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Local Church Spotlight

Local Church Spotlight: “Being the church during the busiest season of the year”

By the Rev. Ashleigh Joyner

We all know that it is not Advent, so why am I writing an article about Christmas when Easter is almost here?  Rethink Church gets questions about how churches really rethink church, so we thought we would give you an example.

One of the sayings we use to describe this ministry of United Methodist Communications is “people think you should go to church, but we think the church should go to you.” One church lived out this message by forgetting about attendance during the time of year where attendance goes up.

During the seasons of Advent and Christmas, the Rev. William Gibson, senior pastor of THE WALK [FaithWalk] in Gibsonville, N.C., encouraged the community of faith to stop coming to church. Instead, he challenged the congregation to be the church to the greater community. They asked, “What if others knew us, not by our theology, but rather, by our generosity, compassion and love?” 

This led to the pastor canceling church the entire month of December so members could worship outside the walls by serving others. They named the series “Be Church” and created an opportunity for church to be something to do instead of a place to go.

“Our primary target group at THE WALK represents unchurched and disconnected people who are marginalized,” Gibson said. “When you encounter these folks, you discover just how skeptical and suspicious they are of the church. In order to change such perceptions, Christians have to start being more Christ-like, putting their faith into action. I believe that starts by stepping outside our walls; getting to know who our neighbor really is; and meeting needs through generosity, compassion, mercy and love. That’s what Jesus did.”

Each Sunday during December, the members, guests and worshippers at THE WALK gathered at 9:45 a.m. for prayer and an offering. Then they went into the community for the morning. “The response was overwhelming,” said Gibson. “To be perfectly honest, we were a little concerned the week before we launched this initiative because December is our biggest month in so many ways. Would anyone show up? Would people use this as an excuse to disconnect? But the staff and I knew this was a radical idea that God had placed before us. And the response has been overwhelming.”

Gibson built the series around the text from Matthew 25:31-40 where Jesus reminds us that the “least of these” are members of the family. “We have remained a very active church within our greater community through primary ministries to those who struggle with addiction, homelessness and the marginalized,” said Gibson. “However, Be Church has become a catalyst in how we are rethinking what the church might look like for the 21st century. During this initiative, we experienced record giving, a record number of first-time guests, and the most energy and excitement we have encountered in months. If I had known that the only thing we needed to do to see giving and first-time guests increase was to cancel church, we would have done it years ago!”

The Walk rethought church each week in many different ways. First, the congregation took a trip to a ministry that houses men struggling with drug and/or alcohol addiction. They also delivered Christmas presents they had purchased from the residents’ wish lists, set up eye exams for each resident, took care of maintenance issues and began a joint initiative to help the men get their thrift store in working order, which presents the primary income for the home. 

During the second week, they did maintenance and cleanup at a low-income housing complex. They took bags of non-perishable food to every resident of the complex. Those who could not do physical labor remained at the church and packed snack bags for the homeless and organized additional food runs from the church’s food pantry. The children cleaned windows of all the cars in the parking lot. 

Next, they visited a nursing home for low-income residents where many did not have family or had been essentially abandoned.  Joy, peace and love was brought, along with Christmas presents for all the residents and staff. The visitors also sang carols and did some repairs. 

The last week the community of faith did some “church crashing” and surprised Green Street United Methodist Church.  They joined together in worship and celebrated the United Methodist connection by supporting this reconciling congregation. Green Street was the first reconciling congregation in the Western North Carolina Conference and helped The Walk become the second one.

During a bonus week in January, the congregation prepared meals for 250 homeless people as a part of Church Under The Bridge.

Here are some thoughts from the people who were a part of each Sunday.

“For us to give up the comfort of our Sunday mornings in order to go out and serve other people, that to me was incredible. I have never been a part of anything like that, and this was an amazing experience. Not only were lives impacted outside of our walls, but my life (also) was impacted by those I encountered,” said Joshua Foster, Pleasant Garden, N.C.

“I love it. I just love being in community with people and serving with one another. And Be Church did so much for me and so many others. What an incredible experience. This is what it is all about. Yes, it is important to worship together inside the walls, but we also have to put our faith into action outside the walls,” said Craig Robertson, Gibsonville, N.C. “As a church, getting outside the walls and doing things that may be a little bit uncomfortable, or things we are not even sure about, is absolutely essential to our spiritual growth and in understanding how Jesus loved others and understanding what he calls us to do today,” said Alicia Beeson, Whitsett, N.C.

Our hope here at Rethink Church is that you have been inspired by the way this church in North Carolina took God’s love out into the world.  They got out of the walls of their church and went into the community where they connected with people.  What new and different ways can your church use to put your faith into action?

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This article was adapted from the press release titled “Rethinking Church in Order to be the Church” by the Rev. William Gibson.  THE WALK [FaithWalk] UMC is a young and thriving community of faith in Gibsonville, N.C., located in the Western North Carolina Conference. The congregation’s average age is 32. After a restart on September 16, 2007, under new leadership and a new vision, the church plant officially chartered as a United Methodist church on June 16, 2013. The church targets unchurched and disconnected people. For more information, visit: http://faithwalkumc.org/page/about-the-walk.