Gateway Community UMC reaches out in Rincon

8/2/2011

By Kara Witherow, Editor

This ain’t your mama’s church.

With advertising materials that show a man’s heavily tattooed arm pointing to a passage in the Bible and copy that reads, “Same Bible, Different Church,” Gateway Community United Methodist Church hopes to attract people who might be more like the man in the photo than the “typical” churchgoer.

“Our marketing targets those who might not feel comfortable in a more traditional church setting,” said Rev. Andy Lamon, pastor of Gateway Community UMC’s new Rincon campus.  “When you come to Gateway, whoever you are, whatever you look like, and no matter what you’ve done, we want you to feel welcome here.”   

Their efforts seem to be working.

On Sunday, February 6, a new faith community was launched in Effingham County.  Gateway Community UMC in Rincon, an offshoot of Gateway Community UMC’s main Pooler campus, meets at Ebenezer Elementary School on the north side of Rincon.  The launch service had a crowd of 178 attendees and the church has averaged 120 in worship attendance each Sunday since.  To date, their most-attended service was on Easter Sunday, when they hosted 185.

Attracting large crowds isn’t the goal or objective, though.

“We are creating a worshipping community in Effingham County that will be a change agent in Effingham County,” Rev. Lamon said.  “At Gateway we measure effectiveness by the life change of our community.  Christian transformation is evidenced as folks find connection within a Christian community, surrender their lives to Christ, are set free from addictions, experience God’s spiritual, emotional and physical healing, apply biblical principles to their lives, and serve others outside the church in tangible ways.” 

Effingham County has experienced significant growth in the last 15 years, church leaders say.  Families are attracted by the county’s good public schools and the area’s quiet lifestyle.  Of the more than 40,000 Effingham County residents, only about 10 percent attend church on any given Sunday.  Gateway Community UMC is attempting to reach these families, many who have no relationship with Jesus Christ or have become separated from participation in a faith community, Rev. Lamon said.

Hank Heller is one who had become disenchanted.  As a member of another church, he saw his congregation split and be torn apart by differences. He was attracted by Gateway Community UMC’s spirit, outreach and inclusiveness.

“For me, personally, I’ve always been taught and understood that our mission is to go out and spread the gospel and to reach out to people who are unchurched,” said Heller, who lives with his wife in Effingham County and has attended Gateway UMC’s Rincon campus since day one.  “That’s Gateway’s focus – to go out and bring these people in and let them know they’re loved and that they’ll be accepted no matter who they are or how they look.”

Gateway Community UMC keeps the United Methodist Church’s goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world as their primary mission.

“We minister to people’s spiritual, emotional, relational and physical needs and especially target those who feel marginalized in society and/or in previous church experiences,” Rev. Lamon said.  “Gateway is designed as a church on a mission rather than a church with mission programs.  Everything we do must pass the test of its missional purpose. Our core value is that everyone matters to God.”

Practicing “over-the-top hospitality” is one way that Gateway Community UMC shows attendees that they matter and are important.

“It’s hard to define exactly what’s different about Gateway,” said Rev. Matt Hearn, pastor of Gateway Community UMC in Pooler.  “The general consensus is that people come because they feel like they’re going to be welcomed and they are going to be accepted. One of the things that I think sets Gateway apart is that we are over-the-top when it comes to hospitality. We want to make it as easy for someone who comes for the first time to feel like they belong and like they fit here. I know that every church says that they’re friendly and welcoming, but if there’s anything that Gateway does well it’s the way that we embrace people who come for the first time. It is a value and it’s who we are.”  

While it may look a little different on the outside – and inside – than more traditional United Methodist Churches, Gateway Community UMC shares many of the same values as other UM churches.

They meet in a school cafeteria, play edgier music, use a variety of media in worship, dress casually and place significant emphasis on hospitality, but are still strongly Wesleyan in their theology and practice, Rev. Lamon said. 

“We are connectional in our approach to ministry and have already partnered with other Methodist Churches in rich and fruitful ways,” he said.  “We affirm that we could not exist if it were not for the work of God through the United Methodist Church in our community and conference, and we benefit from the generosity of many in our conference who believe in the importance of church planting.”