May 01, 2016

When United Methodists gather in Springfield for Annual Conference session, a stroll around the block will put them in front of a United Methodist Church at the corner of Walnut and Jefferson. If they stop by at the right time, they’ll discover the old church is finding new life in the community.

In January of 2014, Saint Paul UMC in Springfield became a second campus of Wesley UMC. Three pastors at Wesley were heavily involved in Saint Paul, campus pastor Rev. Ron McIntyre, Wesley Senior pastor Rev. Bruce Baxter, and Rev. Matt Kerner, pastor of the Green Door college-age ministry that was based there. Five months later at Annual Conference, McIntyre retired, Baxter moved to La Croix at Cape Girardeau, and Kerner moved to Ava UMC.     

About 30 people were attending the campus that was then known as Wesley Downtown. Rev. Scott Bailey-Kirk was appointed to be the new senior pastor at Wesley. “Someone advised me to close it and sell the property,” Bailey-Kirk said. 

The building is expansive, certainly not a match for the 30 people who were worshipping there at the time.

As you walk through its 30,000 square feet, you see a wealth of furnishings from days gone by: an antique table here, a lectern there, a hardwood desk across the room – much of it over 100 years old, some older than 150 years. Pianos aren’t hard to come by – the church has nine. 

Bailey-Kirk had faith that the historic Methodist church could still be a place where disciples were made. And he had an idea about the right person to help make such a thing happen. 

“From day one, we were thinking we needed to take a clean slate approach and try something different,” Bailey-Kirk said. “My gift is to bring strong leaders on board, and the step back and let them lead.”

Enter Lori Lampert. She is an ordained deacon who had lived in Springfield for more than 30 years. She was on staff at Schweitzer UMC for 10 years, involved in a ministry at Haiti, and has worked as a clergy coach for the Healthy Church Initiative and the Small Church Initiative. The invitation from Bailey- Kirk made her reconsider her call. 

“I discerned that maybe I should be doing what I had been coaching,” she said. Lampert took the position in August of 2014. She assembled a team, and started from scratch. 

“The first question we considered was, “Does God even want there to be a church here, now?” Lampert said. “There are a lot of great churches in downtown Springfield. What would we add?”

Then answer was yes – there was not only room, but also a need, for a new church. A visioning team was assembled, and it wasn’t limited to people from Wesley UMC. It also included downtown business people, de-churched people who had lost interest in church, spiritual people who had never been connected to church, remnant people who had been part of Saint Paul for many decades, and people from Wesley.  

By January of 2015 they had a vision statement: A Church That Meets in the Middle of Rich and Poor, Young and Old, Believers and Non-Believers. A Place Where Christ and the Community Intersect. “It speaks to all ages, all people,” Lampert said. 

A Different Approach

Although it was a fresh start approach, the church didn’t close. “We made it clear to everyone here that we wanted to move forward with them,” Lampert said.

The model is similar to the mother-daughter church plant, but unlike some plants of that nature, Wesley did not try to send 100 people to fill the pews until the church became established. They didn’t send anyone. 

“The people at Wesley like it there,” Bailey-Kirk said. “They would have felt like strangers in a strange land if we tried to make them come here instead.” 

“And it just wasn’t necessary,” Lampert said. 

Lampert preaches every Sunday at Wesley Downtown. With four services at Wesley, Bailey-Kirk doesn’t have an opportunity to get there. The two campuses worship independently, and don’t attempt to coordinate themes or sermon series. 

It is one church, though. Someone joining The Downtown Church is actually becoming a member of Wesley. Wesley handles all of the financials for the campus.

The 30 people who were worshiping there when she started were having their worship service in the basement. She moved it up to the sanctuary, but roped off most of the pews too keep people together so they didn’t get spread out and feel empty in the big space. As the congregation grew, pews were opened further back, and then on the other side. 

A college ministry still meets at the church, but it is now entirely student led. At first they looked to the pastors for leadership, but they were encouraged to do it on their own. 

“We empowered them to do what they are gifted to do,” Bailey-Kirk said. “Now the student leaders are recruiting new leaders to replace themselves when they graduate and move on.”

Connecting to the community

Lampert isn’t just spending time downtown and hoping connections form. She’s intentionally engaging the community; calling business owners, introducing herself and asking for a time to meet with them for coffee. She’s been well received.

“Being a place in the community that represents love and hope is welcome,” Lampert said. 

A downtown person was hired to design the logo, church t-shirts were purchased downtown, and when a meal is brought in, it comes from a downtown restaurant.

“We try to be a good neighbor,” Lampert said. 

The church took down the chains and signs that limited parking, and told the Little Theater that they are welcome to use their lot when they need it. They offer meeting space to non-profits that need a place to get together downtown. In May of 2015, Wesley Downtown became part of the First Friday Art Walks celebration in Springfield. 

“First Fridays used to stop at Jefferson. We’ve expanded the festival by another block,” Lampert said. During a recent First Friday, and historic home on the church property, which used to be the parsonage, was home to the Dickerson Park Zoo. At Christmas, the steps of the church were the location for caroling, and they lit up their big Burr Oak tree on the lawn with 20,000 lights. 

“It brightened the community in a fun way,” Lampert said. “I was able to say, ‘We’re the place with the tree,’ and they knew where I was talking about.” They’ll also be lighting again for upcoming First Friday celebrations. 

Steady Growth

The worshipping community has consistently grown. Lampert said they intentionally didn’t design ministries until they saw who God was blessing the church with. As it happens, it is people who love downtown, which includes families with young children. The church now has a children’s ministry that is parent-led and driven.

Lampert said she often looks out at the congregation and wonders where all the people came from. 

“I have a front-row seat to the Holy Spirit,” she said. “People here feel comfortable and are happy to bring their friends with them. When someone brings friends, I call the person afterword to see how their friends responded...what they liked and didn’t like.” 

That first Easter in 2015, The Downtown Church had 120 in worship. This Easter they had 277. Recently the church has been averaging 144 in worship. 

Brian Mattson is the downtown worship and development coordinator. In addition to leading worship, he takes care of social media and all things tech for the church, and also makes one on one connections through activities like downtown mixers. He believes a lot of people outside the church stigmatize churches about existing based on what they are against. He’s happy to see The Downtown Church breaking past that image. 

“We’re about love, hope and joy, and people are grabbing onto that,” he said. “We’re for coming alongside of someone, and going through life together.” 

Ozarks District Superintendent Lynn Dyke is impressed with the turnaround. 

“The Downtown Church has been such a joy to watch,” she said. “I am particularly touched by the fact that children once again began showing up at that church. God is doing amazing things through their pastors and leaders.” 

The next stage of growth calls for reaching out to the immediate community. Lampert is excited about the future, and about what has already occurred for the people who now call The Downtown Church their church home. “At the end of the day, what we’ve done is introduce people to Jesus,” Lampert said.