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Small churches can make big impacts

SUMMARY: Don't be afraid to tackle a big idea at your church. Consider the opportunities and find one or two that grab your congregation's hearts and minds. 

Start with one manageable bite, then another. Soon that next big idea won't be just an idea. Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church, for example, doesn't shy away from challenges. In fact, the 70-member Nashville, Tenn., church embraces them with gusto.

About 15 years ago, Sixty-First Avenue UMC became the annual home for the Last-Minute Toy Store. In 2008, the store provided donated toys for almost 4,000 children. In 2002, the church started a community carnival with free music, games and food. The event expanded and now includes a petting zoo and a health fair.

"This has made me such a believer in the United Methodist connection," says Pastor Paul Slentz, who works with a steering committee that includes members of Sixty-First Avenue UMC as well as other Nashville congregations. 

In 2005, New Orleans took a big brunt of Hurricane Katrina, bringing Louisiana's new plight to the forefront of Americans' minds. While media and public interest waned, the need for assistance did not. First United Methodist Church, Slidell, La., was inspired to create Project NOAH (New Orleans Area Hope) as part of its disaster-relief and emergency home-repair outreach ministry. The Louisiana Conference also supports the mission.

Project NOAH employs a director and college-age students to oversee teen volunteers who give up a week of their summer and spend the time in New Orleans doing everything from installing drywall to painting. But Project NOAH requires much more than coordinating construction responsibilities. The project has its own center where the volunteers stay. It also provides all food and beverages, plus a little entertainment.

"Our goal is to improve the living conditions for families in need and offer transforming experiences for volunteers and homeowners alike by sharing and receiving the love of Christ," writes project director Jennifer Bouso in a letter to youth directors. "The hope is that volunteers will return home with an expanded view of the world and an inspiration for creating ways to be involved in their community."

In Redondo Beach, Calif., a simple request led to a new outreach ministry. In 1990, St. Paul United Methodist Church served as a "counting station" as the city had its first-ever homeless count. Church volunteers quickly saw the need and sought a way to help the homeless. Today, Project Needs relies on volunteers and donations to serve a weekly hot meal to an average 120 people and to operate a pantry that provides food and staples twice a month to about 300 families.

The Mission Thrift Store at First United Methodist Church, San Diego, gives people a source for less-expensive quality antique furniture, books and clothing as well as a place to donate their unneeded items. Dottie Kennedy serves as director. Volunteers staff the store, open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. six days a week.

The San Diego church also sows seeds through the New Roots Community Farm project, which allows refugees and other low-income residents to grow their own food. A church can convert extra property into a community vegetable garden or a congregation member can invite others to use his or her land for a garden.

Good ideas extend across oceans, too. A New Zealand woman uses the church and its volunteers to make a difference on one street. Her inspirational projects are easily customized to fit a geographic area fitting the number of available volunteers. Among the projects:

  • Bread Bags—A local bakery donates bread that volunteers bag and deliver to homes on the street.
  • House of the Month—After obtaining permission from a home's residents, church volunteers spend a day fixing up the property, cleaning and so forth. When the big truck pulls down the street that day, many neighbors come out to help, too.
  • Hamper of the Month—One person or household is selected on the street to receive a basket of pampering treats they probably could not afford. During the holidays, a hamper is prepared for every house on the street.