By Boyce A. Bowdon-
It was November 8 – Election Day 2016. I didn’t have to go far to my polling place. New Hope United Methodist Church is only a few blocks from my home in northwest Oklahoma City.
The church parking lot was nearly full so it took me a while to park. The minute I stepped inside, a New Hope member welcomed me and directed me to The Gathering Area, where voters were lined up. About 75 people were in front of me. As I looked around, I saw the church’s mission statement in bold letters high on the wall near the ceiling. It read: “Building loving relationships with God and others through the hope that is in Jesus Christ.”
Near the front of the room, a video was running on a big TV. It told about the church’s upcoming events and invited everyone to attend. Several credenzas lined up on one wall were filled with platters of refreshments, a large coffee pot, and pitchers of water. People obviously were enjoying them. I heard a man ask, “Are we suppose to pay for these?” A New Hope member standing nearby told him the church had given the treats. “We want you to be wide awake when you vote,” he quipped. After I finished voting, a member from New Hope greeted me and said. “Come back anytime. God bless you.”
Impressed by the hospitality at New Hope, I went back the next day to express my appreciation. Greg Wells, a volunteer in the office who helps with administration, told me more than 1000 people voted. They drank 19 gallons of coffee and ate 28 dozen donuts, granola bars, cupcakes, and cookies. Many people came, he said, who had never been in New Hope before.
Gary told me voting is one of many community activities New Hope hosts, and he explained why the church considers participation in these events to be a part of its mission. He referred to the mission statement I had seen in the Gathering Area. “Everything that brings people in gives us a chance to let them see we respect and value them and maybe to build a relationship with them that might help them feel God’s love,” he said.
Greg described what he and his wife, Rosanne, experienced when they came to New Hope for the first time. “The church where we were members had been declining for years and finally closed, so we started looking for a new church home,” he explained. “The minute we stepped inside New Hope, people welcomed us warmly. Children were running around and young couples were everywhere. The worship service was alive. Music was great. The pastor preached with conviction. He was down-to-earth and he lifted us up. So Rosanne and I knew that first Sunday that we had found our church home.”
When visiting with New Hope’s pastor – the Rev. Dr. J. D. Ward – I told him I was impressed by how the church had gone all out to welcome voters. He gave all the credit to others. “Gary Graham and Greg Wells and their team started setting up the Gathering Area the day before the election and they were back the next morning at 5:30 to finish up,” he reported. “All I did was pick up the donuts.”
Dr. Ward is deeply committed to “Building loving relationships with God and others through the hope that is in Jesus Christ,” the church’s mission statement. “To me, being in mission is a lot of what it means to be the Church,” he said. “We reach out to people on more than one level and try to build relationships with them. We share our concern, and through sharing our concern we share God’s love.”
He read me a thank-you card he had received a few days before from a couple who had had received help several times from New Hope’s food pantry, which serves about 200 people a month. On the card, the couple expressed gratitude for the food and kindness they received. “You helped us survive a ‘rough patch’ we had been going through,” they wrote.
Ward says New Hope’s pantry workers “treat people who come for help like the true human beings they are, with respect and care and concern. We share the love of Christ with them and try to help meet their spiritual and emotional needs along with the food that meets their physical needs.”
Building loving relationships with God and others through the hope that is in Jesus Christ is also at the heart of what Ward seeks to accomplish through his sermons. “The name of our church is New Hope and I think we spread the hope of Christ through preaching the word and that allows people to be inspired and to be hopeful and more positive with other people,” said Ward, who earned his doctorate in church history.
“My thought is that preaching needs to be positive, affirming, and uplifting,” he said. “People are beaten down enough by life. When they come to church, they need a message that deepens their trust in God – that helps them feel loved and cared for and filled with hope. That’s what the gospel does for us.”
When Ward came to New Hope seven years ago, Sunday morning worship attendance was 167. Now it’s 298. New Hope’s mission statement started taking shape during the 1990s, when the congregation was meeting in a strip mall and dreaming about who God was calling them to be and to do, says the Rev. Cali Depue Eck, associate pastor and director of discipleship.
Even during those days New Hope’s people felt God calling them to reach out and build relationships that would help people experience God’s life-changing love. In 1998, the congregation moved about a mile north to their new home on 12 acres in a growing neighborhood, and they took their mission statement with them.
