Central United Methodist Church is 184 years old. Now she is at a crossroads although she may not realize it yet. So she writes a letter to her younger self—about her past and about the possibilities of her future. Can this letter to herself help clarify a path forward?
There are those who believe we can learn from our past. You have certainly had an amazing one. Your start began in 1832 in a log cabin south of the square and you were called Fayetteville Methodist Church then. It wasn’t long before, in 1840, you built and moved into a frame building on Center Street. Your congregation became Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Although your building was burned in 1863 in time your congregation built a brick building on the same site.
Your membership grew rapidly and your name was changed to Central Methodist Episcopal Church South. You kept on growing until once again the congregation built a new building, this time (1899) on the corner of Dickson and Highland Streets. There were 660 members who celebrated the 75th Anniversary of Methodism in Fayetteville in November of 1907. More growth led to a Sunday School Annex, programs for youth and university students, women’s groups and the construction of a new parsonage.
In 1953 your members built a “New England Colonial” style sanctuary. Further change brought the construction of Wesley Hall on the site of the old church. Later, in 1961, a children and youth building was built (Education Building) and connected to the Sanctuary by a covered walkway to the west.
In 1968 the Uniting Conference of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Churches renamed you “Central United Methodist Church.” The sanctuary burned twice after 1953—rebuilt or remodeled each time. But you have kept on growing and changing and reaching out, acquiring new properties to expand both your facilities and your ministries.
What began in a log cabin has now become a Sanctuary, an Education building, the Wesley Building dedicated to administration and adult classrooms, an Activities Center, a Student Life Center, a parking deck, two other buildings bought to house additional administrative offices, and two off campus sites, Genesis Church and Wesley Foundation campus ministries. You have had 52 senior pastors and are nearing 5000 in membership.
Each step of your growth presented a kind of crossroads. Each time you decided to move forward. Each time you viewed your growth as a way to reach out and witness for Christ and salvation. You have become the largest United Methodist congregation in Arkansas. Your impact potential is tremendous. The question you will be considering soon is whether what you have done is enough. Or, do you act true to your DNA?
Central, you cannot be surprised that a growing church like you must, as you have always done in the past, face the needs of that growth. Each step of the way you have done so. Each time you have kept your eyes on the future, dedicated most of all to fulfilling your mission, that of “Making Christ central to life for the people of Northwest Arkansas and around the world.” (Based on Matthew 28:19-20). Significantly, as you face the crossroads ahead, you have recently been asked two questions:
The first question is think about what you will need to stop doing and what you will need to start doing if God leads you to become twice the size you are today? Some thoughts include:
- Stop being reliant on the last few weeks of each year and a few generous people for financial strength. Encourage more people to adopt recurring weekly or monthly giving.
- Move away from the thinking that your church is here simply to serve the members. Move toward equipping each member to serve.
- Foster the expectation that we are all to be more than just once a week observers. Regular attendance is critical. Maintain your focus on the importance of worship and praising God.
- Make sure you are focusing your priorities and resources on creating avenues of salvation, spreading the gospel, and bringing in new members.
- Help new members assimilate into the church, form significant relationships and help them grow spiritually. You do want to keep them don’t you? They won’t stay if you overlook this.
- Help members see themselves as the church, not just the buildings as the church. Your buildings are lovely, or old, or lovely and old. Central keep in mind the buildings are the setting and not the Word. You have to decide what role preservation and ministry needs play in fulfilling your mission. Sometimes they coincide and sometimes they are in conflict.
- Is time nearing when you have to consider modernizing and updating some of your facilities in order to draw and make room for new families in the years ahead? Can Central as it is now accommodate doubling in size in the future?
You will soon be given a master plan for the future to consider. A group of decision makers of good character and respected by the congregation have dared to dream and develop a plan for your future. They will make recommendations for you to consider. HowHow will you respond?
The second question is: Do you have more dreams about the future or more memories about the past? The thing about your past Central, is that you were never static for long. Look at your history of how at each crossroad you chose to fulfill the dreams of your future and not to be content with your past accomplishments. Things to consider include:
- Improved facilities for your future growth.
- Continued growth of the Wise Kids after school program at Genesis Church.
- Become a teaching church that will help other congregations learn from us.
- Creation of a Care Center that provides crisis support in a Christ-centered manner,
- Additional satellite church locations.
- Ministry to the growing Hispanic Community.
- Increased diversity in your church family.
- Expansion of the music ministry.
These are tall orders and worthy dreams Central. You may have heard that most churches aren’t growing these days. Our culture is becoming more and more secular. Churches are not connecting with people and effectively fulfilling their mission.
Central, you will need to tackle these issues of substance (the Gospel) as you tackle the issues of form (facilities). The journey begins with prayer. You will need to minister to your people in a way that engages them, so that they feel like they matter to you. If they matter to God they must matter to you. But Central, if your leaders are more in love with the past than they are with the future, the end of who you have been may be near. If your church is more of a museum to 1950 than a periscope to the future, the likelihood of reaching the next generation diminishes with every passing day.
While you are at it Central, care for one another including your staff and pastors. Being a pastor is an incredibly tough and sometimes a lonely and heartbreaking job. The best church members look for ways to support each other and the pastors more than complain.
Finally, Central, never allow yourself to become one of those churches who, when they are old, talk about how they missed their chances.
“Only as high as I reach can I grow, only as far as I seek can I go, only as deep as I look can I see, only as much as I dream can I be.” Karen Raun.
Central United Methodist Church
As dictated to Donna Pettus, Lay Leader