St. Louis Churches Put Strong Emphasis on Urban Ministry
by John Wesley Coleman, Jr.
ST. LOUIS, Mo.—Tall-steepled Centenary United Methodist Church, a regal landmark in downtown St. Louis, MO, typically had about 20 people in worship when the Rev. Conway Briscoe arrived as pastor in July 2004. That was a far cry from its glory days as the city’s “Cathedral of Methodism,” housing 3,500 in worship in the early 1900s, vibrant outreach ministries and offices of the annual (regional) conference and area bishop.
However, the 137-year-old church has undergone a remarkable change in just the last five months, attracting new interest as it rediscovers its reason for being through its outreach to the urban community. Sunday worship attendance has nearly tripled; but what has really brought this historic church back from the brink of extinction is the burgeoning flock that gathers there four days a week hungry for food and fellowship.
Since January, Centenary has been providing hot lunches and other services free to more than 200 of its homeless neighbors on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Briscoe offered the church as an option last year when the city was being sued for negligent and abusive treatment of homeless people, many of whom were being fed outdoors by volunteers at a nearby downtown park. He contended with naysayers and took several local leaders to San Francisco’s Tenderloin District to see how Glide Memorial United Methodist Church ministers effectively, and respectfully, to hundreds of homeless people each day.
Now the Centenary Cares Drop-in Center and Free Meal Program is doing likewise for some of St. Louis’ homeless population while helping to reinvigorate the church and its growing membership. Much of the credit goes to hard-won partnerships with city and local business leaders, support from other churches and agencies, a steady stream of eager volunteers and, of course, courageous, compassionate leadership from Briscoe and his associate pastor, the Rev. Tom Fogarty, who oversees the ministry.
But credit also goes to Centenary’s participation in the Holy Boldness Urban Academy, an extensive national leadership development initiative organized by the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries and sponsored locally by the Missouri Annual Conference.
Briscoe and some of his church leaders attended six weekend academy sessions over the past two-and-a-half years, including one they hosted in 2005. There, typically 300-400 participants from inner city and metropolitan churches came to learn how to create new pathways to church growth and more effective community ministries.
“The Holy Boldness training had a significant influence on us,” said Briscoe. “We brought back ideas that shaped our thinking, helped us lead by example and taught us to be more holy and bold within our particular ministry context.”
Relying on experienced guest speakers and workshop leaders, the first year of training explores theology, evangelism and strategic development of congregations and communities, all from an urban/metropolitan perspective. Church teams also learn how to reduce racism and other forms of oppression, develop multicultural ministries and relationships, promote health and wholeness among individuals and communities, and nurture and mobilize new and existing leaders.
During the second year, teams receive technical assistance focusing on their areas of particular concern while carefully developing their goals, strategies and tactics for forging transformational ministry.
“It’s all about our primary calling, our purpose, to involve the local church more in the life of the community and the community in the life of the church,” explained Diane Johnson, executive secretary of the Global Ministries Office of Urban Ministries and a St. Louis resident. “Many churches that experience this Holy Boldness training come to understand and embrace that calling in whole new ways.”
Teams from Centenary and 30 other St. Louis area churches completed their academy on April 22, 2006, and were commissioned by Bishop Robert C. Schnase of Missouri to go forth and bear fruit, putting their new knowledge into action.
“This is a very positive experience for us and makes us all rethink the purpose and practice of our various ministries,” said Bishop Schnase after he closed the final academy session with comments on the theme, “Holy Boldness: Fruitful Ministry.”
“There’s a higher awareness of our need to reach younger generations and to become more diverse and committed as we reach out in new ways,” he explained. “The true test of all that we have learned, however, is what we do with it in the future.”
Maplewood United Methodist Church has developed new ministries, increased its attendance at worship and Sunday school, upped its giving to apportionments by about 50 percent and created The Gathering, a popular, informal Sunday morning discussion group for young adults.
North Park United Methodist Church brought 50 of its 300 members into the academy and started the “U-Turn Here: New Life in Recovery” program out of its Holy Boldness plan. It offers support groups, pastoral counseling, spiritual guidance, job training, career planning and other services to persons recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. A community developer, funded by the congregation, the conference and Global Ministries, works with these other outreach programs.
“Holy Boldness has challenged us to move from doing church maintenance and meetings to giving visionary, ministry-driven leadership to this church and community,” said the Rev. Lisa Scott Joiner, who led North Park in assessing its ministries and the needs of its neighborhood last year. “We’re more aware now that we can really make a difference addressing some of the issues affecting our people.”
Union Memorial United Methodist Church, 160 years old and the mother church of African-American Methodism in the area, hosted the final session and commissioning, its legions of blue-shirted volunteers modeling extreme hospitality for their guests. The Rev. Kevin Kosh, pastor, sees an expansion of community partnerships and ministries in the church’s future, including cultural events, adoption of a local school and classes in parenting, financial management, nutrition, and health education.
“People are grasping a new vision of what ‘church’ can mean,” he said. “The church is still alive, which is good news, but in this new day, we can’t keep doing things the way we used to.”
For Kosh and many others, the most inspiring and gratifying revelation was the chance to see and hear teams from other congregations share their frustrations and fledgling hopes, their enthusiasm and moral support for one another.
“We are not alone in this,” he said excitedly. “We always talk connectionalism; but you really see it and feel it when you look around at a Holy Boldness session. The Spirit of the Lord is there because people of all races and backgrounds are learning and sharing together. It’s wonderful.”
John Wesley Coleman, Jr. is a writer and communications specialist living in the Washington, D.C. area.
Date posted: May 05, 2006