How do you turn around a declining church? That is the great challenge facing many congregations here in the North Alabama Conference. To turn a church around, the congregation must first be turned from "inward" on themselves to "outward" into the community. Call it out-of-the-box, unorthodox, unconventional, or simply "Rethink Church," but some believe we must stop going to church and start being the church.
On September 30, Haven Memorial and Saint Thomas United Methodist Churches, under the leadership of pastors Dr. Paul D. Hillard and Rev. Carolyn A. Hillard, took their worship services to the streets of Alexander City and Sylacauga, respectively.
What made this Sunday different from other Sundays was that members, casually dressed with comfortable shoes, were sent out from the sanctuary and into the local community during the worship hour. In other words, taking the Good News to the streets. Teams of two or three were given a package containing a map with a pre-chosen route, flyers, evangelistic cards, and a street report form. Their instructions were simple - go door-to-door, introduce yourself, let them know God loves them, ask for prayer and community concerns, give them information on the church, invite them to worship, and be observant. The goals were three-fold:
Those who remained in the sanctuary had a prayer meeting, praying that those who went out would be received as they knocked on doors. When the teams returned, the excitement they brought back was astounding. Haven Memorial, which worships at 8:45 a.m., pre-emptied Sunday school at 8 a.m. so more could go out with time to return before the pastors left for Saint Thomas in Sylacauga. Lay Leader Jewell Russell of Haven Memorial expressed that her team was so joyously received that they didn’t want to stop and were late returning.
Jesse Cleveland, council chair of Saint Thomas, stated that "We were amazed at the opportunities to connect with so many people, especially children, in mere walking distance of the church door. The teams took numerous prayer requests and in many instances prayed on the spot."
"Why it has taken so long for us to realize that the mission is outside and right under our noses?" asked Dorothy Cook, PPR Chair of Saint Thomas.
Incredibly, while the street reports were being received at Saint Thomas, the church phone rang with a prayer request from a person visited by a team who wanted a team member to pray for them. Praise God!
The following Sunday, October 7, two of those visited attended worship and gave testimonies that the timeliness of the knock at their door was more than just a coincidence. Each felt like it was God speaking to them about their spiritual welfare. Can we say prevenient grace?
The vision cast by Pastor Hillard is to become a Vital, Vibrant and Victorious Congregation as shown by the flyers distributed that day. Both congregations plan to continue evangelistic outreach - not always on Sunday - and develop strategies to create relevant ministries to address community needs.