COLUMBIA — Holy Week at Columbia Hope Episcopal Church began as the congregation gathered outside on a chilly Passion Sunday, green palm fronds thrust skyward, singing “Amen!” in commemoration of Jesus’ return to Jerusalem before he was crucified.
Sunday, the congregation will gather again to celebrate Easter with worship, a potluck, games and an egg hunt for the children.
Easter is an important holiday in the Christian calendar, a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of new life. And for Columbia Hope Church, it’s also an important day that can draw new life to the church, in the form of visitors and newcomers.
The church has been advertising in the Columbia Tribune and sending out fliers to the nearby Bedford Walk subdivision. During announcements on Passion Sunday, parish administrator Tamara Oberbeck held up a postcard advertising the Easter services. “Easter Brings Hope,” it read. She needed volunteers to help label and stamp 2,000 of the cards.
Since its launch on Feb. 8, the church has been averaging about 40 people in attendance each Sunday – a number that, to the Rev. Heather McCain, demonstrates there is a core group of people committed to the church.
The church hopes to continue gathering new members, but numbers only mean so much. McCain’s hope for Easter is that those who attend services are touched by the power of the resurrection.
“My hope is that people who attend the service catch the spirit of joy,” she said.
Planting a church
Columbia Hope Church is not only a new church, it also represents a new way of thinking about church growth in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, which covers the eastern half of the state. The church, located in south Columbia at 4603 John Garry Drive, is the first planted in the diocese in more than 20 years. The last new church plant was Transfiguration Episcopal Church in Lake St. Louis.
The Rev. Canon E. Dan Smith oversees church growth and development in the diocese from its office in St. Louis. He describes church planting as a “lost art” in the Episcopal denomination – lost as the U.S. population and mainline Protestant church growth in the 1950s and '60s petered off. The Episcopal church became more focused on maintaining existing congregations. Smith said that today church planting is something typically associated more with nondenominational Christian churches and less with mainline Protestant denominations.
But when the new bishop was consecrated head of the diocese in 2002, he sought to make new church development in the diocese a priority.
Columbia stood out as the right place for a new congregation. Even though it had been home to Calvary Episcopal Church for more than a century, Columbia's increasing population signaled to Smith that a second church could take hold.
The presence of MU was also an attraction, Smith said.
"Episcopal churches fit well in university communities," he said. "The clergy and the people have a tendency to be educationally minded. It's a church of professionals, and it just happens to fit in that type of community."
In particular the diocese noticed the growth in town south of Stadium Boulevard, and considering the fact that it already owned land at the corner of Nifong and Bethel, south Columbia made sense for a church plant.
In 2005, the diocese began a nationwide search for a church planter, the name given to the person who oversees the formation of a new congregation. The diocese consulted clergy databases and advertised at conferences; in the spring of 2007, McCain applied for the position. She had been serving as pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Greensboro, N.C., for six years.
Smith said McCain had the right personality and the right experience for the job.
"Church planters are unique people; they're unique in terms of clergy, no matter what denomination," Smith said. "They're risk takers, people who are highly self-motivated, people who see tasks and revel in the hard work that it takes to bring the task to successful conclusion. They're people who are willing to be on their own in some ways. Those kinds of folks are few."
McCain describes the Church of the Holy Spirit as a multicultural congregation of white and black Americans and Nigerian immigrants, situated in a neighborhood with many Latinos and Asians.
She thinks this diversity and the church’s commitment to working for justice in the community has prepared her to lead a church in Columbia that’s diverse and actively committed to serving the community.
McCain said she applied for the church planter job because she wanted a position where God could use her planning and organizational skills, and she where could feel like these creative gifts were being used to the maximum.
"If you don’t have a long history or tradition, you can do things that are fresh and new and creative and different," she said. "And you can also take advantage of today’s technology and today’s emphasis on mission and ministry. . It's much more than Sunday worship. I was excited by all of those things."
McCain moved to Columbia in November 2007. Armed with a cell phone and laptop from the diocese, she started out by getting to know the members of her new community. She transferred her NAACP membership to the Columbia chapter and spoke at the organization's annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in January. She also joined the downtown Columbia Rotary Club and began volunteering at Centro Latino.
Every time she met someone, McCain said, she would pray about them and contact them later to get to know them and see if they were interested in becoming part of the new church.
"It’s a matter of having conversations and finding out what gifts, skills and talents God has given each person and finding out where they can contribute to the life of the congregation,” she said.
The people who McCain gathered coalesced into a group that eventually became known as the "Launch Team." They met regularly to worship and pray together in people's homes, and became committed to taking an active role in the church’s development.
A permanent home didn't exist until last year when McCain found an empty storefront in a shopping center at John Garry and Southampton drives, near Smokin' Chick's BBQ and a few doors down from It’s a Grind coffee shop. In November, about a year after McCain first arrived in Columbia, the lease for the building was signed.
