August 01, 2015
The Missouri Conference Center recently closed the doors on a Thursday so all of the Conference staff could spend some time visiting local churches.
The one-day field trip headed to St. Louis, where it started with Wellspring UMC in Ferguson.
Conference Director of Business and Administrative Services Nate Berneking said the reason he wanted to stop in Ferguson was two-fold.
“I wanted you all to see one of our new church starts, but also get a personal look at Ferguson itself and see that it really is a nice neighborhood that bears little resemblance to the images you saw on TV during the rioting,” Berneking said.
Rev. Willis Johnson told the staff about Wellspring, and the role it’s played in the community following the civil unrest in Ferguson that started last August.
Johnson said only about seven percent of his congregation were United Methodist before coming there.
Michael Butler of Eureka UMC was on hand to explain some of the challenges the Wellspring congregation is facing with their structure. The leaking roof has recently been addressed and the leaks are stopped. The next big challenge is replacing the heating and air conditioning system, which is estimated to cost about $300,000.
“Wellspring is synonymous with hope in this community,” Johnson said. “We can transform the world, starting at this corner.”
The next stop was Asbury UMC, in the Greater Ville neighborhood in St. Louis. Pastor Ivan James explained how the neighborhood was home to the Homer G. Phillips Hospital, the only hospital for African Americans in St. Louis from 1937 – 1955, and one of the few hospitals in the country where African Americans could train to be doctors at that time.
James’s own roots to the community run deep. His father was an engineer at Homer G. Phillips Hospital, taking care of its heating and cooling systems. The hospital closed in 1979, and reopened as a senior living center in 2003, and James’s parents lived there. His mother still does, his father passed away last October at age 98.
“One night he went missing, and when they finally found him, he was sitting in the exact spot where his office had been 40 years earlier,” James said.
Asbury UMC had voted to close once in the past, but was encouraged to continue its ministry.
It now usually has about 30 people in worship. Last year the church celebrated its 100th year, and it put together a prayer book so people could pray for the church every day for 100 days prior to its celebration.
A signature ministry for the church is Warm Start. The sidewalk in front of Asbury is a pickup point for school buses that go all over the city.
The church provides a warm place for children to wait inside during the winter, and hot cocoa, and in summer months provides juice boxes. Granola bars and a “good morning” are given out yearround. They also provide hats and gloves to any children and youth who want them.
Lately the ministry has been averaging around 80 children per day; it has been as high at 115. Someone is there from about 5 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. The aim of the program serves the church’s purpose of helping children develop their mind, spirit and physical body.
The abandoned buildings don’t just look scary, there is a problem of violent crime in the neighborhood that is very real. In the previous week, five people had been killed within a mile of the church. Two were just a couple of blocks away. The church has lost members to street violence.
Berneking asked James how he would respond to the question of is the neighborhood safe. James said he feels it’s as safe as any other similar area.
“I think any community is only one police-stop away from being another Ferguson,” he said. Pat, a church member who served on the St. Louis police force for 30 years, said it is necessary to be attentive to your surroundings. “A lot of our young people don’t respect anything,” she said.
James said the community is in need of better housing, jobs and education. Asbury UMC is about making disciples of Jesus Christ for transformation of the world, and that transformation will include the transformation of their own community. “If churches aren’t about bringing people to Christ and saving souls, close them today,” James said.
“We’re committed here. If you’re doing something for the Lord and it makes you feel good, you should keep doing it.”
At The Gathering, Berneking shared how the church grew out of a Bible study group at Webster Hills. The church launched about nine years ago. The new Missouri Conference Director of Connectional Ministries Kim Jenne was there from the start, and Berneking was there about one-year in, and was the church’s associate pastor at launch.
“I had noticed there was a lot of new residential development in this area, and a lot of new bars and restaurants, but nothing new when it comes to churches,” said founding pastor Matt Miofsky. “There was virtually no investment in new churches here in the 20th century.”
Miofsky was seeing a lot of generational turnover, with young people moving in. He considered his own friends from Washington University, and realized that most of them wouldn’t easily connect with the traditional churches that existed.
He wanted to create a community that they would connect to. He asked Missouri Bishop Robert Schnase for permission to start a new church, and was told he could proceed.
It started as a small group at Webster Hills UMC, studying the Book of Acts. When Immanuel UMC announced its decision to close, Miofsky approached Bishop Schnase again, to see if he could have the building to launch a new church. He agreed, and The Gathering launch team took over the building in July.
It wasn’t really ready for it’s launch on September 17. When they picked the date, they were hoping it would be cooler by then. Instead it was over 100 degrees – the hottest day of the year. The church without working air-conditioning still launched with 105 people, with Miofsky preaching about how Amazon started in a garage, YouTube in a kitchen, and Christ was born in a stable.
Since then, The Gathering has started something new about every year. Clayton UMC has become a second campus. There is a third campus that meets at Humphries, a neighborhood bar. Last year the church launched it’s fourth campus in a school in Webster Groves.
When Rev. Greg Weeks preaches on Sunday morning, he has his back to about 150 people. It’s not that he’s going for some kind of edgy back-to-the-congregation preaching style. Although 150 would be a big Sunday morning crowd in many churches, at Manchester UMC 150 is just the choir.
“I never know what they are doing back there when I’m preaching,” Weeks said.
Manchester UMC started in 1856. The sanctuary that was built in 1998 seats 1,200. It has 3,100 members and averages 1,300 in attendance. The apportionments the church pays is the largest in the Conference. But Manchester supports the connection in many ways that go beyond apportionment, often demonstrating leadership in Conference-wide movements like the Mozambique Initiative. They also host many learning events that other church leaders benefit from, like the 2015 speaker series, which featured Beth and David Booram, authors of Starting Something New
, who lead a workshop on Discerning Your Calling.
Being a big church in the county doesn’t mean everything is contemporary. Manchester has defined excellence in traditional worship, and sees traditional worship as being an important part of the church’s future. The Church is in the middle of a major pipe organ upgrade, which will solidify its position as one of the premier places for a concert involving a pipe organ, serving the entire community.
Watch for more local church tours in an upcoming issue of The Missouri Methodists
Preaching... Taking it Beyond Take 1
When Matt Miofsky preaches his first sermon of the week, he only has five people in the sanctuary. After he’s finished they tell him everything they didn’t like about what he had to say, or the way he said it. When he comes back to preach it again, he’s down to one person who doesn’t say anything.
Don’t feel sorry for Miofsky’s dismal attendance, or his small congregation’s refined heckling. It’s all an intentional – you could even say methodical – part of his sermon preparation.
Miofsky believes the sermon is important. When people show up to worship, he doesn’t want to waste their time. He always hoped that his sermons were touching people, but never really knew if the comments he was receiving as he greeted people on the way out the door were just made out of politeness.
A year ago, he started asking some people to give him feedback on his sermons once a month. He found their suggestions helpful.
“But I was also thinking, ‘I wish I had considered that before I preached the sermon, rather than after,’ he said. So to get ahead of the game, he now has five people listen to his sermon every week in the sanctuary on Tuesday afternoon. When he gets their response, he has some time to make some changes.
Then on Thursday he’s back in the sanctuary, where he preaches his sermon again. This time it’s just him and the person operating the video camera.
The recorded sermon is used for the worship services in three of the four campuses where Miofsky isn’t preaching live that weekend.