wrote for me in one of my times with him. He once told me that he shared the surrender message at a pastors’ assembly and that many responded at the altar.

Dr. Hinerman’s meetings with me at his favorite restaurant hangout were not unusual. He met multitudes of people there. These were times of fellowship, counseling, and mentoring. No wonder so many went into the ministry. He genuinely cared for his flock, as well as the community he served.

Much more could be said about Park Avenue and “Doc,” as he was affectionately called by most who knew him. At its core, the strength of Park Avenue was due to the mighty hand of God. God loves to use surrendered leaders who spend time on their knees, with a passion for souls, and a love of the people and community. If more churches had pastors with these qualities, the church vitality we talk so much about might be much more prevalent.

John Southwick is the Director of Research, Networking, and Resources for Good News. Dr. Southwick brings with him a background in research and pastoral ministry that will enhance his work in helping to foster renewal in United Methodist congregations.