Archive: Resurrection in Paradise Hills

by Diane Knippers, Associate Editor, Good News Magazine

“If I had known everything that lay ahead when I graduated from seminary in 1974 and was appointed here, I might have declined the appointment and looked for a way to remain in seminary another year!”

That’s the kind of honest, straight-from-the-shoulder comment one gets from Ron Brown, pastor of Paradise Hills United Methodist Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, concerning his first months there.

Paradise Hills—what an inappropriate name! The little church was established in 1963; Ron was the eighth pastor in 11 years. The original church plant consisted of a sanctuary-period. There were no church school rooms, no church office, not even a drinking fountain.

Average worship attendance had grown in 11 years from 25 to 70, but the lack of classrooms kept Sunday school attendance from rising above 30.

There was no evangelistic or visitation program. At one time the church had helped conduct evangelistic services at the Albuquerque Rescue Mission on the city’s “skid row.” But even that effort had ended when the couple who had been in charge of the church’s evangelism work area moved away.

As you might expect, the financial picture was just as dismal as the rest of the church outlook. In the early years, the annual conference had to help in making mortgage payments on the sanctuary. None of the seven previous pastors had ever received a salary increase, other than when the conference raised its minimum salary requirements. Apportionments had never been paid in full. A building fund had been started for an education unit, but in 1974 this fund was used to pay some of the mandatory apportionments. This angered some people so much that they quit attending! The only bright spot on the church ledger was that the mortgage had been paid off in March 1974.

On Ron Brown’s first Sunday in the Paradise Hills pulpit, he faced 74 people—mostly elderly, with a few teenagers. Ron admits, “To come out of seminary into probationary membership in the conference to the defeated people here was frightening.”

What did it take to turn this church—rumored to be near closing in the early 70s if its decline continued- into the second fastest growing congregation in the conference in ’75-’76? Nothing short of a resurrection. God blessed this church with a dedicated, God-directed pastor and through him gave the congregation a vision of its mission. Christian nurture, fellowship, and outreach supplanted mere survival as the goal of the church.

The first thing new Pastor Brown did was to throw himself into the task of getting to know his people. He talked with them about his beliefs—and he solicited feedback “to determine where they were hurting.” After a summer of visiting, visiting, and more visiting, sufficient foundation had been laid to get things moving in the church program. When public school started, the church had a “Kick-Off-Week,” beginning with the first work day they ever had to get building and grounds spruced up for winter. A special mid-week prayer service was held to pray for the church. Invitations to attend Sunday school went out to all the members and friends of the church.

Worship and Sunday school attendance began to rise. The need for education space became acute, so the church applied to the UM Board of Global Ministries for a loan to build. When the bad news came that their application had been turned down because of the church’s too-weak financial position, someone suggested a day of prayer. On the designated Saturday, people came to the sanctuary from before dawn until after midnight—seeking God’s leadership and asking for His provision for the new building.

That day and that experience was a real turning point. God’s blessing soon became apparent. The building fund grew over a nine-month period from $1,600 to $19,450. Also in 1975 they paid all their apportionments for the first time. In August church officials met again with a representative from the Board of Global Ministries, who this time approved a $50,000 loan. In November they broke ground and held opening ceremonies the following June the new building was filled to overflowing by that September.

The new building and the financial improvement of the church were great advances. But these were merely outward indications of a deeper spiritual renewal going on inside Paradise Hills.

For example, in March of 1975 (about the time the congregation was wondering how it would ever get the additional education space it needed) Billy Graham held a crusade in Albuquerque. Although this brought no new members into the Paradise Hills Church, several church members made full commitments of themselves to the Lord.

One such couple, Dick and Rita Linderg, had been nominal United Methodists for years, until the Billy Graham Crusade. Their worship attendance had been spasmodic and they did not participate in Sunday school. A real commitment to Jesus Christ led both to teach Sunday school. Dick now also sings in the choir, and they don’t miss church more than two or three Sundays a year. Both Dick and Rita have become avid Bible students. Dick is a milk wholesaler, which means he must begin his day about 4:30 in the morning. But about 7:00 he stops and has a time of prayer and Bible study right in his truck.

The Paradise Hills’ Sunday evening service, the only such service held in a United Methodist church in Albuquerque, grew out of the Graham Crusade. On the last Sunday of the meetings, about 15 people met together to pray and thank God for those who had accepted Christ during the week. This informal gathering evolved into regular weekly services.

Paradise Hills also led the way as the first United Methodist Church in New Mexico to use the Evangelism Explosion[1] method of lay witnessing and visitation. Concerning his first Evangelism Explosion clinic, Ron recalls, “There I caught a vision of what an evangelical, Spirit-filled, missions and outreach-concerned United Methodist Church can be.” He goes on to say, “Each Sunday it is a recurring thrill to watch the people who have been led to Christ through our evangelism program come into the sanctuary. The encouraging thing to me is that they are now studying the Bible themselves, teaching, singing in the choir, and helping wherever they can.”