Now, from outside, only the church’s sign suggests that this storefront is a place where people worship; inside, the empty room has been transformed into a space that says “church.”
There’s an altar with a table and cross, and a piano to its right and rows of chairs. During services, a projector displays the words to songs and prayers on either side of the altar. There are also two “living room” areas with couches and coffee tables, a nursery with toys and books for small children, and a small library.
Business … but not quite as usual
As a pastor, McCain finds fulfillment the spiritual duties of her role – preaching on Sundays, leading her congregation in trying to make a difference in the community, and becoming the spiritual mentor and adviser to the congregation.
But as a church planter and pastor of an infant church, she must also turn her focus outward, continually reaching out to gather new members into the flock.
"Starting a new church is like starting a new business, except for the spiritual component," McCain said.
For the diocese, church planting is both "a venture and an adventure," in the words of Smith, the development director. Besides the planter's work, starting a church requires a financial investment. Including the amount that the diocese contributes for rent on the storefront property, Smith estimates that the diocese will provide Columbia Hope with $800,000 over a five year period, supplementing what the congregation will raise on its own.
Launch Team member Jen Rice said it's been fascinating to see what goes into starting a church. She and her husband, Nate, first met McCain in spring 2008 at a housewarming party.
"It's been fascinating to me to see how it's a mix of marketing/business side of things and the spiritual church work," Rice said. "It (marketing) is the thing that most people don't like to do – but you think, 'Gosh, how do any of us hear about anything?' It's through people. When starting a church, in order to sustain itself, you have to go beyond just a small group of people.”
With the seed of the church planted, now it’s time for its roots to take hold and grow.
According to Smith, Columbia Hope has already passed a key “tipping point” in the life of a new church – amassing enough people to have regular weekly service. The next tipping point is probably years away; the congregation must grow big enough to support the building of a permanent church on Nifong and Bethel.
For that to happen, the church will have to have about 200 to 250 people on average in attendance on Sundays, Smith said. A congregation of this size would provide enough money to pay the bills and also the time and energy necessary to expand the work of the church.
A 2001 report from the Episcopal Church Web site offers some perspective on the factors that might encourage a new church to grow. Based on a survey sent to all Episcopal churches organized between 1980 and 1995, the report found that the Episcopal Church planted 337 new churches nationwide. Fourteen of those congregations reached an average Sunday attendance of 250 or more by their seventh year.
Congregations that had 75 or more in average worship attendance by their third month grew to be the largest, with more active participants. Those that began with fewer than 40 remained small. The report also found churches to be more successful when clergy focus on outreach to church visitors.
There are the quantifiable factors, but there's also something more difficult to express in numbers that is just as tangible: the change a church makes. It’s important that a new church touch lives – that both members and the larger community be changed for the better.
It seems like this might already be happening for Columbia Hope.
Byron Molix is a member of Launch Team who first got involved with Columbia Hope because McCain hired his company, Tech 2 Consulting, for technology consulting for the new church.
He came with her on a trip to Iona, Fla., to visit Iona Hope Church, to observe the use of technology at the church, which employed devices like projectors to display the words to songs and prayers on the wall.
After returning home, Molix realized he wanted to take a more active role in the church and became a committed member. He had been raised Baptist but wasn’t attending services in Columbia, though he was reading the Bible and doing research on other religions.
Molix said one of the things that attracted him to the church was the style of worship.
The projectors Molix and other members of the technology team set up are an important part of this, Molix said, because they help people who weren’t brought up in the church to follow along with prayers and responses, freeing them from having to fumble with multiple prayer books and hymnals.
The church’s focus on welcoming all – McCain calls it “radical hospitality” – also attracted Molix to Columbia Hope.
“I would say that as far as faith goes, I'm still looking,” Molix said. “I’m still trying to find how I feel about that. I see the look in Heather’s eyes, and I see her faith – she lives it. And I'm not at that level.
“I'm not sure when or if I will be, but the great thing about Heather and this particular church is that doesn’t matter for me to be involved and want to help them.
“They're very accepting and welcoming, and as long as I want to be there, they want me to be there,” Molix said.
The week that began with palms will end with flowers.
Today Columbia Hope will be decorating a cross with flowers that are brought in by parishioners, as they celebrate their first Easter together and welcome newcomers into their group.
McCain said she hopes that the congregation will remember this first Holy Week and Easter as an encounter with the beauty and mystery of the resurrection – something that perhaps some parishioners will be experiencing for the first time.
“I’m hoping it will be a time of deepening faith – sensing what happiness there can be in sharing that story of the resurrection in a community,” she said.
“I hope people get to mingle and mix, and understand there’s something great to be a part of,” McCain said.