Church reaches new members at neighborhood pools and parks
By Lindsay Peyton
Grab your lawn chairs, picnic basket, cooler – and maybe even a beach towel. It’s time for church. Instead of asking families to come to campus, Memorial Drive UMC is offering to meet and greet current and prospective members off the beaten path. The congregation’s “Pop-Up Worship Series” meets for prayer, praise and fellowship at unusual settings, including parks, clubhouses and even swimming pools.
The idea of a “pop-up” worship first came to Memorial Drive UMC to describe the parking lot service during the height of the pandemic, Rev. Drew Essen, Executive Pastor, explained. Now, the concept is ready for a reprise.
“Our church’s focus for 2021 is welcome home,” he said. “We’re trying to reengage people back in the life of the church.”
In the beginning of the year, Essen explained, church leaders sat down to brainstorm ways to help members return to the pews. “As vaccinations have increased, and infections gone down, we’re noticing people have gotten out of the habit of going to church,” he said. “We’re trying to get them back.”
At the same time, he wondered how to best attract new people. He felt like the church had grown a little rusty in that area — especially when the past year was spent simply trying to stay connected. “How are we seeking the stranger the way Christ did?” Essen asked.
One lesson learned during the pandemic was creativity – and being innovative had to continue being a focus, Essen said. “Let’s get out and stop expecting people to come to us,” he proposed.
Small Worship Outdoors
Memorial Drive UMC decided to step off the property and go where their members lived. They searched for different parks and community centers, putting out feelers to see where they could set up a small worship service outdoors. “It took a while to find locations,” Essen said.
The church also named lay leaders to the cause – “neighborhood ambassadors” — to help organize the events and spread the word. The ambassadors promoted the pop-ups to members and invited interested neighbors to attend as well.
The first pop-up was held Sunday, June 27 at Wilchester Pool, the second on July 7 at Nottingham Forest Club, the third on July 18 at Country Village and the fourth at Nottingham West Pool on July 21.
“Each has a different vibe, and they have all been great,” Essen said. “They’ve been everything we hoped they would be.”
The pop-ups start around 7 p.m. The church brings water and popsicles. Guests show up with lawn chairs, blankets and coolers. There is a 30-minute service, complete with songs, a sermon and an offering for feeding ministry.
A worship leader, a guitar and a pastor lead the way, with a different pastor providing the message each time. “It looks a lot like a worship service,” Essen said.
The only difference is the locale – and the extra focus on the neighborhood. “We do a prayer over the neighborhood,” Essen said. “And we pray for those who are lonely, those who are experiencing hardship. It’s been really sweet.”
Guests are encouraged to stick around and meet their neighbors. Already, Essen said, relationships have formed. The pop-ups also provide a path for discipleship. Attendees are invited to form small groups. “It’s a perfect opportunity for a home church to form,” Essen said.
Families unfamiliar with the church get a snapshot of what Memorial Drive UMC is like. They also find an easy on-ramp to get involved.
Community Better Than the Couch
Church members get a reminder. “Community is better than the couch,” Essen said.
The event is also an opportunity to empower lay leaders, the pastor added.
There are two more pop-ups planned for July 28 at Bendwood Park and Aug. 1 at Plaza Oaks Club. Then, there is a return to church gathering planned for Sunday, Aug. 15.
Essen said a conversation has begun about how some parts of the pandemic should become part of the regular rhythm of ministry. Meeting people where they are and empowering lay leaders, for example, should continue, he explained. Neighborhood liaisons could also be an important asset moving forward.
The experience has been personally gratifying, Essen added. The pop-ups remind him of a church plant, the urgency of sharing the gospel and continually saying “Go!”
“At the core of it, it’s old school evangelism,” he said. “It’s like knocking on doors – only in new ways.”
And in the midst of the pop-up, as people sing, pray and praise, occasionally he hears a splash in the pool, the chatter of families, people meeting each other for the first time, and he is reminded that faith is all encompassing, and God is at work.
“It’s getting back to the heart of who we are,” Essen said. “It’s keeping it simple – and it’s been holy in a lot of ways.”