St. Johns United Church of Christ (Columbus, Ohio)
Picture an old church. Countless layers of paint keep the facade looking fresh, belying the age of the wood & bricks beneath. The church has stood for generations inside a neighborhood that has gone through countless economic booms and busts and immeasurable social changes.
Daring to Grow
Now step inside. You may see many empty pews. The congregants are older, singing from hymnals worn smooth by years of worship. The parishioners find comfort in the old songs and the community with one another as their children age and move away. These congregants have noticed the dwindling attendance and the decreasing financial offerings. The church continues to reach out and participate in the local community. They want to foster love and communion, but it’s a challenge when fewer folks are walking in the door.
This is a common story for many legacy churches, and St. John’s United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio, was no exception.
Nearing 150 years old, St. John’s was struggling to connect with local believers and maintain its attendance and pledged giving. While everyone at St. John’s knew the church was facing a crisis, few agreed on how to keep the church alive amid a rapidly changing city.
The Need for Change
Senior Pastor Gini knew something needed to change, but change can be a tough sell for a congregation steeped in generations of history. With her eyes on the future, Pastor Gini assembled a ministry team to support a new vision for the church.
They hired author and consultant Bill Easum to do the hard work of data analysis and ministry auditing, with the hope he would offer a clear path for healthy, brave growth. The forty page report he assembled on St. John’s offered stark news.
“He told us we had 5 years left, at best,” Pastor Gini says. “He told us, ‘If you do nothing, if you want to die happy in your home church, you can change nothing. But know you’re making a choice. You will be gone in 5 years.’”
That humbling diagnosis came with one alternative. “A Hail Mary pass,” recalls Pastor Gini. Easum offered St. John’s a ten step plan to radically transform the church. It would take all of their remaining resources to implement it.
Despite the turmoil incited in the congregation by Easum’s report, Pastor Gini was impressed by their bravery.
“Easum gave me a warning: you will have people leave. You will have people tell you ’It’s not our church anymore.’”
Pastor Gini replied, “It’s not our church, it’s God’s church.” The congregation agreed.
Remaining as an Unapologetically Progressive Christian Presence
Supported with financing by the United Church of Christ Cornerstone Fund, St. John’s began implementing Easum’s suggestions. They renovated the narthex, turning it into a coffee bar and casual gathering space. They hired new musicians to share contemporary songs for weekly worship. They began offering more contemporary ministries and working to attract skilled workers to help with the day-to-day tasks of running the church. They worked to sustain their relationship with Open Table, a ministry serving the housing-insecure population in Columbus.
The Hail Mary pass paid off. Less than two years after the radical shift in vision, St. John’s congregation has doubled in weekly attendance and has enjoyed a 42% increase in pledged giving.
“Cornerstone Fund financing helped us to remain an unapologetically progressive Christian presence in Columbus,” says Pastor Gini.
By being willing to undertake radical changes, St. John’s was able to apply their progressive values to the way they ran their ministry.
“We have to fund what we do, but you can’t value what we do in the typical ways, because what we do is invaluable,” says Pastor Gini.
While the future is always uncertain, St. John’s is enjoying a brighter outlook. “My deep hope is that God will continue to utilize St. Johns’ as a church in a rapidly changing city,” says Pastor Gini. As more worshippers arrive each Sunday to sing and clap along with the new band, it appears as though Pastor Gini’s hope is coming true.