On Sunday, March 6, Vidalia’s Grace United Methodist Church shut its doors.
Instead of having its regular Sunday morning worship service, the church held its first “Be the Church Day” at nearby Bay Street Park.
An outreach effort to area residents, Grace UMC’s “Be the Church Day” included food, games, live worship music, and clothing and food giveaways. More than just a day of fun and activities, though, the event was created as a way for congregants to step outside the church walls and meet others who live in the community.
“The goal was to meet our neighbors,” said Grace UMC pastor Rev. Allen Cason. “This thing was bathed in prayer, and early on we decided to just show up, be there, talk and really meet our neighbors.”
Born out of the church’s study of the popular book “Radical,” by David Platt, the outreach was an effort to be more like the Church Jesus intended. In the book, Platt, a pastor, challenges Christians to consider how closely their lives match the teachings of Jesus.
Platt is critical of the American church and how it has watered down Jesus’ true message, said Rev. Cason. All Christians have been given a calling and a command to make disciples, he said, and the “Be the Church Day” was one way the congregation decided to do just that.
“It was the culmination of looking at what Jesus told his disciples to do,” said Grace UMC member Pam Tippett. “When you look at it with fresh eyes, you can see a huge gap between His teaching and what we've come to regard as ‘church.’ He did not say to gather once a week in a comfortable place and say comfortable things to each other in order to be His follower. Far from it! The purpose was to do what Jesus said to do. Go - not sit - and share Him.”
Bay Street Park, located just a few blocks from the church, sits in an economically distressed area of town and is surrounded by government and low-income housing. Prior to their “Be the Church Day,” Rev. Cason and several church members walked around and through the park, praying over it and for the people in the surrounding neighborhoods. To spread the word about their event, they knocked on doors, met local residents, and passed out flyers.
While church members were excited about the day, there was some nervousness and anxiety, Rev. Cason said. Never having canceled Sunday services and Sunday school before, there was some fear of the unknown.
“But they really got excited,” he said. “They’re already thinking of ways that we can reach out to the folks around our church and about doing this again.”
Thanks in part to the “Radical”-based sermon series and small group studies, the church has a renewed interest in reaching out to the community and in serving those in need.
“The emphasis now is on serving, on putting what we’re learning into practice,” Rev. Cason said. “I’ve seen a desire to do more.”
During the “Be the Church Day” event, nearly 150 attendees enjoyed fellowship, a free lunch and live worship music. Those in need were also given non-perishable food items and clothing. And though the day’s goal wasn’t to attract more church attendees, at least four families from the event attended worship services the next Sunday.
“It wasn’t about getting church members, it was about going to where there was need,” Rev. Cason said. “We went there to meet our neighbors and say, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ But it’s amazing that it’s already bearing fruit.”
For Tippett, who helped with the day’s preparations and played in the praise band, participating in the “Radical” study and the outreach event helped grow and shape her faith.
“If I profess to be a follower of Jesus, then I'd better be sure I'm actually following Him,” she said. “It means making some choices that I'd not thought about before. And it means rethinking much of what I've grown to accept as normal ‘churchiness.’ And one thing is for sure, when you open your eyes, ears and heart to the Word, you see clearly that Jesus did not intend for us to ignore the world around us. We each are called to ‘go,’ not just some. We can't pick and choose the responsibilities of being a Christian.”