VCI: Athens UMC Finds a New Vision and a Path to the Future
By: Sherri Gragg
After years of dramatically declining membership, 166-year-old Athens First UMC has found new life through the Vibrant Church Initiative.
As Rev. Jason Smith of Athens FUMC works on his sermon, bits of debris rain down on him from the ceiling. His laptop is powered by a nearby light switch, a necessary adjustment since the outlets in Smith’s section of the facility have stopped working.
But Smith couldn’t be happier. Sure, his facility is in dire shape, but his church is vibrant.
A New Season of Ministry
Just a little over two years ago, Athens FUMC was struggling. “The church had been through a lot of brokenness over the past five years,” Smith said. “We saw an attendance decline of around 130 during that time.” As church leadership discussed the situation, they came to two conclusions. They wanted to change the way Athens FUMC was approaching their community, and…they needed help to figure out how to do that.
The Vibrant Church Initiative was the answer. In the autumn of 2015, Athens FUMC invited VCI to come help revitalize their church. After evaluating the church’s strengths and weaknesses, the VCI Consultation Team detailed five Prescriptions for new life at Athens FUMC. The starting point was for VCI Coach John Stephenson to help the church establish a vision to guide them.
The members of Athens FUMC walked the streets of their community and prayed, seeking God’s leading. Since many of the members live outside of the neighborhood surrounding the church, they were unfamiliar with their mission field. The congregation emerged from their prayer walks with their eyes opened to and hearts burning for their community. They were sure that God wanted them to more actively invest their gifts and resources in the families and schools surrounding their church.
“One of the first things we did was change our policy to allow non-profits to use our facility,” Smith said, “Our church gym is now the number one used event location in Athens.”
But Athens FUMC didn’t stop there. They began reaching out to the local schools to find out how they could come alongside them to care for students. While they are working to establish those connections, they are busy loving the children closer to home. The church began approaching their relationship with the day school that meets on their campus with a new intentionality. Before, the school was a tenant. Now, the children are a cherished part of the church ministry and an important part of Athens FUMC’s vision for the future.
Prescriptions for a Change
Athens FUMC took the other four Prescriptions seriously as well, and in doing so overhauled their leadership structure, established a clear pathway for discipleship, reevaluated their facility needs, and changed their worship format. A former Cokesbury service, held at 8:30 a.m. was moved to 11:00 a.m. and transformed into a new modern worship service. In order to accommodate the format, church members invested not only funds but hours of manpower to overhaul a former fellowship hall to create a beautiful and welcoming new worship space. The sacrifice has paid off. Attendance has doubled in that service alone.
To date, Athens FUMC has met all of the VCI Prescriptions, and are in the process of writing themselves new ones. A new building project is on the list. Church leadership envisions a beautiful, inviting space that is large enough for everyone to gather.
Smith believes in VCI. The evidence of new life is all around him. A children’s ministry that cared for three children, has now blossomed to twenty-five. Overall attendance is up by 100 people each Sunday and shows no sign of slowing. It is the kind of growth that any pastor would cherish but for Smith, the most meaningful changes are less tangible. “Nothing is more rewarding than to see your entire church behind the cause of reaching outside your walls,” Smith said. “The process is hard. It is difficult. But it was worth the effort and sacrifice.”
Could your church benefit from VCI? Contact Mike Tyson, VCI Director at 713-521-9383. You may also learn more by visiting the VCI website, https://www.txcumc.org/vci