116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
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On any given Saturday afternoon anywhere from 80 to 130 people will walk through the doors at First Lutheran Church, stay for an hour or so and then leave, returning to their homes and lives until the next Saturday.
They aren't there for the church service. They won't be singing hymns or reciting liturgies, there won't be a collection plate passed around. They're not members of the church, yet they and others like them have been passing through those doors for more than 25 years.
Vickie Hughes knows these people well. They come for the Saturday Evening Meal Program – or SEMP – what Hughes said is one of the most important outreach ministries First Lutheran provides.
'I've always described them as the have-nots and the can-nots,” said Hughes, ministry engagement coordinator at First Lutheran. 'There are some people who don't have the resources to put on a meal, but there are also those who cannot – for emotional reasons or anything else.”
For many churches, like First Lutheran, reaching out and serving the community is something that has long been a part of their custom and belief system. It is, church leaders say, what Jesus has called them to do.
For others, across all denominational lines, the serving stopped or dramatically slowed. Many of those churches then began to see attendance slip, said Thom S. Rainer, a religious researcher and president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, part of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tennessee.
Rainer noted in 2012 that his research showed churches that stopped connecting through what he termed 'cold call” visits – in their homes or otherwise outside the walls of the church – began to see declines in attendance and budgets.
'A relatively small number of churches, however, did not leave the void of outwardly focused ministries unfilled. They, like the declining churches, stopped doing traditional outreach ministries. But, unlike the declining churches, they replaced the traditional approach with something new.
The Rev. Melanie Van Weelden knows small congregations well – she serves two of them as pastor of both First Christian Church in Center Point and Urbana Christian Church in Urbana. Each church hosts about 50 people in its Sunday morning service.
Few of those sitting in the pews on Sundays are children and teenagers, which meant both churches had waning attendance at Sunday school. Church leaders in Center Point decided youth outreach was an important mission to help build the church as well as reach out into the community, so they started to do things a bit differently.
'We're in a time of transition, churches all over are transitioning, attendance has been declining,” Van Weelden said. 'We're no exception. We're working hard to be meaningful and to be able to serve the world we live in.”
For the youth, that meant getting rid of Sunday morning 'Sunday school” and offering a midweek alternative. The youth gathering was moved to Wednesday evenings, and success was almost immediate.
'The program predates me – I came in October 2012 and it was already going – but the attendance exploded once they moved it off Sunday mornings,” Van Weelden said.
The youth program now has anywhere from 50-75 participants each week – most of whom are not members of the church.
'It's just kind of known in the community that this is a place kids like to be,” Van Weelden said. 'They know we want them there, and it's a safe place that they can come and build their faith, so when they're adults, even if they weren't brought up with faith, they have something they can rely on.”
Adult programs at both churches take place during the week, as well. The Sunday service in both Center Point and Urbana has taken on a new identity.
'Instead of having Sunday morning be the ‘be all, end all' of our faith experience, it's now the place where we come in and recharge ourselves so our faith is strong, and then we go out into the world and serve the rest of the week,” she said.
The Rev. Stew Royce at Noelridge Christian Church in Cedar Rapids said his congregation is doing the same. Congregants there have formed a team to help with First Lutheran's Saturday Evening Meal Program, and have been delivering desserts to the program for several years.
'I think as the needs in our community become greater, the churches become more responsive,” Royce said. 'The homeless shelters are stepping up to make sure everyone has a place to stay, and there are places for people to get a good meal if they need one.”
Royce said outreach not only helps the community, but also the church itself.
'We're past the time when people are born and raised in the church, so the church really does need to change its focus and start reaching out into the community,” he said. 'They're not coming to the church, so the church needs to go to them.”