When the Rev. Chip Freed arrived at Garfield Memorial United Methodist Church near Cleveland, Ohio, in 2004, he found a 200-person congregation in need of vitality, growth and diversity.
Using the Great Commission as his foundation, Freed led the congregation through a six-year process of change. That change has led to 650 baptisms and has grown the church to 1,100 members who worship at two campuses. No one ethnic group comprises more than 52 percent of the congregation.
“Ministry grows out of healthy evangelistic DNA,” said Freed. “But this transition wasn’t easy, it didn’t come without challenges.
“We tell people to expect two things at Garfield Memorial UMC: You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and you are only going to like 70 percent of what happens here. This wasn’t something we said at the beginning of this transition, but now, it’s a way of casting a vision of who we are.”
How did they become a diverse congregation?
Freed identifies three main areas of change that transformed the church into the multiethnic congregation it is today.
1. Outward focus and vision casting
“We needed the reminder that our main purpose, the Great Commission, is the ‘why’ of the church,” said Freed. “We need to tell people that God loves them.”
Church leaders consistently hold that focus in everything they do, every communication, every sermon. Dedication to casting the vision of the church slowly shifted the church’s focus outward to people in the community who did not attend a church.
“Non-churched people live in diverse environments. When the focus is on the non-churched, diversity comes in the building,” Freed said.
2. Worship experiences for people outside of the church
The congregation intentionally designs worship experiences that allow all people to feel welcome, comfortable and able to connect. The services reflect the congregation, with diverse worship leaders and music styles that honor different cultures.
3. Diverse leadership
“If churches are serious about diversity, they need to empower diverse leaders. Everyone visits the church website before they visit the church. Visitors look for authenticity and diverse community … they visit the staff page,” said Freed. “We are intentional at all levels of church leadership, so it is reflective [of the congregation] … and we are conscious that God provides the best leaders.”
To jumpstart the process of diverse growth, Freed emphasized a need to build awareness of the church so that the community would know more about the congregation. In the first five years of the effort, 75 percent of first-time guests attended a worship service because they had seen the church’s outreach materials. Now, someone in the congregation invites 90 percent of first-time guests – the church averages 16 guests per week.
“We built momentum. Then, it became contagious,” Freed said.
What outreach efforts did Garfield Memorial UMC try? Anything that would get the church’s name in front of people by meeting them where they were. They established a presence among diverse people seeking community through efforts such as:
- Information booths at local festivals, such as the Cleveland Asian Festival
- Sponsorship of a 5K race that supported a local nonprofit
- A coffee truck in front of the church that distributed free coffee for anyone who stopped by
- Direct mail postcards
- Door hangers
- Yard signs
- Radio ads
- Billboards to advertise specific events and campaigns
Some of these initial efforts continue today while others have fallen away so that the church can try new endeavors. Rev. Freed refers to these events as “service marketing.” They include a prom for youth with special needs and a back-to-school and health-screening event that welcomes more than 350 children in poverty, at least 100 of which come from refugee families.
Welcoming visitors & creating connections
Personalized, multi-point follow-ups with visitors and warm invitations to be a part of the congregation are important parts of Garfield Memorial UMC’s growth. When someone visits the church, there is a team of a dozen Mingle Ministers ready to greet them. The Mingle Ministers’ only responsibility is to watch for someone they have never seen before and then spend time welcoming them to church.
The church invites guests to fill out a form on the church’s website that collects basic contact information, details about their interests and how they heard about the church. Within 48 hours, they receive an individualized gift bag on their doorstep. Based on their responses, it might contain anything from favorite snacks to an item featuring a preferred sports team’s logo.
Genuine community like that at Garfield Memorial UMC is an aspect of churches that United Methodist Communications’ research has identified as something that people unaffiliated with a church desire. David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, said, “Twice the number of U.S. adults tell us they are lonely compared to 10 years ago—and that relational gap represents a real opportunity for churches that want to reach young seekers."
The guest will receive a message from a pastor within a week as well. Then, they will get an email inviting them to be a part of something that would interest them. For instance, mothers might be invited to join a “Where Moms Connect” small group. People have an opportunity to quickly find and connect with people who have like interests – even in the midst of the large congregation.
The church also offers opportunities for congregants to embrace and celebrate the church’s diversity. One is “Multiethnic Conversations,” based on a book by Mark DeYmaz and Oneya Okuwobi. The nine-week-long small-group meetings allow people to break down barriers and have meaningful discussions that encourage unity.
Church leaders set an example
Rev. Freed suggests that church leaders’ first step in creating change is setting an example of what it looks like to live out the church’s vision and values. For Garfield Memorial UMC, that is to “Widen the Circle” through safety, authenticity, growth, diversity and forgiveness.
“Spend 95 percent of your time with non-churched people,” he said. “Be present in your communities. We have to model this so others will come along and create a culture shift.”
*Laura Buchanan is a PR Specialist at United Methodist Communications.