I am a traditional guy, and while I hate to admit it, when I hear the word church, I often think of a location and a building. Mrs. Hilliard would be so disappointed. She was my second grade Sunday school teacher, who taught me to sing,
The church is not a building;
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people.
After we sang the song, Mrs. Hilliard would tell us that we were the church wherever we went, and buildings, even sacred ones, were really just buildings in which the church gathered. I sang Mrs. Hilliard’s song and still do today. She was generous and kind and exemplified much of what was good about growing up United Methodist. Later, when I went to seminary, I learned that she had a rock-solid ecclesiology. I am in her camp. But after 28 years of trustee and building committee meetings with four congregations, church as place and location still has a bit of a hold on me.
That is why when I first heard that churches were going multi-site it took awhile for me to see the wisdom of it. Jorge Acevedo is a friend of mine who is a UMC pastor in Florida. The church he serves is in four locations. Most are in ordinary church buildings that were formerly owned by congregations who were dead or dying and wanted new life. One is in a former grocery story that is now a thrift store and ministry center. I think it was a Piggly Wiggly. Even if it wasn’t, it should have been, because that is just a funny name for a grocery store. Each location has a site pastor, all of whom work with Jorge to maintain the consistency and community that the church had when it met in one building.
Jorge never met Mrs. Hilliard, but by taking her theology seriously, Grace UMC’s ministry now extends to different locations in the area and blesses all kinds of people who might have never found their original location. Their ministry participation by the church people at these sites has never been higher. That is one of the outcomes that most of the now over 8,000 multi-site churches across the U.S. experience. Church members give more of their time and talent to the ministry because the church is a people, as the song says, and they are doing great things for Jesus.
So in the coming year, we here at Floris UMC have plans to plant some of our church in new soil. And by Floris UMC, I don’t mean the building on 13600 Frying Pan Road. I mean the Christ followers who gather together and call each other their church and want to bless the community in which they live.