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Building Connections and Community; My Experience at UniPlace

What is the future of the traditional mainline church in a culture where more people, especially millennials, are identifying as being non-religious? How do we continue to minister to those in our community and reach people where they are if they aren’t necessarily coming through our church doors? And how do we re-assure our church elders, deacons, and dedicated church members this isn’t the end of doing ministry but only the beginning?

In June of 2016, I moved to Champaign-Urbana to become the Minister for Community and Campus Relations at University Place Christian Church in Champaign, IL. After spending almost two years working for the Boy Scouts of America, I found myself feeling called back into ministry. And as someone who had been approved for the ordination process in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), my call became an ordained position after I was ordained in October of 2016.

Serving at UniPlace has allowed me to learn about the role of the church in the lives of others in the 1950s while also exploring the role of the church in the lives of others today. And in this position, I had the opportunity to not only build a relationship between UniPlace and the Champaign, Illinois community but also experiment new ways of doing ministry that reflect the purpose of the church while also minister to others in new and unique ways that reflect our culture today.

One of the first things people will notice about UniPlace is the large brick building that stands adjacent to the University of Illinois. While the church building was built in 1932, the congregation traces their roots back to the 1900s and since it’s beginnings, UniPlace always had a strong relationship with the University of Illinois. And by the mid-1950s, UniPlace was the largest church in Champaign with over 1,000 members and two worship services per week with several packed Sunday school programs.

However, like a lot of mainline churches, UniPlace began to experience the decline in the 1960s into the 1990s. From a changing neighborhood demographics along with the trends in church attendance, the congregation began to get smaller over time and today has around 50 members in worship.

However, while there may only be 50 of us in worship each Sunday, the mission remains at the heart of those of us at UniPlace.  For those at UniPlace, sharing Christ’s love and compassion is how we do impactful ministry in the community even though we are a small congregation.

As part of the visioning process of the congregation, my position was created to find ways to help UniPlace build a relationship with the community, specifically the University of Illinois. One of the ways UniPlace had already done this prior to my arrival was through the creation of a community dinner program that feeds over 100 people each week. Through partnering with students seeking volunteer hours at the University of Illinois, over 30 students week prepare, serve, and run this meal program that not only helps address hunger issues in the community but also provides those in Champaign-Urbana the opportunity to get and know their neighbors in their community. Additionally, it also allows older adults who are members at UniPlace, to engage and interact with today’s college students as volunteers working side by side. In fact, I wrote about this aspect of ministry in an article published with Patheos which you can access by clicking here.

It was this program which coming to UniPlace, that I used as a springboard to build relationships between UniPlace and the larger community.

From creating a field education program at UniPlace which allows students at the University of Illinois to study the issues of social injustice while also interact with those who utilize the meal program. From reaching out to local non-profits to providing real-world experience and education to college students. I and the many great people at UniPlace have worked to find ways to help our congregation re-connect and minister to the needs of our community. This I believe is one of the most important task congregations need to do in order to sustain and grow their ministry. While in the past people came into the church, our world has changed and it’s the church needs to move beyond its buildings and go out into its community just as Jesus commissioned the disciples to do.
Taking the church out into the community is what also we have done when it comes to evangelism. Like many other congregations, we started a Beer and Theology program which seeks to create a space for individuals to discuss theology and religion that is open, inviting, and relaxing. For many younger people today, walking into a church building can be intimidating. However, while many younger people and those who don’t attend church regularly may not be in church building’s on Sunday mornings, there is a need to explore theology while feel welcomed and be accepted for having different theological beliefs.

Beer and Theology, which is what we named the program, meets twice a week at a local bar where we engage in theological conversations in a relaxed atmosphere. Using social media, we have been attracting around 10 people each week, with most in their late 30s and 40s from various religious and non-religious backgrounds. Even though it can be harder some traditional church people that we would take church into a bar and that those who attend Beer and Theology may not ever walk through a traditional church on a Sunday morning, finding ways to allow theological dialogue and conversation in non-traditional and neutral places allows the church to once again take ministry beyond its walls while also reflect inclusivity, acceptance, and compassion of which define it.

Throughout out my time, I also had the ability to work in helping UniPlace explore additional ways in partnering through ministry. One of those ways was working with a Lutheran (ELCA) and Mennonite congregation in hosting joint Taize services. Taize, a meditative and reflective type of worship, is a great way to help people connect with the spiritual divine. One of the great benefits of working with partner congregations is bringing together the gifts of other different ministries together which I believe more effectively meets the spiritual needs of the community. This is something that is crucially important as churches are getting smaller and denominational affiliation is becoming less important.

Going into Spring 2018, I do have a lot of additional work through UniPlace that I would like to explore. From working in creating special worship services using art which would allow those from in the community to connect with the spiritual divine from continual engaging workshop and beer and theology discussions, and to enhancing our community dinner program by exploring new ways of service learning, I am excited about what is ahead in the coming semester. However, it will also be a bittersweet semester as next spring will be my last as I begin the process to search for a congregation where I can serve as a pastor. For me, it will be difficult to leave behind all the wonderful people I have had the opportunity to work with through my time at UniPlace. Being at UniPlace these last two years truly has been a wonderful and affirming experience for me. But it’s also my belief that UniPlace will continue to do new and innovative ministry in the years to come. As we find ourselves wondering what the role of the church will be in our society which is becoming more secularized and less reliant on the traditional church, I do not look at this being a time that is the end of the church nor the end of God continuing to use the church to minister to those in need.

On the contrary, I believe God is pushing us as Christian leaders to find new ways to minister to those in our community by taking our passion for sharing the word of Christ’s love out into our community and sharing that message in new and creative ways. No, the traditional church may not look like what it once did in the 1950s with packed pews on a Sunday morning. Rather the church will look like programs feeding the poor, conversations about faith over beer, art projects that encourage spiritual reflection, and standing side by side those who are facing injustices. This isn’t just what the church should look like. It’s what Jesus would do.

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