With some inspiration from its pastor, Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church of Etowah, Tenn., has been busy trying to make a positive difference in its community.
Since the Rev. Todd Kingrea arrived in 2005, the small Cleveland District church has hosted a block party, a covered-dish dinner to go with its traditional Easter egg hunt, a car check-up clinic, and even a public restroom cleanup.
Church members have also dropped dollar bills at various places around town, handed out free hot chocolate at the community Christmas parade, and plan to have two different appreciation events for area emergency responders.
While such a long list of mission projects is impressive, Wesley Memorial is a church that has only 65-70 people in worship every Sunday.But the members point out that the work is rewarding, and they are the ones who benefit as much as the community.
“I think it has just opened up so many new doors in the minds of the people,” said member Shannon Beaver. “We are beginning to think outside the proverbial box. That is a new dimension for us."
As an example of how their mindset has grown to a deeper level, she said the members became aware that someone in the community needed a new water heater, so they quickly took up a collection and bought one for the person.
Also, Beaver said that three generations of her family agreed to go on a mission trip to Virginia with the church, and neither she nor her father had previously been on such a trip.
Kingrea said that when he first arrived at the church following a stint as a youth minister at another Cleveland District church, he began trying to tell the congregation that plenty of opportunities for ministry existed in the community and that they should think about finding Christian work to do outside the church walls.
"You have to earn the right to be heard and earn the trust of the people,” he said he told his parishioners.
The first activity was expanding the Easter egg hunt to include a potluck luncheon. The congregation put the word out through the community food pantry (operated within the church) and through other avenues. The response was positive.
Kingrea later came across a small book in a Cokesbury bookstore: "101 Ways to Reach Your Community," by Steve Sjogren, a pastor in Cincinnati. The book examines three levels of outreach, from simply getting the word out about your church to more hands-on activities.
Kingrea said he began thinking about how to apply some of the suggestions to his own church. One outreach activity that caught his eye was distributing dollar bills attached to information about the church.
"Small connection cards are taped to the back of dollar bills, which members secretly drop in local stores or the post office or leave as restaurant tips," Kingrea explained. "People finding the money not only get the dollar bill, but a reminder of God's love and the church's interest in them."
So far the congregation has dropped more than $50, which comes from the "outreach ministries" line item in the church budget.
The pastor also initiated cleaning public restrooms at convenience stories and at the park. His parishioners were hesitant, so Kingrea led the way through example.
"It's nasty, funky, unpleasant, but it's still servant hospitality. It's like Jesus washing feet," he said.
Asking permission of the store managers first, Kingrea cleaned about eight restrooms over three weeks. "Most of them were happy to have their restrooms cleaned. Some said they already had somebody doing that."
Kingrea always left a card with church information. He said one man complimented him and told him that he traveled the road frequently and was always looking for a clean public restroom. (Kingrea's church members never jumped on board with cleaning restrooms, however.)
Besides the members’ hearts, the outreach work also seems to be growing the church’s membership roll. Wesley Memorial has added 11 new members in recent months and now has visitors nearly every Sunday.
"Some of them have come from the community, who saw what we were doing. So it has produced fruit in that respect,” Kingrea said. But the outreach work is designed primarily to let the community know the church cares about it, he added. "You just have to get out there and meet people and build relationships,” he said.
“That is when God opens the door for deeper ministry.”
John Shearer is married to the Rev. Laura Shearer, a pastor at Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville District.