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Columbia Hope Church congregation celebrates its first Easter

Sunday, April 12, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:25 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Charly Crouch, 7 months, is held by his father, Dennis Crouch, as he chats with fellow congregation member Kathy Batt after services on February 1 at Columbia Hope. Church members have spent many hours and late nights readying the facility, which opened officially on February 8.

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.”

Measuring success

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.

Looking ahead

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.


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Comments

Rob Roy April 12, 2009 | 10:17 a.m.

Quoting a 2001 report on church planting is pretty much worthless. Unlike other denominations, the Episcopal Denomination (ED) had been holding its own in the late 90's and early 00's. This was probably due to an influx of disaffected Roman Catholics. But two major events have happened in the Episcopal denomination since. The first was the ordination of Gene Robinson which was basically a puerile response to Lambeth 1998. The ED said to the rest of the Anglican Communion, "We'll show you that you can't tell us what to do." The holding-its-own quickly turned to rapid decline. The diocese of Missouri started losing about 1% per year which seems to be accelerating - it lost 3.6% last year.

The second event was, despite having the worst population adjusted decline of any bishop, the ED elected Katherine Jefferts Schori as presiding bishop. She quickly moved to stop all amicable separation talks and the lawsuits began. The count is now around 56 ongoing lawsuits, and they have had a devastating effect (See http://tinyurl.com/Primer4Pewsitters for details.) Ms Schori seems to think that she can sue people to return.

The article states that Ms McCain is the right person for the job. On what basis? Her last tiny parish went nowhere, never breaking 40 people in average attendance, dwindling to the low 30's.

It is true that Columbia SHOULD be a good place for an Episcopalian church start. However, Calvary Episcopal Church has been showing dramatic declines. Attendance dropped in 2007 by >25% and now stands at 200 (a nadir that it hasn't seen for decades).

Fortunately Columbians have an alternative. New Evangelical Anglican Church is meeting at Rock Quarry Recreation Center and it represents to growing Anglican Church in North America.

(Report Comment)
Julia Chang April 12, 2009 | 3:38 p.m.

Columbia Hope Church is a wonderful church. My family and I just returned from Easter services there. Heather McCain is a great chuch leader. She is kind, intelligent, energetic, and inspiring. We have been members of the church since its launch and we have felt very happy there. Columbia Hope Church is growing! If anyone would like to join a fine church full of many fine people, please come by next Sunday. We would love to welcome you to our church!

(Report Comment)
kate April 12, 2009 | 4:18 p.m.

If Rob Roy's message was intended as a promotion for his new church, his message backfired. A church should not be about attacking others or demeaning their efforts. A Christian church should serve Christ as its mission. I saw no mention of Christ or Christian values in this message.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro April 12, 2009 | 5:14 p.m.

kate:
Didn't you know that it's all about numbers. It's a religious BUSINESS. It has little to do with CHRISTIANITY. Win over the competition and your dollars increase. The old "my church is better than your church" approach has been around for centuries.
Today, we went to a nearby church for the first time. (We had overslept and didn't want to walk in late at one of our regular parishes.) Lo and behold, it was a wonderful service and a great group of worshipers.
I hope you and yours had a blessed Easter, as well.
I even hope a "business man" like Rob Roy had a good one. It just seems like he has a personal ax to grind with a different "house." (I think we're supposed to forgive him for that.)

(Report Comment)
Rob Roy April 12, 2009 | 6:00 p.m.

Kate, I don't live in Columbia anymore. I wish we had an ACNA church where we now live like you do.

I am just pointing out hard realities. Like I said, quoting 2001 statistics about church starts (which refer to churches started in 1980-95) is about as irrelevant as I could imagine. And saying that Ms McCain has a "the right experience for the job" is deceptive to say the least. She may be a very nice person.

The subject that is terribly political incorrect to even broach the Episcopal Denomination is quickly becoming one of the most feminized denominations with clergy either female or homosexual male. There is an interesting article entitled "Why Men Hate to Go to a Feminized Church." See http://tinyurl.com/d8utps .

This, together with the homosexual controversy which will only increase in the future (especially this summer at General Convention where 21 of the 46 resolutions are homosexual rights issues), and the lawsuits bodes very ill for the future of the denomination. We ignored the fact that national church politics do affect local church mission till it is too late I am afraid.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro April 12, 2009 | 7:26 p.m.

RR:
As a self-ordained heterosexual male, I read the site you posted. I go to church to worship and connect with a power greater than myself and to maintain spirituality. This is in contrast to your referenced article which proclaims, [“Men are more attracted to religion if it presented as a quest, an adventure, a heroic exploit,” Pearcey said. “They want something challenging, bracing, demanding.” The problem is that the church has become feminized, and men don’t like that, and so, they leave.] That's the author's opinion. Not an across the board reality.
Sounds more like ego and conquest to me. The crusades are over! (Except maybe for the likes of GW Bush and his entourage.)
I don't approve of homosexual behavior either and support the concept of traditional family values, including marriage being reserved for a man and a woman. However, I refuse to allow someone like Mr. Murrow explain to me what kind of "religious/spiritual" man I am and where, why and how I choose to worship.

(Report Comment)
Rob Roy April 12, 2009 | 10:00 p.m.

Ray, I only mention the feminization of the Episcopal denomination as just one factor that is causing it to be one of the fastest declining denominations. I thought the article was certainly provocative.

The feminization of the denomination and the transformation of the denomination into a (liberal) "social welfare organization with ceremonies and vestments" are not unrelated. What I thought interesting about the article that I linked was the different approaches to church. The feminized churches emphasized "nurturing, inclusiveness, warmth" - right brained stuff. In contrast, the masculine (should I say macho?) churches emphasized apologetics - something shunned by the female clergy, action, transformation rather than affirmation. Of course, these are generalizations, but I think they are useful ones if one looks at the dynamics of mainstream denominations.

One really shouldn't hold out much hope for the feckless Episcopal Denomination. Last year, it was the fastest declining. This year that "honor" went to the slightly more liberal and feminized UCC. Then we have the diocese of Missouri. Four of the six resolutions of this past diocesan convention were involved homosexual advocacy. The other two were about money - clergy compensation and how to tax the parishes. They are proceeding with blessing homosexual unions. Average Sunday attendance in the diocese went down 8.6% last year alone.

I guess I am raining on the church start's parade. But until I started reading the conservative blogs like www.StandFirmInFaith.com, I was sitting in the pews, being lulled to sleep as they chanted the mantra, "All is well, all is well,..."

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro April 12, 2009 | 10:44 p.m.

RR:
Different strokes for different folks. I just hope that there will always be religious leaders who understand the pitfalls of embracing homosexuality and that you can have a "Christian Love" for such people and still refrain from praising and exalting their sexual conduct.

(Report Comment)

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