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Deep and Wide: Dimensions of the Renewal of the Church

Renewal is about more than attendance and budgets -- it's about growth in mission, too

“O, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus”
Unlike the number of participants or the dollars available to facilitate ministries, not every aspect of church renewal can be counted. Renewal happens when people discover through Christian community that they are beloved and have gifts that God will use in the world. We might describe this as the “deep” dimension of church renewal, the working of the Holy Spirit to transform individuals, churches, and communities in ways that exceed our expectations.

Westbury United Methodist Church is located in southwest Houston, an area where several neighborhoods connect to create a significant community of overlapping ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. The worship and community life of the church reflects this diversity, with songs in many languages and from many traditions being sung. But Westbury UMC wanted to engage more deeply with the people around them. The church invited Hannah Terry D’12 and another young couple to move into one of the hundreds of apartment complexes in the Southwest Fondren neighborhood. Terry now shares life with neighbors who are refugees or immigrants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Nepal, Bhutan, and Central America.

The senior pastor, the Rev. Taylor Meador Fuerst D’06, hosts weekly gatherings where words sometimes have to be translated into as many as three languages, but where playing with Frisbees and bubbles and sidewalk chalk overcomes the linguistic barriers. Through these gatherings, the Spirit’s presence binds people of disparate backgrounds into one body in Christ. They share weekly meals, songs, and prayers, which allows the community to grow in relationships with each other. The gospel is transforming the neighborhood.

One of the greatest needs for residents of Southwest Fondren is employment. Westbury UMC is wrestling with what this means for the church. As they build relationships with people in the community, they discover their gifts and talents and then seek opportunities to match them with employment possibilities. For instance, Terry is currently investigating whether people who are skilled in preparing food might be able to join Houston’s vast network of food trucks with a truck of their own. Sometimes the results from the renewal of the church might look less like a building with a steeple and more like a restaurant on wheels, providing an income and serving the neighborhood!

“Have Thine Own Way, Lord”
It is easy to assume that everyone wants to see renewal in their church. Who could possibly be opposed to greater numbers of people being reached, an expanded budget for ministry, and transformation of lives and communities? But the reality is that renewal can be a slow and sometimes challenging process.

Seven years ago, a team from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Houston’s museum district heard the Spirit’s prompting when they were visiting its sister church in Cochabamba, Bolivia. As a result, a young woman from Bolivia, Nataly Nagrete Lopez, came to the United States to work with St. Paul’s UMC to reach out to the Hispanic community. At that time the church offered an after-school program, and they could see the rapidly changing demographics in their neighborhood. Today, that after-school program is composed entirely of Hispanic children from recent immigrant families who live in small apartment communities tucked amid new sparkling single-family houses and townhomes. Lopez knew that the church needed to reach out not just to children but to whole families that were struggling at the margins of society.

Families now gather weekly for activities ranging from worship to workshops on immigration law to parenting seminars to community meals and family game nights. The children not only receive tutoring after school but participate in the arts, learning music and dance. People of all ages are hearing the story of Christ and the promise of a world in which all people are beloved children of God, regardless of ethnicity, social position, or citizenship.

St. Paul’s UMC has also offered space for a Spanish-language congregation to grow out of this community. Some 20 to 30 adults and about 50 children now worship together as Fe y Esperanza (Faith and Hope). The Rev. Emily Chapman D’08, is the associate minister of missions and outreach and serves as a bridge between Fe y Esperanza and St. Paul’s UMC. She notes: “These families not only suffer from lack of access to employment, education, and social services, but they also lack the communities of support they once had in their home countries. Our hope is to offer that network of mutual support and love, showing the love of Christ while experiencing the suffering and the hope of our immigrant neighbors.”

It can be tempting to think that the work of renewal goes only one direction: from the church to the community, for instance. And St. Paul’s UMC has provided the foundation for a ministry that is transforming the Hispanic community in their neighborhood. But how is it transforming St. Paul’s UMC? “The decision to start working with these families was easy as long as it was tied to the after-school program,” Chapman says. “As it has evolved, and as it has come to require more resources and space in the building, there have been more challenges and confusion about this new community.” In addition to the language barrier, economic differences and different cultural norms can be roadblocks in the way of mutual fellowship. When Anglo members of St. Paul’s UMC visit Fe y Esperanza services, they are shocked at how noisy the children are—and the parents don’t even take them out of the service!

But there are signs of the slow process of renewal taking root even within the congregation of St. Paul’s UMC. As Chapman notes, “As of yet, we see it on a small scale—in our after-school program, volunteers learn what it means to grow up in poverty; congregation members are expressing a desire to learn Spanish; people are offering to support Fe y Esperanza families with college applications, employment, and other needs. The biggest thing so far is that it has opened the eyes of our large, upper-middle-class congregation to the incredible changes going on in our city and to the plight of our immigrant friends.”

St. Paul’s UMC illustrates that renewal can come from unexpected places and that what begins as a mission might in fact become a source of transformation. “For a growing number of our leaders and members, it’s a new way of thinking about church that is pushing us and challenging us to receive all the gifts that come from being in this huge, diverse community,” Chapman says.