Focusing on the mission statement shapes New Hope’s ministries. “We try to help every member be familiar with the church’s mission statement and understand what it means,” Rev. Eck says. “That’s why we have it in our Gathering Area and in other parts of our building and on our church letterhead, newsletter, website, and everywhere else we can think of.”
She said keeping the mission statement before everyone serves two purposes. “It tells visitors who we are and why we are here. It also reminds all of us who we are and why we are here – that’s just as important!”
Eck says leaders use the mission statement to evaluate existing ministries and proposed ministries. “We expect ourselves to be Christ to the world – that’s who we believe God is calling us to be. And nothing we do matters if it doesn’t contribute toward what Jesus calls us to do.”
Members are encouraged to suggest ministries that can help New Hope fulfill its mission. The idea for a ministry to low-income people in downtown Oklahoma City came from the young adult college age class.
“Years ago, New Hope started making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and taking them to people in a poverty-stricken area downtown,” Eck said. “The ministry grew quickly. Now our congregation donates sleeping bags, blankets, toiletries, coats, socks, and other items. The people know we are coming every second Saturday, so they are there waiting for our bus to arrive.”
New Hope not only ministers to people nearby, it ministers to people far away. Several years ago, after an earthquake in Nicaragua, New Hope’s mission team helped build a Methodist Church in a village near a dump, where thousands of people gathered after their homes were destroyed. “The church we helped build serves food twice a day to children, and we provide money to sustain their ministry,” Eck says.
Striving to minister to physical needs of people in crisis, New Hope also ministers to a variety of educational, mental health, and spiritual needs:
• At the invitation of a neighborhood elementary school, several New Hope members tutor students under the guidance of teachers.
• The church partners with a mental health agency and a drug court to help people with addiction issues rebuild their lives. In addition to providing a place for meetings, the church serves a meal. Several New Hope people attend meetings, Rev. Eck says. “We celebrate their victories and share their grief.”
Luisa Medina – who now directs children’s ministries – has been part of New Hope since she was a child. “I started coming here when I was 12 and even then New Hope was sharing God’s love with people through its ministries,” Luisa recalls. “My love for our church’s mission was fostered back then. As I grew older, being in mission became a vital part of me.”
Now in her 20s, Luisa says she is grateful for the opportunity to pass on what she received as a child to children with whom she ministers. “My hope is that when my kids leave children’s ministry and go to youth, they will have a solid biblical foundation,” she says. “Our goal is for them to know the stories of our faith and to be aware of who we are as United Methodists. With that foundation, when they get to youth ministry they can start digging a little deeper and growing as disciples.”
Luisa says she frequently sees encouraging signs of growth in her children. “Recently, one of our boys received quite a bit of money for his birthday. He wanted to spend most of it helping the homeless – a concern he had developed at church.” With his parents’ permission, Luisa took the boy on a shopping trip. She says he bought household items as well as treats. “We took what he bought to Skyline, our United Methodist urban ministry that helps people who need it. Skyline staff gave us a tour of the center. When we got back to the church, the boy told other kids what he had learned.”
Kristy Goff, director of New Hope’s preschool ministries, says she and her staff are committed to being faithful to New Hope’s mission statement. “We want to be a welcoming and caring community and create an environment that nurtures faith in our children,” she says. “We try to help them know we love them and care for them and that they are precious in our eyes and in the eyes of God. Some of our children are not in a church setting except for when they are with us. We want to make our time a positive experience and help them build loving relationships with God and others.”
Election day is not the only day when the parking places are hard to find at New Hope United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City. Spaces are scarce most Sunday mornings when the 550-member congregation gathers for worship.
After visiting with Dr. Ward, his staff and several members, I know why New Hope is a busy place. It’s not because an entertaining show or sensational spectacle is packing folks in. Why people come is simple. It’s the same reason crowds came to hear Jesus – it’s why the Church is still alive after twenty centuries.
When people come to New Hope, they find what they were looking for, even if they didn’t know it. They experience God’s love giving them new hope and new life. And soon they are part of a community committed to “Building loving relationships with God and others through the hope that is in Jesus Christ.”
New Hope’s pastor, staff, and people know their mission. And their mission motivates their ministry.
Boyce A. Bowdon was a United Methodist pastor for 20 years and director of communication for the Oklahoma Annual Conference for 24 years.