The Woodlands UMC: Widening the Doorstep of Faith

Date Posted: 3/27/2014

The Woodlands UMC is nestled within a master-planned community that has experienced unprecedented growth in recent years. Church leaders have been expanding facilities and ministries to welcome new families to the neighborhood and to a church that is focused outward.

Epicenter of Growth

Construction cranes dot the tree- and tower-filled skyline of Town Center, the commercial hub of The Woodlands in South Montgomery County.  At ground level, earthmovers clear land and street pavers pour new concrete. In the middle of it all stands the iconic dome of The Woodlands United Methodist Church. The 10,000-member congregation finds itself at the epicenter of a business boom fueled by the relocation of ExxonMobil Corporation’s world headquarters in nearby Springwoods Village in 2015. 
The church stands right across the street from the new Hughes Landing development offering a new condo tower, commercial offices, retail shops, restaurants, a hotel, and popular health food market. These and other construction projects are the reason why The Woodlands was recently named the fastest growing city in Texas by NerdWallet, an online economic research company. The report cites 3.6% job growth from 2009-2012 in The Woodlands, an area that is home to more than 60 companies and 27,000 employees.  
Imagine Campaign 
Several years ago pastors and lay leaders at The Woodlands UMC anticipated the economic boom and the arrival of thousands of new residents to the area. "We saw a need to widen the doorstep of faith, so others can come in," says Dr. Ed Robb, senior pastor, as he described the reasons for launching a 3-year, $23M capital expansion campaign called Imagine. "We imagine a thriving church at the center of a thriving community, full of families and people of all ages and from all walks of life who are seeking a closer connection to God and to each other. And of course, we need more space for them to do that. We are making room for people who aren't here yet."  
By year's end The Woodlands UMC will:
(1) open the doors of a new family life center — home to the newly created The Woodlands Methodist School, offering accredited Christian education for grades K-6; 
(2) begin worship in a 1,000-seat auditorium for its Harvest contemporary worship community and;
(3) expand its "worship in a warehouse" experience called The Loft. "We recognized not everyone wants to come worship in such a large, formal place as our main building. That's why we started The Loft, our come-as-you-are-questions-and-all worship experience," he adds.    
Welcoming Newcomers 
The Woodlands UMC has long prided itself on offering something for everyone, but ministry leaders are placing new emphasis on welcoming newcomers who are looking to get connected. The church staff is adopting new tactics to enhance hospitality, including wearing new photo name badges and practicing what they call the 15/5 rule: at 15 ft. a staff person makes pleasant eye contact with anyone they encounter on campus and at five feet the staff person extends a warm verbal greeting, offers assistance and guides that person to their destination if they need help.
Communication & Outreach
Digital communication is playing a pivotal role in welcoming newcomers at The Woodlands UMC. Interactive kiosks are being planned for each worship area lobby, offering campus visitors information about daily events, maps and event registrations. 
By Easter, the church will launch a new website with the first-time visitor in mind. The interactive site will offer introductory videos, original photos, and an enhanced portal for live streaming of Loft, Harvest and Traditional worship services each week. The site will also offer directions, giving options, prayer request forms, and current serving opportunities. In addition to the website, the church uses a planning calendar to share stories, photos, scripture and ministry happenings through weekly emails and social media channels. 
The church also buys advertising on Google and in several South Montgomery County relocation guides so people searching information on The Woodlands will find The Woodlands UMC. The guides are being distributed by corporate human resource officers at ExxonMobil and other companies who are helping hundreds of employees transition to The Woodlands. 
"So much of our strategy is focused on offering current, clear and compelling information to people who are watching us from a distance," notes Mike Sims, Communications Director at the church. "We’re getting back to basics. We’re removing clutter and 'insider language' that might confuse newcomers. If we've done our job well, our visitor experience lives up the expectations of people who have already formed opinions after trying us online and from seeing us in social media, and in paid advertising and from hearing about us from their friends." 
Mike says, "We want to be better storytellers. People everywhere are drawn in to a good story. It's such a current and accessible medium, especially in video format. So I am constantly reminding ministry leaders and my staff to be looking for 'evidence of transformation.' Where is God changing lives? Who is different because of what we do at our church? Let's go tell that story and hold it up as proof of God working in us and through us to impact His people." 
Strategic Engagement 
"The larger we get, the more personal we have to become," adds Ed, who recruited two new pastors last year to help grow small groups ministry at the church. "Small group engagement and opportunities for personal connections will help people feel like they belong here."
The church is expanding noontime activities to engage people who live and work near the church. In addition to traditional Bible studies and small group offerings, the church recently hired a group fitness instructor to create classes to promote balance in the busy lifestyle.
The church also plays host to a variety of community events and programs throughout the year and will be able to host more events once the new meeting and worship spaces open later this year. The pastor adds, "We want to offer as many opportunities as possible for people to come to our church, whether it's for worship or some other event. We know once they're here, they're going to find something they like and they're going to want to come back. Are we’re ready for them.”