Beyond the walls

Small West Virginia churches look outward to surrounding communities

August 28, 2009

Kids enjoy an inflatable slide at Westminster’s block party.

Kids enjoy an inflatable slide at Westminster’s block party. —the Rev. Devon Ducheneau

Statesville, N.C.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter

The Rev. Devon Ducheneau knew that in order to survive, today’s churches need to turn their focus outward and embrace the community around them rather than continue as secluded islands.

The part that would take some work was convincing the members of her two small churches, Southpark and Westminster Presbyterian churches in Charleston, W. Va. that this was the path they needed to take. 

Westminster had about 20 members when Ducheneau arrived nearly a year ago. Southpark had about five. There had been some discussion about merging the two with another nearby church because there were three churches within a four-mile radius, but those talks fell through.

With the merger option off the table, Ducheneau was called to take the reins at the two small churches as the designated pastor for redevelopment. 

“The first thing I asked them was ‘Who is God calling us to be in this community?’” said Ducheneau. “I needed to get them moving from an inward focus only to an outward community focus.

“Neither church had ever done any kind of program work or gotten out much among their neighbors. They always gave money for local causes, but they never really engaged in the service work itself,” said Ducheneau. 

She set out to change that — and to show the members of her churches that being involved in the community could be enjoyable, in addition to the rewards they’d find from both personal and church growth. 

Welcoming the community also didn’t need to be complicated.

This past June, Westminster sponsored a community block party. More than 100 people showed up, and some of them have started coming to worship since. The event was free and featured food and music provided by a local band. Southpark will have a back-to-school themed block party this fall. 

Westminster also held a yard sale this summer. Thanks to the contacts made during these events, Ducheneau is looking to start a MOPS (mothers of preschoolers) group in the fall. 

“I’m excited about this MOPS program because it might help to bring yet another element to our church family,” Ducheneau said. “We don’t have any children in the church right now.  The youngest member we have is 20 years old.”

The churches’ work is helping to reach non-members, said John Bolt, stated clerk for the Presbytery of West Virginia.

“Devon is giving the church a face in the community,” Bolt said. “People are realizing the church is there for them and not just for the folks who come on Sunday morning.”

These young families are the future of not only Westminster church, but also the surrounding neighborhood. 

“Westminster is in an elderly neighborhood and usually when a resident dies, a young family moves into their house,” Ducheneau said. 

Creating a welcoming presence in the community is mutually beneficial.

“These churches are getting reenergized in the community,” Bolt said. “The residents of these neighborhoods have changed, but Devon has gotten the members to look out into the community around them and that’s great, but it also shows if you create a presence in the community, the community will come to you.”

Ducheneau’s churches have embraced their new outward focus. They’ve been approached about doing an after school program and are happy to fill that need in their community.

The projects are getting more ambitious too. Ducheneau said the churches are looking at the need for a possible community center, and if the need exists, they intend to approach the city to discuss a possible property and make a proposal.

All along, the idea that Ducheneau has been trying to share with members at both Westminster and Southpark is that it’s not just about the money, but about reaching out. She’s encouraged by the response she’s seen from them.

“Recently, a member suggested doing spaghetti dinner and bingo nights,” she said. “They are starting to share ideas and share with the community. Just that one suggestion made me so happy because I listened to them, and I thought ‘They get it. They really get it.’”

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church.

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