The United Methodist Church for All People in Columbus, OH, has a saying, “If the front doors are open, the coffee pot is on!” Radical hospitality infuses this unique church that is serving a cross-section of people from a variety of economic groups in urban Columbus.
I recently took a group to visit the church (See picture.), and here’s some of what I learned…
The church was started in 1999 by Rev. John Edgar. At the time, he was a District Superintendent in the Columbus metro area. As he looked at the dozens of UM churches in the area, few were really transforming the urban areas of Columbus. So he asked the existing churches to partner together and to support a missional effort in the southeast part of the city.
This effort began with a ministry called the Free Store. The Free Store is just that, a store that gives away clothes and other household items that have been donated by churches, businesses, and individuals. To “shop” in the store, one must become a member by providing family information–simply names and addresses, that’s it! Members are limited each month to a certain number of items; however, they can shop whenever the store is open, which is five days a week at select times. The store serves around 25,000 people a year and has 150,000 different members!
The store helped a church-planting team, led by Rev. Edgar, to begin to build relationships with the people in the community. Once they developed relationships and trust, they launched a Sunday morning worship service. In 2003 they became a United Methodist church with 100 charter members.
Now the church offers a worship service not only on Sunday mornings, but also prior to whenever the Free Store is open. The service I attended, which was typical, was structured–had a call to worship, singing, scripture and sermon–but was also very free flowing and included many spontaneous prayer requests, testimonies, and even solos by those attending.
Food is also a key way the church develops relationships. They have a Sunday meal after worship, provided by other UM churches. They have their Garden ministry, which gives away donated surplus food once a week. And they have their Loaves and Fishes feeding ministry held in a former Catholic school down the street, which is serving about 50 people each week.
Perhaps the most impressive thing–at least to me–is how they have leveraged community assets to transform the lives of those in the community. The city government, regional charities, the General Board of Global Ministries are all partnering with grants, funding, volunteers, and interns.
A huge hospital just down the street has not only started a free clinic in their building, but has also asked them to handle the restoration of 32 square-blocks of housing for low income persons. The hospital asked the church’s Community Development Corporation (a 501-3c non-profit) to handle the project because the church already had a track record of developing affordable housing for low income families. In the next year, the church will spend around $12,000,000 on neighborhood housing, all donated funds! Wow! George Howard, who is on staff at the church and a friend of mine, says that it’s as though God just continues to provide the church with more and more opportunities.
So how’s a church to start such a transformational effort? Rev. Edgar gives this advice. It all starts with prayer. The church recruited prayer teams to focus on each of its key areas of ministry, prayed, and then waited for God’s direction. Focus on the assets rather than on the needs. Focus on the assets that are at hand–within your church, the community, and denomination. View the people–even if they are poor–as assets too because they are!
Worship has got to be inclusive of all ethnic and economic groups if it is to truly reflect God’s Kingdom. Work hard at not buying the reality that birds of a feather flock together. All are sinners in need of God’s grace; worship is the one place we’re all on an even playing field. And finally, start small.
What an inspiration for all of us! May we be inspired to follow their example. Let’s go for it!
— Ed Fenstermacher