June 25, 2018

By Ken Rosenauer

“Welcome to the largest Sunday School class in the state of Missouri.”

With that, Bishop Bob Farr opened the Sunday morning Bishop’s Learning Time. In short order, he turned over the mic to the Rev. Terri Swan, lead pastor at Salem United Methodist Church in Ladue.
    
For the better part of an hour, she shared what she called the little bit of what she knows about getting from here to there, freeing up her traditional church to move out into the community.
    
“Are there any churches out there struggling with change, or is it only me?” she asked the gathering. She explained the reality of church today. When she was a child, people moving into a community would find out where the school was and where the churches were. Then, going to church was as common as going to school.
    
No longer. In fact, she listed four old strategies and assumptions:
-If you build it, they will come.
-Growing your church will automatically make a difference in the community.
-Church involvement will result in discipleship.
-If people believe in Jesus Christ, they will participate in evangelism.
    
These don’t work in today’s culture. As her congregation searched for ways to reach new audiences, they learned that the main obstacle was that they were in the church and not out in the community. About one-quarter of Americans today might be classified as “nones,” people who do not identify with any religious group. Interestingly, most of those were raised in churches before leaving them as adults.
    
Swan said that the church is losing its position in society. It no longer is the center of shaping culture. In this context, what question should churches be asking if they hope to make disciples rather than consumers?
    
She then invited the people in the auditorium to share with one another about what that question should be. After several minutes, she asked if any of the small groups invited a single person sitting alone to join them. It’s much more comfortable, she said, to have one person come to the group rather than have the group go to one person.
    
And that’s part of the problem that churches face: expecting the outsider to come to church rather than taking the church to them.
  
And when new people come to a church, will they find unity, diversity, harmony, or will they find drama?
    
“People have enough drama in their lives, and they don’t need more,” Swan said. The church has to stop just talking about change and go ahead and do it. 
    
She shared a quote from Andy Stanley, “Direction, not intention, determines your destination.”
    
She offered some direction that churches might consider as they are freed to lead.
    
First, if churches want young people in their churches, they must invite them to lead. Pastors and other leaders must let go of control.
    
Second, churches must go into the community if they expect the community to ever come into the church. She said that at Salem UMC they have begun sending their praise band into the community. While some people might not consider coming to church, they might come to a concert. That makes a connection.
    
Also, one Sunday they canceled all in-church services and took church to Forest Park. More than 750 came to worship, including 77 who had never been to the church before.
    
She said we must change the scorecard, emphasizing how many are out in the community rather than how many are in worship.
    
“Love is the only thing that’s going to get us from here to there,” she said. “Get out, and get into your community.”
    
She calls Salem a regional church, situated in suburban St. Louis. The church is 177 years old and has been at its current location for 60 years. Her congregation comes from 15 ZIP codes. The church’s second site, The Connection, is in South St. Louis in a low-income neighborhood.