Facing a slow death, the declining membership of Christ United Methodist Church in Maplewood gathered in 2015 to confront their future.
The aging, mostly white congregation had shrunk to fewer than 100 members. The collection plate no longer covered a full-time pastor’s salary. And it had tenuous connections to its neighborhood, now a mosaic of immigrant families of differing faiths.
“We gave up on survival,” said the Rev. Rachael Warner, then a rookie pastor in her first assignment. “We decided if our church only had a few more years left, we wanted them to be years of full integrity — our values, lived out. We decided to let the Holy Spirit show us where to go and follow without reservation.”
Taking a line from country star Tim McGraw, they were going to “live like you were dying.”
Church members breached the comfort of their own walls, offering their service at a school, a mosque and neighbors’ homes.
The church, located just south of Interstate 94 near McKnight Road, took Highwood Hills Elementary School under its wing. The St. Paul public school of 300 mostly immigrant children has no parent-teacher organization, so church members stepped in. They made and served meals to busy teachers during parent-teacher conferences. When the school designed a new logo and mascot, the church bought T-shirts for the students.
“That relationship surprised us, the way we were so embraced,” said Kit Hoskin, church lay leader.
They bought a new rug for a classroom, provided food and beverages for family night and volunteered at school events.
“I am very appreciative. They do a whole lot. They help teachers as well as the students,” said Highland Hills Principal Fatima Lawson. “They are very open to anything the school needs.”
The church opened its doors for a teacher training event. It’s working with the school to establish a “peacemaker’s program” and student award. And church members gave the school $7,000 and wrote letters thanking teachers who work long hours.
“They are on the front lines of the hard work of education and community building. We wanted to be present in our support and encouragement of them,” Warner said.
Church members say they don’t speak of their faith; they live it.
“Our motivation for partnership is, it’s part of our values,” Warner said. “We all want our neighborhood to be safe and healthy. We all want our kids to grow up with dreams and the tools to achieve those dreams.”
The church forged a bond with the Islamic Society of Woodbury, sharing meals and words of encouragement as it raises money for a permanent mosque. Church members fixed up the society’s aging playground, threw open the gates and invited families. They also started a monthly community drop-in day and meal for neighborhood seniors.
What started as community outreach has breathed new life into the church.
“The one who gives up his life will find it,” said Warner, paraphrasing scripture.
The church is not out of the woods, but membership has grown a bit. Members can now afford a full-time pastor and those who do come are inspired by the new outreach mission.
“We are starting to have new families come. We are starting to have baptisms and weddings. There is a feeling of hope and new life,” Hoskin said.
Warner agrees. “We have really come alive,” she said. “I hope other small churches look outside themselves, and see what God might be pushing them to be.”