Across the UCC: Commitment to welcoming fosters church growth
Written by Carol L. Pavlik
May 2002

Carol L. Pavlik

How can we help our churches grow? UCC churches are finding that the answer to this persistent question lies in a welcoming attitude, adapting to change, and an emphasis on caring for each other.

How can we help our churches grow? UCC churches are finding that the answer to this persistent question lies in a welcoming attitude, adapting to change, and an emphasis on caring for each other.

Community Congregational UCC in Montgomery, Ala., works hard to maintain the best of both worlds: the endless resources and talents a large church has to offer, and the close, intimate feel of a small church, where everybody knows your name.

Men's Ministry retreats are a highlight of church life at Community Congregational UCC in Montgomery, Ala.
Even with 600 members (up from 23 members just six years ago), Community Congregational hasn't forgotten what it felt like to be part of a small church.

Once a person joins the church, he or she is assigned a family group, a clustering of 10 to 15 families under the care of a deacon. That deacon keeps track of those families, visiting the sick in the hospital, following up when a worshiper misses church, and arranging quarterly fellowship dinners or outings. The "church within a church" keeps families in touch with each other, and the deacons help the Rev. Bennie Liggins keep a finger on the pulse of what's happening in the life of the church.

In addition, after attending a five-hour Firm Foundation class (covering church history, doctrines and ministries), every member is assigned to a specific ministry of the church. The long list of ministries includes an education ministry, which involves an after-school tutoring program for middle school students and a computer lab; an AIDS ministry; and the clothes closet, a store-like room where anyone can come in and sign out clothes needed for a job interview or for their children at no cost. There also are men's, women's, youth and singles' ministries, as well as a prison ministry, a security ministry (covering church grounds and parking lot), 60+ computer classes, and mentoring programs.

If none of these pique a new member's interest, Liggins isn't worried. One member brought his martial arts training to create a karate/Bible class for 6-10 year olds. Liggins says he never would have thought of that combination, but he's glad the church member did—there is now a waiting list for the class.

"If you want to get involved, we've got something here," says Liggins. "And if we don't have it, we create the ministry around you!"

Church increases membership through welcoming attitude

Each Sunday following worship at Chinese Community UCC in San Diego, huge amounts of rice, chicken and stir fry are served up for lunch.

If you are a first-time visitor, you are a guest and eat for free. After that, you pay only one dollar. The Rev. Steve Leong believes these lunches are an investment in the church's future. After all, he says, what better way to get to know new friends than around the table?

But how did the church find a way to get visitors to come for worship and stay for lunch? By inviting them, of course.

Let's face it: few people actually give thought to inviting friends or strangers to church, so Leong gives his church members a starting point. When talking with an acquaintance, Leong says, start with a simple question: Do you go to church? If the answer is no, says Leong, then follow up by inviting them to your church. If the person is already active at another church, then ask what he or she likes about their church. If it is a good idea, Leong says he wants to hear about it so he can incorporate it into his ministry at Chinese Community. Even when a person says "no thanks" to an invitation to attend worship, Leong knows all is not lost. A seed has been sown, and perhaps sometime later that person will remember the issue of welcome.

The idea of "the question" seems almost too simple, but it is working like a charm. Leong recently baptized 11 new members and, on another Sunday, welcomed 14 more members.

Half the battle of adding new members to the roster is won just getting them into the pew on Sunday morning, says Leong. And, as an additional benefit, his "question formula" is keeping the topic of church on people's tongues throughout the week.

Adapting to members' needs grows church

Phoenix Community UCC in Kalamazoo, Mich., began 14 years ago predominantly as a church for gay and lesbian persons searching for a place to feel safe and welcomed. The church's mission statement specifically mentions welcoming those who have been marginalized by the church. When word got out that Phoenix had innovative worship and welcoming people, straight people began attending worship and joining the congregation, too.

"Each time the congregation comfortably integrated a new type of person into the church family, it felt good about doing that," says the Rev. Janice Springer, pastor. "Then, somebody would show up that represented a new issue we hadn't thought about!"

Staying true to the mission statement meant integrating some worshippers with severe disabilities, bringing on unforeseen challenges of transportation and accessibility, wrinkles that the people of Phoenix gladly ironed out. Worship, serving on committees and taking part in music ministry are now possible and comfortable for disabled persons.

To deal with "the little noises and activity" of children in worship, the church set up a children's area in the worship space, where antsy children can retreat for some time with quiet toys and puzzles.

"Many of our members are in the process of reclaiming their faith," says Springer, "and I think we all have managed to keep a strong discipleship to Jesus."

Praise God and pass the cappuccino...

If you meet someone from Bridgeport Community UCC in Portland, Ore., on the street, he or she might give you a small business card with the church's logo, worship times and contact information. The bottom of the card reads, "Child-friendly. Good Coffee." These business cards, coupled with word of mouth, have become Bridgeport's most effective means of advertising.

A visitor at Bridgeport Community will notice right away that this church is not a solemn place. The choir is usually rehearsing as worshipers gather, creating an almost festive mood. "We're a noisy bunch," says the Rev. Susan Leo with a laugh. "We're not afraid to make a joyful noise."

Nametags are essential to getting to know new faces, but Leo doesn't like the idea of pre-printed nametags. "Permanent nametags immediately identify an 'in' group and an 'out' group," says Leo, who says she finds the self-adhesive, hand-lettered tags much more user-friendly. An assortment of stickers also are available for a fun touch of decoration. Leo keeps her eye out for new faces, and alerts members, who make a point to personally welcome every visitor.

Inside the sanctuary, two areas are set up with couches and easy chairs, resembling a living room. Leo says that nursing mothers, active children or people who are uncomfortable sitting in pews gravitate to these areas and don't feel exiled from worship.

And true to the business cards, there is good coffee. More notably, the coffee is served before worship, and just about everyone takes their mug into worship with them. Refills are available after passing the peace.

"It's not like you get rewarded afterwards for suffering through worship," laughs Leo.

When colleagues question Leo allowing coffee in the sanctuary, she says, "Why not? When you invite people over to your house, do you have people drink coffee in one room, but not another?"

"'Perfect' for me is when the kids knock my music stand over and somebody kicks a coffee cup," she says. "Or when I forget what I'm saying in the middle of my sermon."

"Church is not about something looking gorgeous and sounding perfect.," she adds. "It's about community."

Send news, stories and photos of events at your local church to Across the UCC, United Church News, 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115.