NEWS FEATURE: Mainline Protestants Going Back to Church Planting

c. 2003 Religion News Service

CLEVELAND _ The sign outside says St. Patrick Episcopal Church, and the architecture of the steepled brick building with a bell tower and the crushed-stone driveway next to a cemetery evokes a traditional small-town church.

Walk inside on Sunday morning, however, and instead of pews there are metal chairs in a circle, facing a simple wooden table, and multicolored banners along the wall. The music is taped and contemporary, the dress is casual, and the pastor may talk about sex and relationships.

This is a brand-new Episcopal church, one started out of an office in a strip mall to meet the needs of the growing community of Brunswick, Ohio, and surrounding towns. Unlike older churches seeking younger blood _ but wary of change that may upset the existing congregation _ St. Patrick can leave the baggage of old expectations outside in doing mission work to a new generation.

Charles Catanese, 53, a vestry member greeting churchgoers on Sunday wearing a St. Patrick golf shirt, says what brought him back to an active role in church after 26 years was the freedom to worship God without the expectations that everyone will dress and think the same.

``We like you as long as you're like me'' is the unspoken rule at many churches, he said. ``We're not like that at this point in time, and I hope we never get that way.''

Mainline Protestant denominations, after decades of worrying about steadily declining and aging memberships, are making a new commitment to mission in an old-fashioned way _ starting churches.

Instead of trying to teach old churches new evangelistic tricks, more and more denominations are starting fresh by creating new churches to meet the special needs of ethnic or racial groups or to reach out to growing populations of young families in suburban and rural areas.

It is happening all over Northeast Ohio and beyond.

The East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church is starting three churches, including one in a growing rural area in southeastern Ohio. The United Church of Christ has started five churches, from Liberation United Church of Christ in Lakewood, serving primarily a gay membership, to Imani and Buenas Nuevas (Good News) churches, serving black and Hispanic churchgoers in Euclid and Cleveland.

The Presbytery of the Western Reserve is developing a new church to meet suburban growth in North Ridgeville, and a predominantly black church in Cleveland and a Hispanic congregation in Lorain to serve more diverse memberships.

The numbers of people in the new churches are small, and added up across the country they are not going to replace the millions of members these denominations have lost since 1970.

But there are signs of hope for churches that are determined to stop focusing on the declining and aging demographics and to recapture historical roots as missionary churches.

The Rev. Vicky Kelley said the United Methodist circuit riders who helped start churches throughout Ohio in the 19th century could appreciate the new rural congregation she is helping to found in Belmont County.

``In our area, there's a United Methodist church under every rock,'' she said. ``We're just getting back to our roots.''

There are some concerns within churches about using denominational funds to start new congregations when existing churches that are struggling have so many needs.

However, Kelley said, using money to shore up dying churches has not proved to be an effective solution.

``We've tried that for the last decade and it hasn't worked,'' said Kelley, pastor of the new Real Life Community of Faith United Methodist Church scheduled to begin services in September at the Union Local Elementary School in Morristown, Ohio.

The Rev. David Schoen, director for Evangelism Ministry in Local Church Ministries for the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ, said ``new churches can start with just a blank slate and be totally mission-oriented.''

In the last decade, the United Church of Christ has helped start five churches in Cleveland, Lakewood and Euclid, reaching out to gay, black, Hispanic and inner-city communities.

Among the new congregations is Christ Church in Hough, which recently packed up its worship space from the old diocesan seminary on Ansel Road to move to the Christian Family Outreach Center on Hough Avenue.

Their hope, like that of many new churches, is to one day have their own building.

While it is tough to be without a permanent home, the congregation has a close-knit spirit, in part because of the bond of starting something new together.

On Sunday mornings, there is a whole lot of huggin' going on at Christ Church. Congregants are warmly greeted as they enter, and at the beginning of the service they take a few minutes to go through the church embracing one another.

During her sermon, the Rev. Joan Salmon Campbell tells churchgoers to see God in one another.

``Where is Jesus, y'all? Where is Jesus?'' said Campbell, moving among the congregation. ``He's right here. Go touch him.'' Throughout the sanctuary, some 50 worshippers touch one another's shoulders.

Nearly every pastor of a new church says it isn't easy being green.

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On a Sunday earlier this month, about a dozen members of the North Ridgeville Presbyterian Fellowship gathered in a storefront church next to a food market.

The Presbytery of the Western Reserve church development ministry picked North Ridgeville for a new church start because the town did not have a Presbyterian church, and it and the surrounding communities are growing with large new housing developments.

But the fellowship is having trouble growing. After two years, it has about a dozen regulars who meet for an evening service once a month. Most attend either Avon Lake Presbyterian Church or John Knox Presbyterian in North Olmsted on Sunday mornings.

One reason it is difficult to start a church, members say, is because people want all the services and ministries of an established church right away. Also, it does not come naturally for many mainline church folk to go around knocking on doors evangelizing neighbors.

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St. Patrick Episcopal Church started with a storefront office, with the Rev. John M. Atkins getting to know the community and inviting people to be part of the new church. Today, it has grown to about 150 people and the congregation plans to build its own church building.

On a recent Sunday, worshippers of all ages in dress from T-shirts and jeans to coats and ties were given bells to ring as symbols of joy during the service.

Newcomers are greeted by several members, and Atkins reminds the congregation that ``our mission is to embrace people with God's love who are different from who we are.''

In the end, it is not just about the numbers, some pastors say.

Campbell, who used to travel the country as moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), now is happy as a United Church of Christ minister serving her small congregation.

The local church is where the action is, she says. And there is lot of action in a new church.

``Do not put a period where God has put a comma,'' she said. ``There is no set way, one way, to do ministry in these times. We have to be out of the box.''

DEA END BRIGGS