From near-death to neighborhood life centers: Ohio pastor will share church revival tactics at Evangelism Conference

From near-death to neighborhood life centers: Ohio pastor will share church revival tactics at Evangelism Conference

Fort McKinley United Methodist Church was struggling. Nobody new ever came to the church, and the last 40 members realized that radical change was their only hope.

“We tried to get this church to grow for years, but we didn’t have the knack,” says Marilyn Hess, age 76. After attending and loving her church for 70 years, the retired schoolteacher wasn’t willing to let it “disappear from this corner” of her neighborhood in northwest Dayton, Ohio.

“This church has been here for 100 years,” she said. "We didn’t want to close it and let them put a drugstore here.”

In July 2008, Hess and 39 other members took a chance by voting unanimously to merge with another church while remaining at their present location. By the end of the year, Fort McKinley’s worship attendance had jumped to 217, matching the church’s heyday in the 1950s.

At the end of 2009, the church averaged 300 in worship; in 2011, attendance was 375. 

How did that happen? Fort McKinley’s success story is the centerpiece of the third annual Holston Evangelism Conference, scheduled March 16-17 at Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville. The Rev. Dave Hood, Fort McKinley pastor, will share a program – “Rebuild Relationships, Restore Hope, Renew Community” -- that he says will work in other churches.

The Friday-Saturday gathering, organized by Holston’s Witness Ministry Team, will also feature Rusty Eshleman, Fort McKinley music director and community coordinator, as a worship leader. Bishop James Swanson will preach at closing worship.

Hope of the world
“I agree with Bill Hybels when he says that the local church is the hope of the world,” Hood said on a recent Sunday in Dayton, quoting the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois.

Hood, age 39, has just preached at three packed worship services. The parking lot was full all morning, while middle-schoolers rode in on their bikes in 30-degree weather. It’s well past noon, but the building is still lively with a servant appreciation luncheon, the second big meal served today.

Hood is officially appointed as “pastor of new development” at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, one of the denomination’s largest churches with about 5,000 in average worship attendance.

It’s inaccurate to call David Hood a mega-church pastor, however. He’s the leader of Ginghamsburg’s second campus and soon-to-be third campus. He has a history of bringing small churches back from near-death experiences to become thriving¸ community-based centers of life.

“I think the mega-church movement is not sustainable and probably not repeatable,” Hood says. “But I do believe we can build a lot of strong, healthy, vibrant congregations that are focused on their neighborhoods. A church of 400 to 500 can make a huge difference in a neighborhood.”

The preacher has seen a lot of action in the last few years, and this is only his second appointment. He started out as a youth pastor at a United Methodist church in southern Indiana because he didn’t want to attend seminary. The son of an American Baptist preacher, Hood soon fell in love with United Methodist theology and in 2003 was appointed to a rural church, Gordon United Methodist in west Ohio.

“When I walked into that church, it was in pretty desperate shape,” says Hood. “The building was falling apart and they were really struggling. I knew immediately that if we had any shot at viability, we were going to have to get out into the community.” 

The Call visits Fort McKinley: Photos on Facebook.

The congregation raised money to renovate, update, and air-condition the church, “not for our own comfort, but for the people who were not yet there,” Hood says. They launched the first contemporary worship service in the region with music reflecting the community’s taste.

The changes quickly signaled that “something new and different was going on,” the pastor said. In four years, Gordon’s worship attendance had surged from 30 to 160.

“As the health of our church improved, so did our community,” Hood explains. “It became clear that we had been given a gift of transferable principles that could be shared with others.” 

The pastor and his congregation started a program called, “Heal a Church, Save a Community.” By request, Gordon sent out small teams to help other declining churches in their conference.

When Ginghamsburg began searching for a campus pastor, Hood was invited to visit with the Rev. Michael Slaughter, Ginghamsburg’s long-time lead pastor. In August 2008, Bishop Bruce Ough of the West Ohio Conference appointed Hood to Ginghamsburg. It was one month after the mega-church merged with its tiny urban sister in Dayton, 15 miles south of Tipp City.

Prayer walks
With Fort McKinley’s original 40 members and about 40 Ginghamsburg members, Hood immediately organized prayer walks in the 15-block area around the church. Team members asked their neighbors:

  • What are the needs of this community?
  • What are its assets?
  • What would a great church look like in this community?

The answers led the church to start two new outreach ministries: A free Sunday morning breakfast and “Project Neighborhood.”

