Out of the Box Church Renewal

The Albatross

 Countless midsized churches experienced a rapid increase in numbers in the late ’90s. In their excitement, they built big buildings taking on large mortgages, believing their growth and financial prosperity would continue. While charitable giving has increased over the last twenty years, religious giving to churches has decreased by fifty percent, leaving many churches struggling to maintain those buildings.[1] Growing the church has been circumvented by fears about the budget. In many cases, church mortgages have become an albatross strangling the church’s missional efforts and hearts. Church leaders are consumed by filling the seats with people who can help pay the bills rather than building the Kingdom of God. This struggle has left the church impotent to fulfill the call of the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of nations” (Matthew 28:19 NIV).

Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Conyers, Georgia is stuck in this paradigm. In 1998 their church worship attendance soared to nearly seven hundred a week with over thirteen hundred members on roll. They built a new sanctuary, education building, and gymnasium. They assumed a mortgage of $1.2 million anticipating it would be paid off in less than ten years. They made appropriate and seemingly fiscally sound decisions based on what they thought were conservative projections of attendance, giving, and growth — however, no one anticipated the coming financial crisis. In 2008 the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment banking company changed the financial landscape of America sending the economy into a downward spiral and changing the demographics around Ebenezer.

Amidst these economic challenges, the most recent findings by the National Congregations Study suggests that the average churchgoer prefers to attend larger churches with an average of four hundred in worship. The study notes that the largest seven percent of churches contain almost half of all church attendees. Megachurch worshippers report they appreciate the multitude of ministry choices, diverse avenues for involvement and the high quality of programming. Mid-size to smaller churches like Ebenezer, hampered in their ability to offer robust programs because of financial strains, are struggling and losing members to big churches. Church competition and division of the Church at large has become a reality and damages the church witness.

Unity and Diversity in the Church

In Ephesians 4:1-13, Paul clarifies that the church is a fellowship of others sharing life together under the tutelage of God. It is God’s people growing through love and grace built on the foundation of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:17). Jesus on the cross broke down the barriers between people and called us into the relationship of unity that matures our faith and walk as Christians (Ephesians 4:10). From Him, the whole body, the church, will grow individually as parts and when fused together becomes the embodied fulfillment of Christ (Ephesians 4:16). This unity is a divine gift from the Holy Spirit that must be cultivated by harmonious relationships and the “bond of peace” in oneness (Ephesians 4:1-16). It is a calling to a way of living that defies worldly existence and is defined by gentleness, humility, and forgiveness and manifested as sacrificial love for others. Paul was challenging the individual and the church to display unity as a powerful witness to the world that will bring peace to all believers.

Paul never suggested that unity would be achieved through uniformity in structure, synchronization of worship practices or moderating interpretation of disputed theological beliefs, but by acceptance of one another. It is an acceptance that is tangible and visible to the world through affirmation and cooperation that will enhance and enrich the church’s witness.

Unity in a Mosaic

The goal of the Mosaic church campus is to create a distinctive approach to church development that harnesses the gifts and resources of mid-size churches to better reflect and advance the Kingdom of God. The Mosaic model crosses multi-denominational lines while retaining denominational authority, structure, and individual identity. It seeks to build disciples rather than buildings. It is not a merging of beliefs, church structure, leadership, or congregational decision making. It is a different way of being the church without giving up individual church history or existence. Church competition is diminished and scriptural unity and harmony is fostered. Creativity and flexibility in ministry become affordable as churches are relieved of some of the financial burdens of doing church to focus on growing disciples.

Under this plan, three or more established Protestant church bodies will merge campuses and exist together on one site and/or building. This could include two churches from the same denomination with very different “target” audiences such as a contemporary, traditional, or ethnic focus. Each church will maintain its name, structure, and worship service. It will take churches who are willing to take a risk and to let some things die in order to live again. There is the potential for some recognizable losses in the process, such as the loss of a building, location, or, perhaps some members of the congregation; however, the gain in the spiritual realm on earth will ultimately outweigh any losses.

Each church will share in the ownership of the building and land, be responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the building, and the establishment of a building reserve fund. The expense of janitorial and lawn services will be divided among the churches. The shared ministry will be uniquely designed around the gifts and graces of the involved church. Anticipated areas of collaboration might consist of children and youth, some educational programming, and some musical/worship arts events such as cantatas. There will also be services of joint worship.

The strength of this linking of arms will shore up each church as they work separately and independently in rhythm with each other. Efforts to reach the world with the Good News of Jesus Christ will be intensified.

