JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (Oct. 26, 2017) -- Almost three years ago on a Sunday morning, Pastor Jane Taylor was driving to her church at 7 a.m. when she passed four boys walking together on a city street.
“Wonder what they’re doing up this early?” she thought.
Later in the morning, the pastor was surprised but thrilled when the same boys walked through the doors of First United Methodist Church. She laughs, almost embarrassed, when she remembers what she said: “What are you doing here?”
After attempts to invite their neighbors to church initially failed, leaders at First Johnson City UMC are celebrating that in the last three years, about 75 new children and youth have walked through their doors. The budget is strained, the calendar is stuffed, and the church leaders are ecstatic.
“From that small core group of boys, it has exploded. I mean, exploded,” says Taylor. “Personally, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
With an average worship attendance of 215 (up from 180 three years ago), First UMC has added Sunday school classes, a Sunday-night worship service, and Wednesday small groups to accommodate the children and youth who now call the church their own. They’ve worn out one van already in picking up the students for church activities and taking them on mission trips.
“I’ve been working in churches for a long, long time,” says Billy Walker, director of worship and music, “and this is the first church that has let us bring in kids who are not like us … We’ve got a real dedicated group of people.”
Most of the children come from impoverished homes, representing multiple races, in the community east of the church, Taylor said.
“Black, brown, Latino-Hispanic, white, Asian … We have one high school boy who identifies as ‘Blasian,’ black and Asian,” she said. “We have transcended racism in this church. The kids don’t see race in each other.”
Like many churches, members at First Johnson City UMC were discouraged a few years ago – “about their declining numbers, the aging congregation, the many funerals taking place,” Taylor said.
Both Walker and Taylor give the previous pastor, the Rev. Tim Bracken, credit for encouraging the congregation to reach out beyond the walls. “Tim got us to branch out and break traditional patterns,” Walker said.
When there were only five children left in the church, a group of leaders and staff decided to take the church van into neighboring communities on Sundays and invite kids to church. The effort wasn’t successful and was discontinued after a few months, Taylor said.
Then came Lisa Reis, a middle-school teacher who volunteered and was later hired in First UMC's youth ministry. For the last three years, Holston Conference mission leaders have encouraged church-and-school partnerships as a way to address poverty. Reis felt like some of her students could benefit from a faith community, says Taylor. The teacher had one-on-one relationships with some of her students and their families.
“Lisa invited 10 of the rowdiest kids from the middle school, and she brought these kids to the church,” Walker said. “It was rough at first. It took some growing time.”
The four boys Pastor Taylor saw walking early on that Sunday morning were among the first students to accept the teacher’s invitation. They started inviting other friends and relatives to come to the church where they were shown hospitality and offered lots of opportunities to join in.
“We learned their names. They weren’t invisible to us,” says Taylor. “I think some of them are invisible in school. These kids’ parents don’t put them on football teams or make sure they make good grades. They don’t have affirmation or structure at home.”
“We’re not just bringing them here for the numbers,” said Sharon Cradic, who oversees the senior-high group with her husband Drew and invites the youth to her home for supper. “We’ve earned their trust by not judging them.”
The youth are drawn to a busy roster that includes -- not only traditional Sunday and Wednesday church activities -- but also tailgating, dinners, scavenger hunts, skating, movie nights, hiking, and lots of service work, Cradic said. In addition to community work (such as pressure washing, painting, cleaning up), students are enlisted to serve as worship greeters, communion servers, or helpers for elderly members during church dinners.
“It just takes a little while before they realize, ‘These people care about me,’ and then they get a church job,” Cradic said. “The jobs help them feel like they are part of it.”
A leadership council group, which meets after school on Wednesday, helps students excel individually while setting a behavior standard for the other students. Last year, the church received a $2,500 “Children in Poverty” grant from Holston Conference, which was invested in a weekend leadership-building program at Camp Bays Mountain in late September.
“Most groups, when they come, are only groups in name. When they show up, they are individuals. When they leave, they’re a team,” said the Rev. Jeff Wadley, Camp Bays Mountain director. “The group from First Johnson City came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. They did a good job of learning how to work as a group. From that, they can transfer those lessons into real life.”
To help the older, veteran church members adjust to the noise and chaos that younger, unchurched folks might bring, Cradic and other leaders have the youth speak during worship about activities and service projects. They go to the older members’ Sunday school classes to thank them for their support.
“It’s exciting for the older church members to hear what these children and youth are doing,” said Walker. “They’re willing to compromise on things and share the space.”
When Taylor was appointed to First Johnson City five years ago, the church didn’t have a nursery. Now there are 13 kids in the nursery.
Forty-seven senior-high youth are now on the roll, Taylor says. Another 20 participate in the junior-high youth ministry, and 30 are in children’s groups. Five kids have been baptized. Parents of the children are also beginning to attend worship, says Taylor. “Three families have joined the church so far.”
Last year, the church raised $30,000 outside the budget to pay for activities, including a mission trip to UMCOR Sager Brown and to the Resurrection youth event in Pigeon Forge, Walker said. Although veteran church members have been supportive, Taylor is looking for grants and other means to keep the ministry fortified.
“It’s growing faster than we can keep up,” said Taylor, who is one of two full-time staff members, with four part-time staff. “The research says that everything we’re doing doesn’t work anymore. But these kids love this church and they’re inviting everyone they know.”
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.