Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations responding to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s call to "Grow Christ's Church Deep and Wide." The call to grow in evangelism, discipleship, servanthood and diversity was adopted by the 2008 General Assembly and renewed by the 2010 General Assembly. — Jerry L. Van Marter
"If you build it, they will come," could apply not just to magical baseball fields, but to the traditional way most people have thought about church.
Too often, church attendance has been left to those who want to be part of a congregation and show up and do so. People who didn't come were more or less left out, regardless of their reasons for not being there on Sunday.
The Rev. Debbie Funke, pastor of Manhattan (Montana) Presbyterian Church in Yellowstone Presbytery thought often about these people and wanted to do more to reach out to them.
"I was aware of these people, some of them actually young adults who had come through our ministries years ago as children and youth," Funke said. "There were a number of people who were in difficult situations in life who were not connected to the church at all."
Funke was also aware that many of them had substance abuse issues or other life-controlling problems.
"They were pretty heavy on my heart," she said. "One of the young women, a couple of years ago her mother died and I was at the funeral and I just saw all these young adults who were so lost and so grief-stricken and just confused."
Funke was pretty sure they weren’t going to come into the church or to a Bible study, but she wanted to do something. A neighbor who was also connected to a lot of these young people through her restaurant business felt the same, and the two began discussing whether they might be able to provide a more inviting space.
"I wanted to give them just a place where they can talk about their questions about God and their anger with God and their struggles in various ways and it would revolve around a meal," Funke said.
It was important that the venue be non-threatening, non-judgmental, and just a safe place where people could express themselves and ask anything. Funke says they also wanted a controlled substance-free place and several expressed a desire to make friends that weren’t involved in alcohol and drug use.
"They have drifted from the church, but their struggles in life have gotten them to say 'I need to go back and revisit this, but the way church is and the way I feel about some of the things I've done or how I’m living, I don't feel comfortable going to church very much.' It's like meeting them halfway," said the Rev. Kathy Goodrich, executive presbyter of Yellowstone Presbytery.
God's Quest, as the group is called, began meeting a little over two years ago every other Thursday night at the home of Funke's neighbor. Babysitters are hired, and after dinner the children go next door to Funke's home while the adults talk.
"We began and I didn’t know where they were or what their issues were," Funke said. "Surprisingly, I found it wasn't the kind of issue I thought they would want to discuss — like if God is good, why is there so much evil in the world or world hunger and some of the other topics that often come up."
"There was a sense of 'We don't even know if God is,'" she continued. "'We don't know who God is, we don't know anything about the Bible,' and they really wanted to know so we've done a variety of things with that group."
Funke expected it to be mostly just discussion but has found the group enjoys looking things up and reading passages from the Bible. Despite her initial thoughts, the group is actually working on a Bible study program that they chose.
"Some of these folks are really deepening their journey with God," she said.
As they've gotten more comfortable, Funke says, some of them do attend Sunday worship occasionally and have also begun to serve the church in other ways, such as volunteering with the youth group or painting murals for Vacation Bible School.
"It's taking a little while, but the group is moving beyond just meeting on Thursday nights. They do want to serve and be engaged so it's just coming in a different way, but it's been very exciting to see folks who had no church background or connection and not necessarily an inclination to show up to worship, that they were responsive to this group," Funke said.
And the group's "different way" of bringing people to a stronger faith life is a good example of what the larger church could work on.
"It's the church being missional — going to where people are — and from our perspective the church needs to understand it's not just about attracting people to the existing things we’re doing in the existing way we've been doing them,” Goodrich said. "We need to go out and meet people where they are and then find out how to keep adapting to different cultures and generations."
Funke said that since starting the group, she's done weddings for three of the couples, including premarital counseling. Some of them are talking about being baptized or having children baptized and while that hasn’t happened yet, Funke thinks it’s very close. She feels some of these people are really deepening and taking their faith seriously.
"It's getting the church out where the people are. Getting people into the church cannot be your big goal," Funke said.
Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church of Statesville.