Connecting in a new way

One Arizona congregation looks at new approaches to ministry

October 15, 2012

Louisville

“Don’t be afraid. What is the worst thing that can happen?” It was just this approach that has resulted in membership growth for the First Presbyterian Church in Casa Grande, Arizona. Last year alone, the church added 62 members.

Stephanie Nelson, family life director, shared the varied approaches they took to meet the diverse needs of the congregation. “We try new things,” she says, “weird, different things—and then let God do his thing.”

One of those things was reinventing their contemporary worship service. They have offered both traditional and contemporary versions for a few years, “but really the only difference was in the music,” Nelson says. Along with pastor Ben Seller, leaders stepped back and re-envisioned what the purpose of a contemporary service should be and who their audience really was.

The result is a service called CONNECT, and it isn’t held in the chapel but in the Family Life Center. It isn’t set up with pews but round tables that allow for connecting and worshiping together instead of just sitting next to one another.

CONNECT started in November 2010, and attendance continues to grow as people embrace this approach to fellowship. This program has served as the catalyst for growth over the past two years for this Casa Grande congregation. It is not unusual for newcomers to walk into the Family Life Center and ask, “Is this a church service?” Nelson laughs. “It simply doesn’t look like a typical worship set up for most people, but it works for us.”

In May 2011, the congregation started a women’s fellowship called “Chat, Chew & Chocolate,” which was centered more on fellowship and less on a specific curriculum or study guide. A speaker usually talks for a short while and then poses questions to the women for discussion. Either full meals or sometimes just desserts are provided, but there is always chocolate.

Chat, Chew & Chocolate is an actual organization whose program is flexible to fit various environments, faith-based or otherwise. The program is designed to empower, inspire, and connect women.

Other events also feed members both physically and spiritually: game nights, where everyone brings a board game and spends time together playing; movie nights in which the entire family comes, often in pajamas, to watch a family movie, eat popcorn, and spend quality time together; and a harvest festival that offers a safe but fun alternative to trick-or-treating.

Social media plays a huge part in promoting these ministries and communicating with members. The church has four different Facebook groups focused on particular demographics and associated programs. Social media hasn’t replaced bulletins and newsletters, but it has reached out to those who are more connected and taken their levels of engagement to new heights.

Their most recent adventure is a women’s book club that was started to meet the needs of those women who wanted to focus specifically on education. The books are chosen from suggestions of members and approved by the Christian education team. The books are not always Christian, which allows the group to engage the culture and discuss these books from a Christian worldview. Having started in June, the group is holding steady with at least 10 attendees each time. “This is a manageable size,” says Nelson. “We discuss the books in depth to meet that spiritual need.”

One of the ways they reached out to men and women in their 20s or 30s was through discerning the “gospel” of particular movies. They met weekly and watched 25 minutes or so of a movie before discussing what “good news” the movie conveyed. With one movie lasting four weeks, the conversations grew and frequently involved new people. Group members were also challenged to go out and watch a movie with non-Christian friends and follow it with similar discussions. Many small groups and worshiping communities grew out of this approach, even though it only lasted five months in its first go around. Leaders are considering writing curricula for additional movies, so the groups may come back—and “who knows what will happen,” Nelson says. Her advice: “Don’t dismiss something because it is odd or weird; try something different. We did.”

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