St. Marks United Methodist Church is going back to the future.
The North Chattanooga congregation, which advertised itself as "The Neighborhood Church" at its beginnings a century ago in 1912, is hard at work being that again.
This time around, it's getting a little help from another United Methodist Church on the other side of the city.
"We're certainly not a dying church," said Sandy Graham, a member of the congregation for 16 years. "We're just struggling with an older denomination and not enough [people and resources] to go around."
A group of members of Christ United Methodist
Church, the denomination's largest church in the area with some 4,200 people, have agreed to serve as urban missionaries at St. Marks for at least a year to help the church better serve its community.
"There is real potential for it to be a community church and be of service in the community," said the Rev. Mark Flynn, senior pastor of the East Brainerd church.
Late last month, St. Marks began 40 days of vision in which it will determine the road ahead. Its attendance, with the urban missionaries and other interested people, swelled from 45 to about 130.
Workdays involving members from both congregations spruced up the church and grounds. A dessert cafe, featuring the band Acoustic, is planned tonight. Vacation Bible School is later this month. A praise concert is set for Aug. 5 and a centennial celebration on Sept. 23.
"The St. Marks people, God bless them, have been very open to change," said Flynn.
Change for the sake of change, however, is not what the urban missionaries see as their mission.
"We don't exactly know the journey," said Carl Greene, coordinator of the Christ UMC leadership team working with St. Marks.
It's their mission, he said, to provide a spark of energy and help the North Chattanooga church members "catch the vision," sense hope for the future and understand they "can be a vital, viable congregation in the community."
Graham said there was a little resistance and a few hurt feelings early on, but she said the members have worked through the majority of that and "everybody is on board and ready to do whatever it takes to bring St. Marks around."
"Anytime you have change," she said, "people are frightened by it or resist it for whatever reason. [The members] are beginning to realize they're not there to make us a division of Christ Church but to bring Christ to North Chattanooga."
The process began in talks between Flynn and members of his church almost a year ago.
Taking his cue from the denomination-wide Call To Action effort, and the fact it was "the right thing for our church to do," the Christ UMC pastor sensed "as a larger church that we could come alongside a struggling downtown congregation and bring to them some energy and life."
The effort intentionally coalesced before the church even knew with what congregation it might work. Only when the idea gained approval from the regional denominational bishop and cabinet members was St. Marks selected.
The effort, said Flynn, would not be a takeover but simply one church coming alongside another to help.
The church did not budget for the project or assign staff to it, he said. It is, instead, a lay-driven effort by people who will pledge their tithes, their gifts and their service as servants to another church for at least a year, he said.
Greene joined the effort early on but admitted he looked for several outs.
"My interest was in helping to facilitate [efforts with] a church that would represent the demographics of a community," he said. "It would need to be in a community that was diverse. When it came back that it was St. Marks in the North Shore area, I said, 'I'm all in.' "
Graham said she hopes the urban missionaries will assist with what the largely older congregation can't in reaching the community.
"We pray our visioning will be defined by the community needs," she said.
The first steps for the urban missionaries, according to Greene, involved getting to know the people at the North Chattanooga church, honoring their history and determining what their members bring to the table.
The next move, in which they're currently engaged, is "defining the vision," he said. To do that, the worshiping congregation physically left the sanctuary and is holding services through July in the fellowship hall.
"It's a symbolic model of dying, burial and rebirth," Greene said. The church is 100 years old and has been "status quo" for many years. Worship in a new space, he said, will experiment with new worship styles, build community and bring them out of established ruts.
What emerges, in addition to the working name of St. Marks Church-Northshore, he said, will be "unique," be relevant to the downtown and North Shore communities and "reflect the people" in the church.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...
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