If you read The Christian Century, or participate in denominational meetings, or scan the list of book titles in a publisher’s catalog, you know that renewal of the church has become a hot topic. Evangelical and nondenominational churches often discuss church-growth strategies; traditional Protestant denominations talk about church-renewal ideas. It’s not hard to understand why: the so-called mainline denominations have lost members, money, and momentum in recent decades.
Duke Divinity School trains the future leaders of churches and faith-based institutions, and we believe that the renewal of the church is part of the mission to which we are called. We certainly think it is important to maintain the academic rigor of our program, and we value the ways that participation in the broader institution that is Duke University enriches our own work in the Divinity School. But we also think that these things—academic work and university engagement—support our fundamental mission: to train leaders who are shaped by a scriptural imagination for the renewal of the church. We believe that God works through the church, and we want to align our priorities accordingly.
It is important to articulate and describe what we mean by renewal. Are we training the next generation of leaders to focus only on more members and money? The answer is no. As the children’s song declares, “Deep and wide / Deep and wide / There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.” We believe that the dimensions of renewal are both wide and deep, and that God is already working in this world to stir people, churches, institutions, and communities to a renewed vision of loving both God and neighbor.
“There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”
Church-growth strategies swept through American churches in recent decades. Many a pastor, congregation, or denomination looked with a measure of envy at churches that ballooned from a few dozen worshippers to a few thousand. Some churches became so large that they filled professional sports arenas; others began a multi-site model with one lead pastor presiding over services held in multiple locations. Books were written and seminars were held to instruct churches and their leaders how to grow their church. We might describe this growth in attenders and budgets as the “wide” dimension of church renewal.
But a focus only on having more members (or attenders) at Sunday services or on seeing overflowing church coffers tends to miss the point of why these resources matter for the renewal of the church. Enjoying an increase in worship attendance and receiving financial resources to match budget projections are not ultimate goals. They are penultimate at best. The focus of our Christian ministry is participation in God’s reign in this world by sharing the saving love of Jesus Christ in our individual and communal practices. More participants in worship should demonstrate more people worshipping God and accepting God’s invitation in Jesus Christ to participate with the work of the Holy Spirit. Having more financial resources can and should enable a church to serve outside its own walls. People and money are intended to be resources for the church to serve God in a variety of creative, holy ways.
Here is one example of how this wide dimension plays a role in the renewal of a church. The Rev. Lance Richards D’10 began serving as senior pastor at Lexington United Methodist Church in Lexington, Texas, in June 2010. The church is in the heart of this small town of 1,200 people, but when he arrived weekly attendance at worship services had dwindled to about 50 people. Over the last three years, Lexington UMC has experienced an 84 percent increase in worship attendance and an 80 percent increase in giving. This has allowed the congregation to hire two staff persons to help with communications and youth ministry. By almost any measure, these are impressive numbers. But when you talk to pastoral staff, they don’t focus on these numbers. They talk about what that growth has meant for the capacity of the church for ministry. “I wish I could say this growth is because of something novel or revolutionary,” Richards says. “The truth is, it came from making spiritual formation the center of our life together, strengthening the core practices of the church, and intentionally focusing on four areas: prayer, purpose, preaching, and participation.”
Prayer anchors the heart of Lexington UMC. The prayer team receives prayer requests not only from congregation members but also from the community, which gives them a sense of the broader needs around them and helps them discover how God is calling them to serve. The prayer ministry is supported by an ongoing study of prayer in the Scriptures, and these Scriptures shape their reflections on how they can minister to one another and to
A visioning team composed of key leaders in the church gathered to discern the ongoing purpose of the congregation in light of their history, gifts, and God’s calling for them. As the senior pastor, Richards intentionally locates his preaching within a broader context of worship, which is intended to connect the church to God’s narrative of salvation offered in Scripture and to invite hearers to go deeper in their discipleship and faith in Jesus Christ. Drawing upon their Wesleyan heritage and its doctrines, the weekly sermons encourage disciples to participate in God’s reign through ministries of compassion in the community. This means more than mere membership on a committee; it includes serving others—from reading Scripture during a worship service to volunteering in an after-school program that serves 65 children.
Lexington UMC is encountering some of the challenges that accompany this “wide” dimension of renewal. As the number of people who are part of the life of the church—including members, attenders at worship, and people being served in the community—has grown, the church facilities have become increasingly cramped. The church is acting in faith to build a mission center so that they can extend their capacity to invite more people to participate in ministries offered by the church family. One of the oldest members describes the project in this way: “This new building isn’t for those already attending—it is to reach a new generation for Jesus Christ.”
“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.
Duke Divinity School and Renewal
The stories of Lance Richards at Lexington UMC, Hannah Terry and Taylor Meador Fuerst at Westbury UMC, and Emily Chapman at St. Paul’s UMC are distinctive but not unique examples of the numerous Duke Divinity School graduates in many denominations in a variety of ecclesial settings across the nation, as well as the world, practicing Christian ministry for the renewal of the church. Duke Divinity School forms students to participate in God’s work of church renewal. This formation prepares them to serve in places where they are participating in the renewal of the church.
These are not simply stories of churches experiencing rapid membership growth. They are stories about God’s people learning what it means to be communities of faith and of crossing boundaries to meet Christ in their neighbors.
One of the challenges the church is facing is its failure to engage younger people in the life of the church. Youth and young adults of this generation expect diversity. They want to engage with the world around them in a real way. They want a living faith that is rooted in something much larger than them. Each of the ministries in this article engages people of all ages while also giving younger generations a vision for a renewed church that is not irrelevant and unnecessary but a vital and living community of faith.
The dimensions of church renewal, both wide and deep, are evidence of the full scope of God’s mercy and love extended to people in all times and all places. This renewal brings transformation. This renewal of the church provides evidence of God’s reign here and now—in people, congregations, and communities—and invites us to participate in God’s work.