Although some churches retreat within their own walls and adopt an “us vs. them” worldview, a group of Pennsylvania congregations have learned that cooperation is better than competition.
The Rev. Tom Hamilton is pastor of Canonsburg United Presbyterian Church, one of seven Presbyterian churches that have formed a partnership to further one another’s evangelism and ministry. He credits Washington Presbytery for starting the initiative in the spring of 2009.
“We took advantage of the remnant of a schism in one church to build something new,” said the Rev. Charles Perrine, interim general presbyter.
Peters Creek United Presbyterian Church in Peters Township was part of the impetus for forming the group. That church lost most of its members after a spilt in which many left the denomination.
“They had no building and few members remaining, but they still wanted to be part of the community,” Hamilton said.
Seven churches in southwestern Pennsylvania got together to help Peters Creek as well as themselves. The churches:
- Peters Creek United Presbyterian, Peters Township
- Canonsburg United Presbyterian, Canonsburg
- Center Presbyterian, McMurray
- Chartiers Hill Presbyterian, Canonsburg
- First United Presbyterian, Houston
- Faith United Presbyterian, Washington
- Thomas Presbyterian, Eighty Four
“We asked ourselves, ‘What can we do to further each other’s ministry?’” Hamilton said.
Canonsburg also had an idea to form such a group. That church was already considering a multisite approach and partnered with the presbytery to develop that idea. The concept is to increase a ministerial presence in the area by emphasizing a fellowship community, not constructing a building.
That’s not entirely new for the Canonsburg church — 60 years ago it had chapels in another area of Canonsburg that served a Syrian/Greek immigrant community in addition to the worship services at the main church.
“We estimate that there are over 3,000 un-churched people within 10 minutes of our church, and we were looking at new ways to reach them,” Hamilton said.
The church is now trying to tie in that goal with the group of seven churches, which, combined, have 2,800 members. There are more than 50,000 residents in the area.
“We asked, ‘Where are those 50,000 people?”” said the Rev. Linda Jaberg, pastor of Thomas Presbyterian. “‘They’re not at church with us on Sunday morning, so where are they?’ One of the answers was they are at community days and other outdoor events so that’s when we came up with the idea to go to them and have the Presbyterian Oasis.”
The group started the Presbyterian Oasis at a “community days” event last summer. Participants gave out water and had raffle tickets for basket prizes as well as information about the Presbyterian Church. Members were mostly pleased with the results, so they did a similar booth at a local pumpkin festival in the fall.
This summer, four of the churches will host a joint Vacation Bible School.
In February, the group hosted an evangelism conference led by Sue Wonderland from the Synod of the Trinity and organized by Jaberg and Linda Webster, a Christian Educator at Faith United Presbyterian.
“The only problem we discovered during the Oases was that no one, not even the pastors of the churches, felt comfortable talking about God. We wanted to train people how to do that and share their faith in a winsome and genuine way,” Jaberg said.
Seventeen non-clergy members from six of the churches attended the event to learn how to articulate why they love their church and how Jesus has impacted their lives.
“The idea was to encourage the churches to share their faith story,” Hamilton said. “Those that attended will meet again in April to check in with each other, encourage one another and talk about next steps.”
One focus moving forward will be on young adults. The churches already have ministries serving about 120 young adults in eight groups, but the group would like to reach out to un-churched young people.
“This has been a good ministry to come together with the other pastors and learn to work together,” Hamilton said. “Many of the churches in the group have benefitted. They’ve gotten to hone their evangelism skills and all of the churches have seen more visitors on Sundays thanks to getting out and meeting people at the community events we’ve done.”
“It’s worked so well because we have seven church leaders who all have a passion for evangelism and the missional church,” Jaberg says. “The driving passion for all of us has been how to win the un-churched over.”
“What they’ve done has been amazing,” Perrine said. “They’ve really got some pretty cool cooperation going on there.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.
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