The Mosaic Church in Action: A Case Study

The Mosaic Church Campus is a relatively new concept. After a great deal of research, I have only been able to identify one credible example, Springhouse Ministry in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Salem English Lutheran Church (Salem), First Christian Church and Lyndale Congregational United Church of Christ (Lyndale) were struggling to maintain their buildings and finance ministries. They each decided to give up their buildings and work cooperatively together for the betterment of the Kingdom.

In 2011 the three congregations entered into a covenant partnership renovating one of the church buildings into a place for three churches. The churches did not merge.  Each church maintains its own unique identity and denominational relationship.

A Ministry Center Board was created to organize the churches around central issues. The Board is comprised of three lay members and one pastor from each of the churches. At least two of the appointees must be representatives from their church’s leadership team. Pastors do not have voting rights unless the required number of Board members from their respective church is absent. A quorum is a minimum of six Board members of at least two members from each church. Each church designates a Co-Chair from among their Board Members.  The Co-Chairs have equal authority and must coordinate and stagger their responsibilities and functions.

No action can be approved if all three representatives from one church object. In such a case the motion is tabled. The Ministry Center Board powers are limited to the management, operation, utilization, maintenance, and improvements of the Center and operation of shared ministries.  These ministries include Christian Education, Youth Ministry, the shared work for justice, and other activities that might “enrich our life together.” All actions and deliberations of the Board are subject to the respective governing church bodies.

The Board prepares the Ministry Center budget.  It is then sent to each of the Governing Bodies of the churches.  The individual church Governing Body reviews the budget and returns it for revisions or recommends it for approval by its congregation.  The budget is comprised of the operating costs, maintenance, repairs, and improvements for the Ministry Center including a capital reserves fund. The capital funds budget covers the cost of such things as the replacement of the boiler or other mechanical systems. The budget is then presented for approval at an annual joint meeting of the congregations.

None of the three churches can sell, assign, or use the property for a loan or mortgage.  Nor can they transfer its interest to anyone without the approval of the other churches. If one of the churches chooses to withdraw from the partnership or is unable to meet its financial obligations the other churches have the opportunity to buy the withdrawing church’s interest in the Ministry Center.  If neither of the remaining churches wants to acquire the interest, then the churches will work together to find an acceptable replacement church.

Cooperation between the churches goes further than just the building. There are three separate sanctuaries located in the building. No one owns a sanctuary. The churches rotate the use of the sanctuaries according to the liturgical calendar. Each of the sanctuaries is a different configuration, size, and has a different “feeling.”  It takes three years for the individual church to rotate into the same sanctuary for the same Christian season. “That is so that no one can say we always did it this way,” laughs Ms. Murphy, “because we haven’t always been in here in this sanctuary.”  There are chairs in each of the sanctuaries to allow each church to move things around to fit their style and needs.

Careful attention was paid to utilize unique features from each of the churches in the current building. Small stain glass windows from First were framed and have hooks on them in order to be hung in the windows in the various rooms.  The backs of pews were utilized as lighting fixtures. Pianos and a pipe organ from the various churches were moved into the new facility. Lyndale chose to retain the pulpit from their original church. It is on wheels and moves with them from one sanctuary to the next.

Baptism fonts from two of the churches were also placed on wheels. First baptizes by immersion and so a baptism pool was added to the building. However, all three churches have decided that baptisms are a significant celebratory event in the life of the universal church, no matter the method. When there is a baptism scheduled for any of the churches, it is done together in the fellowship hall at the start of the worship time according to the chosen method of the baptizing church. Members from all three churches attend and participate in the celebration. After the baptism, the members return to their identified sanctuary for the rest of their service. This embodies the idea of “one church, one baptism” and strengthens the understanding of biblical unity for the congregations and visitors.

The churches have also combined many of their educational programs. The children and youth programs are united while still allowing the individual churches to do a separate event with their children or youth. During confirmation, all three theologies and polity are taught as a way to educate and inform their youth. There is one Adult Formation Study class that is designed for anyone to attend, although, anyone can attend any of the other churches’ bible study classes. The differences of each denomination’s doctrine are celebrated, affirmed, and built upon. An air of openness and inclusivity is fostered, nurtured, and developed with intentionality.

The churches worship together four times a year.  In January they worship together followed by a lunch and their annual joint meeting. The children and youth lead the service in May. The first Sunday in September is a joint Back to School/Church event, and their Christmas Pageant is the third Sunday of Advent. This expression of harmony is carried out into the community as the churches also join together for “Worship in the Park” in August and a Fall Festival event in October.