One such person is Eunice Frost, who was reared in a UM church in Michigan and came to New Mexico for her husband’s health. She made a commitment to Christ in her living room as a result of the Evangelism Explosion program. Now she and her high school daughter Cindy work in the Sunday school.

The congregation’s turn-around is evident, also, when one compares the 1974 and 1978 statistics. Worship attendance has jumped from 79 to 186 each Sunday. Sunday school attendance has grown from 38 to 113. The 1974 income of $17,250 looks small next to the 1978 income of 64,391. A little church that couldn’t afford to pay its apportionments has learned the joy of second-mile giving. Last year they undertook three extra mission projects. Two Advance Specials, one a heifer project in Bolivia, and the other a building project for the 4-Corners Ministry on the Navajo Indian Reservation which straddles the New Mexico-Utah-Colorado-Arizona borders. They also help support Wycliffe Bible translators on a brand-new mission project in Juba, Sudan, Africa. To be able to continue such “second mile” mission support, Paradise Hills has taken a new step of faith in 1979. They are planning to tithe (give ten percent) of all church income to mission projects (above apportionments).

Mission is also a local concept for Paradise Hills. The United Methodist Men coordinate a “ministry of helps” for elderly people. They survey skills needed for electrical work, plumbing, general repair, etc., and offer the specific help of their men who are able to meet these needs.

Church members also operate a Happy Days Christian Day Care Center at the church. About 35 children, many from non-church families, receive responsible care and Christian nurture each day.

One of the biggest challenges of the Paradise Hills church is its multi-racial character. Black, white, Indian, and Hispanic—they serve together and work together. At the close of both morning worship services, the congregation sings as a benediction:

We are one in the bond of love.
We have joined our spirits with the Spirit of God.
We are one in the bond of love.

Karen Jurgens, a former missionary who team-teaches one of the Sunday school classes, is the mother of four adopted Indian children-all four from different tribes. She moved from Iowa to New Mexico because of the large Spanish and Indian population and culture in New Mexico. “Iowa is 99.9 percent white,” she declares, “and I wanted my kids exposed to more than just white middle-class culture.” The exposure she seeks for her children is a part of their church life at Paradise Hills UM Church.

The pastor notes, “We have worked to create an open, accepting, Christ-centered atmosphere in which people of all economic strata and races will feel welcome. We feel this is the pluralism which the UM Church should strive for, not some kind of theological or doctrinal pluralism which blandly states that ‘doctrine doesn’t matter’ or ‘theology isn’t important’ or ‘beliefs are not relevant.'”

Of course Paradise Hills still isn’t a perfect church. (Is there one anywhere?) Located in a transient area, it loses two members for every three it takes in. Many folks move to New Mexico and Albuquerque to “get away from it all.” They want to avoid any social contact including church.

Every new member, even transfers from other UM churches, must participate in an orientation program. While some don’t like it and decide not to join, most react favorably. Many appreciate the review of the basics of the faith and learning about mission projects and UM activities in New Mexico.

Many new residents immediately respond to the church. Jim Mogford, an Evangelism Explosion trainer who works as a physicist with Sandia Corporation, and his wife, Ann, share their impressions:

When we moved back to Albuquerque after living in California we had given up on Methodism. We visited a lot of other churches, and one Sunday we decided to visit the Paradise Hills Church just because it was close to our home and we didn’t feel like driving across town that day. We came to only one service when we knew we had found our church!

Paradise Hills is still undergoing a transition from a cold, liberal, and dying congregation to a warm, Spirit-filled, evangelical one. “Naturally we are having to deal with the repercussion and backlash which inevitably follow the moving of God’s Spirit,” Ron reports. “We have moved slowly and have explained what we hope to accomplish as we have brought about the changes. Nearly all of our people have been understanding and supportive.”

One such enthusiastic member is John Price, the lay delegate to annual conference, who explains:

There’s a new wind blowing through our church. I travel quite a bit and see how other churches are dying on the vine. For a long time my wife, Barbara, and I struggled with this thing of leaving the United Methodist Church and going elsewhere because we were literally starving to death. We wanted to go somewhere we could be fed spiritually, but the Lord told us to stay with the Paradise Hills Church just a little longer, and I’m thankful now that we did.

Not content to keep its exciting spiritual growth to itself, the church has reached out in its conference by beginning an evangelical renewal group affiliated with Good News. Although Good News is still in its “infant stage” in New Mexico, Ron confidently declares, “I’m convinced the future is with the evangelicals in the UM Church. I believe God is moving and setting the stage for a spiritual awakening In the UM Church. I look for it to spread like wildfire. Increasing numbers of people are aware of a growing spiritual hunger within themselves, and that need is not being met by the old, bankrupt, empty liberalism. I hope Paradise Hills is on the cutting edge of the evangelical resurgence.”

The folks there know that God has done a mighty work in their church. But they aren’t about to relax their efforts. As they look to the future they confidently affirm their mission: “We look to the non-Christian, unchurched multitudes around us, and we realize we have a lot of work to do.”

[1] Evangelism Explosion is an effective church-based evangelism program developed by Dr. James Kennedy.


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