“Project Neighborhood includes everything from cleaning gutters, mowing lawns, and fixing leaky faucets to intentional relationship building with the residents of the neighborhood,” Hood said. (See YouTube video.)

The free breakfast started out small but soon became a big production, with a variety of hot food served to a community that said it was hungry. More than 80 percent of the neighborhood (about 300 homes) lives below the poverty level, Hood said.

The new outreach ministries quickly heightened the church’s visibility and familiarity, encouraging children and families as well as residents of a nearby men’s shelter to come inside.

“I never noticed this church before, until one of my friends said, ‘Let’s go over here and get some breakfast,’” said Kenny, a 54-year-old who was quietly dining on pancakes and omelettes on a recent Sunday morning. “Then I went in and listened to the preacher a while, and it was good.”

As newcomers quickly outnumbered original members, more changes were made that Marilyn Hess admits were sometimes difficult to accept. “We had to give up our old ways, our traditions,” she says. “The altar, the lectern, the organ – they’re gone.”

“I call this 7-11 music,” says her husband, Hugh Hess, referring to the praise music now dominating Fort McKinley worship. “They pick one phrase and sing it over and over, seven or 11 times.”

About 10 of the original 40 members did leave, Hood said, “either because we removed the American flag from the sanctuary or because they hated the music. But we also had 20 or 30 old members migrate back after they had long since left the church.”

Despite the adjustment, the sacrifices were worthwhile, says Marilyn and Hugh Hess, who still serve in the church and are loved by newcomers.

 “What I see today is unbelievable,” Marilyn Hess says on a busy Sunday morning, while people of all ages and shades greet and hug each other, clogging the church hallways and stairways.

“This isn’t a black church or a white church,” says Walt Staup, who came to Fort McKinley last year. “It’s a Jesus church.”

With 48 percent African-American representation and 52 percent white, the congregation now mirrors the neighborhood’s racial diversity, Hood says. Fort McKinley has more African-Americans in its congregation than any other church in the West Ohio Conference.  

Love your neighbor
Today, Fort McKinley’s three worship services are crowded with about 450 in total attendance. More than 400 come for Sunday breakfast, served by a rotating list of about 70 servants. “Table hosts” are enlisted to chat with diners and invite them to worship and other activities.

Hood estimates that about 60 percent of breakfast guests join in worship on any given Sunday. The church also has a food pantry, open three days a week, and a Tuesday community dinner. Bible study, G.E.D. classes, and a 12-step recovery program are also offered.

A few blocks from the church, youth meet for games and Bible study in an old fire station (“The Firehouse”), leased from Harrison Township for $1 a year. The township also partners with the church on a community garden and will begin building 25 single-family homes in the neighborhood this spring. Several other services and partnerships are housed under Ginghamsburg’s 501(c)3 non-profit partner, The New Path, Inc.

“Walking around the neighborhood is one of the biggest ministries we do here,” says Eshleman, explaining how the church develops so many relationships and attracts so many guests and servants. The 28-year-old music director/ community coordinator lives in Fort McKinley with his wife and infant daughter. 

In addition to Eshleman, Hood has two other full-time staff members, including 27-year-old Tyler Wright, ministry coordinator, and three part-time staff members.

The Fort McKinley campus budget and membership are included in Ginghamsburg’s, but Hood says they work hard to build relationships with higher-income people willing to support an urban ministry in a poor neighborhood. In 2008, Fort McKinley had a $1,700 weekly offering with $3,500 in weekly needs. Today, the campus has a $6,300 weekly offering with $6,500 in weekly needs.

On April 7, Hood will preach at the kick-off worship service for his church’s newest campus in Trotwood, Ohio, about three miles from Fort McKinley. Church members started painting and readying "The Point" in its shopping center location last month.

The building was bought years ago by the Miami Valley District of the West Ohio Conference. Now Ginghamsburg is investing $250,000 (from conference and district grants) to start another congregation in a poor neighborhood.

“Fort McKinley is closing in on maximum density,” Hood says, “but just because we’re full doesn’t give us permission to stop. We have to keep asking, ‘What is that next neighborhood that we will plant in?'”

It’s not so hard, he says. Jesus said to love your neighbor. You can start by talking to them.

“If every church went to their neighbors to ask these questions – and then had the guts to make the changes that were needed – we would have a lot more healthy churches.”