By Brett DeHart
How can a small and shrinking church, which no longer matches the demographics of its community, be faithful to the task of making disciples of Jesus Christ?
That is the question many smaller churches across the country face. It is the question that 170-member Austell First United Methodist Church has tackled head-on.
When I arrived a year ago, after having served as an associate minister at a large church, I realized quickly that the attractional model just wasn’t working here. We didn’t have all the bells and whistles of large church worship. We didn’t have the programs that parents expect and want for their children. We didn’t have the resources or money that would give us any hope that we could become a successful attractional church.
When you have been trained that church and making disciples is about attracting people to worship and to programs, it really knocks you for a loop when you realize you are at a church that isn’t successful at that and probably won’t be even with a lot of effort. It’s not that the leaders of Austell First didn’t want to attract new people and grow. But the odds were so stacked against them.
There’s nothing wrong with the attractional model, if you can make it work. But what about all those churches that aren’t and can’t? There’s more than one way to do church. We decided that if people won’t come to us, we’ll go to them.
“Bless Austell” is the name of the church’s vision to live out its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Internally, our goal is to have our church and its members focus on blessing our community: being the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Externally, we hope the campaign will signal to the community that we are ready to serve, to be an asset to this community. We hope others will want to join us in the blessing and eventually in the life of the church.
The church has developed ongoing programs for the community including free aerobics classes Wednesday nights, a free community dinner (Grace Cafe) every Thursday night, and a tuition-free, 5-day-a-week preschool (Feed My Lambs) for lower-income families.
The church is making a real push to engage area schools. It is involved in extensive outreach to its neighbor, Austell Primary School, where the church holds teacher appreciation lunches twice a year, volunteers at the school’s annual Spring Fling, and recently purchased and laid 60 bales of pine straw at the school. As a result of this growing partnership, the school naturally turned to the church to help sixteen families who lost everything when record flooding hit the city in September 2009. In addition, Austell First supports the community food pantry and clothes closet, delivers birthday baskets of goodies to residents at an assisted living home, and volunteers at community events.
While Austell First members are focusing outward, the church is also celebrating the work the Lord is doing inside the church. In the first six months of this year, compared to the first six months of 2008, worship attendance is up 13 percent and giving is up an amazing 27 percent.
The truth is that this church was already making an impact for Christ in this community through outreach. By placing that activity in a theological context with the Bless Austell vision, we can now celebrate the impact we are making for the Kingdom instead of being depressed because we aren’t a big attractional church.
Our community has changed and thus our definition of a successful church has had to change as well.
Brett DeHart is the pastor of Austell First United Methodist Church in Austell, Georgia. This article first appeared in the North Georgia Advocate and is reprinted here by permission.