“What if your church suddenly disappeared overnight? Would anybody notice?” This somewhat scary statement came from church growth consultant Tom Bandy at a workshop I attended many moons ago, and it has stayed with me since. Churches can no longer count on the tradition of church-going to keep us viable – we have to become indispensable partners with community groups in our towns and cities.
Our church, 71 members strong, is experiencing declining attendance and fewer young families coming through our doors. This is not new news these days. What has kept us going is an intentional plan to become better known in our community and for showing up when a faith response is called for but has not ordinarily been made.
We have done all the things that churches traditionally do: serve monthly meals, hold concerts and host a yearly Pumpkin Patch. In fact most people in Saugus know us only by our nickname, “the Pumpkin Church.” All of these are fun activities but they were not serving to increase the number of persons in the pews. We began to change our thinking about how we could link these events with community service. We began with the Pumpkin Patch. We decided that we would take some of the profits and sponsor a Saugus High School scholarship. Now our church’s name is read on scholarship presentation night and we publish a photo of me in the paper shaking the recipient’s hand. Now parents know that we are investing in our community.
Another way we broadened our horizons is by giving a monetary Christmas gift to disadvantaged students at a local elementary school. The first time I walked in with the checks to present to the school nurse, I was stunned at the big hug she gave me. I then met the principal who couldn’t believe we were giving without being asked. Now they look forward to seeing us every December.
We have also intentionally increased our presence within the Saugus Faith Community. In 2012 this strongly collaborative group of a dozen pastors and faith leaders, was struggling with how to respond to the high number of heroin overdoses in our town. We were doing funerals of young people; used needles were strewn along town streets; break-ins were increasing to feed drug habits; and children were being left without parents due to incarceration or death by overdose. Together we prayed for an answer. After one meeting, I returned to the church to find a young woman there from a grassroots group that was trying to do the same thing the Faith Community was doing – except she had a plan. Her group, the Saugus Anti-Drug Coalition, wanted to begin Narcan training in town, and she wanted to put up a flyer in our church. That began my introduction to the facts of the heroin problem in town, and one that resulted in my seat on the Saugus Town Board that is overseeing a large multi-community grant through which we hope to educate parents and children of all ages to the dangers of drug addiction and hopefully treatment options. (See separate Spotlight article on Narcan Awareness Ministry.)
We are still known as “the Pumpkin Church” but now people know us as a lot more than that. We are the place where Narcotics Anonymous meets; where people can get trained to use Narcan; where our next fundraiser will include not only food and fun, but also the commitment to share half our profits with the Saugus Anti-Drug Coalition.
Will all these efforts succeed in increasing attendance at worship? That would certainly be nice, but for us, we feel that we are doing God’s healing work in our own way, according to the needs of our town, and if God sends us more disciples, we will welcome them with open, inclusive arms. Then if someday we do disappear, we hope people will say, “Remember that church that helped change lives?”
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