The community has taken notice. Especially, in the beginning, many community members would stop by the church wanting to tour the facility and to ask questions. They were trying to understand how it was possible to have more than one church in the same building. This unrestricted access has created an atmosphere of godly acceptance and grace to the point many civic groups, neighborhood associations, and Muslim and Jewish groups feel welcomed in the facility. SpringHouse is an example of the church becoming a catalyst to healing, hope, and grace for all people.

Transitioning from independent churches into three churches in one building has been like “adjustments to life with roommates.” There were some fears about the loss of identity, the lack of parking but those fears never materialized, according to Building Coordinator Deb Murphy.  The biggest hurdle in the process was the color of the chairs.[2]


 Creating a Mosaic Church Campus

Ebenezer’s campus consists of five buildings situated south of town on nine acres.  The chapel can hold approximately 125 in worship and has four small classrooms.  The Student Warehouse has a kitchen, a central meeting room complete with an audio-visual system, restrooms, and six classrooms.   The Educational building is two stories.  The Lower Level contains the church preschool, nursery, and three classrooms. The upper level has ten rooms and restrooms.  The sanctuary in the Worship Center can hold around between 800 and 900 including a loft area.  There are four classrooms and seven offices also located in the Worship Center.  This unique campus provides the backdrop for this project.

As a United Methodist Church, Ebenezer began discernment with a Paragraph 213 Assessment.  In a Paragraph 213, a task force is appointed to do an extensive study of the past, present, and future potential of the church for ministry in their area.  The study includes a demographic report of the community, changes, and needs; present ministries of the congregation; number of leaders and style of leadership; volunteer resources; fiscal and facility needs; distance from other United Methodist churches; number and size of churches of other denominations in the community; and, other items that may impact the church’s ability to fulfill the mission of the Church. The report was presented to the church in the spring of 2018.

Additionally, I spent a great deal of time building relationships and trust. Though, two of my sermon series, Healing for the Soul and What Am I to Do, I sought to encourage the congregation to rethink their calling, to encourage relational evangelism, and to help them consider their next steps as individuals and a congregation.

Increasing the Evangelistic Spirit

I began an active effort to increase their evangelistic spirit and to get them to think outside the walls of the church through several steps of engagement. In August everyone in the congregation was given ten pennies and told to put the pennies in the left pocket and move one to the right pocket every time they smiled and said hello to someone they didn’t know. September they were to choose five of the people they met over the last month, to share with them a series of Encouragement Cards[3], and to begin to build a relationship with them by getting to know them. They were to then invite to them to a community event, “We Serve,” in October.  The purpose of the “We Serve” event was to pack food kits for the children in need in our county.  The event was held outside in the parking lot and was a festival event with several activities and a food truck. Over 325 individuals from the community and five different churches participated.  Members of the congregation brought at least fifteen new people.

Pursuing a Mosaic Campus

Ebenezer is still in the process of pursuing the mosaic campus. There is a great deal of work to be done. It will require a refinancing of the budget, a change in facility management, and a shift in the congregation’s mindset about the church building. The church will need to develop a core statement of values in regard to the type of partner they are willing to accept. The statement will need to include an expected shared theology, staffing, building use, and preservation and recognition of each church’s heritage.  An openness to move forward on refinancing the mortgage will be an indicator of the church’s readiness to proceed with the Mosaic Church Campus.

Using this set of Core Values, I will encourage the church to begin the search for partners by visiting International Theological Seminary Dean Dr. John Green in Atlanta, Dr. Larry Cheek with the Stone Mountain Baptist Association, Dr. Phil Schroder of the North Georgia United Methodist Church –Church Development Committee, the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and several local pastoral groups. It will be necessary to identify the partners before the process can proceed.  Once partners have been identified there will be many details to work out including possible building renovations, staffing, preservation and recognition of each church’s heritage, program sharing, and scheduling.

A New Church 

I believe creating a Mosaic Church Campus could be a radical move toward a visible and tangible statement to the community that as Christians we are united in our diversity. The Kingdom of God and our mission, to make disciples for Christ, would be furthered.

[1] “Church Giving Statistics, 2018 Edition,” Pushpay, July 18, 2018, www.pushpay/blog/church-giving-statistics/.

[2] Ms. Debbie Murphy, Building Coordinator. Springhouse Ministry Center. Minneapolis, Minnesota. Video, October 10, 2018.  Ms. Murphy was part of the original team that coordinated and designed the Springhouse Ministry Center.  She remains an active and vital part of the ministry.

[3] These cards are the size of business cards.  There are ten cards with various uplifting secular sayings.  On the back of the cards is a scripture.  Over 750 sets of cards were distributed. We are in the process of updating them for a second distribution.

[4] Loren B. Mead, The Once and Future Church, Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier Indianapolis, Indiana: Alban Institute Publication, 1991, 87.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *