Light on Jimmy Carter Boulevard

John Wesley United Methodist Church   

Norcross, Georgia  

If you travel down Jimmy Carter Boulevard, just off I85 in Atlanta you have probably passed John Wesley UMC many times. It is a big brown building just off the road, across from the Hibachi Grill where the cross section of the world loves to eat.  These days that cross section has become largely hispanic, as the neighborhood seems to be going, but it is literally a snap shot of the world on that corner.

John Wesley has a great and rich tradition of ministry, but as they ended 2014 and started 2015 their future seemed to be what we could call “uncertain”.  The Matthew Initiative has been working with John Wesley for almost a year now, but in December we felt an urgency to see if momentum could be started with a weekly children’s program on Sunday afternoons.  They sit on a most strategic corner and we wondered what could happen if they were successful in restarting a children’s program, even if it were a small and consistent one.   Here is a snap shot of what has happened in the short 2 and a half months that we have been partnering with the determined team at John Wesley UMC:

We launched with a Christmas party, something we have never done before.  We went door to door in the neighborhood, and invited the children and families from the soccer fields behind the church who come to play/watch football.  Almost 40 people attended.  Actually, attendance has never gone below 20 children and now they are hovering around 30 children.  Every week, parents have come with their children and formed a row on the back pew of the fellowship hall. They seem to be grateful for what their children are receiving, and JW makes sure that they too are offered the meal their children enjoy.  Radical hospitality for a church with extremely limited resources.

On the last Sunday before Christmas we had the children arranging the nativity scene with stickers.  A parent who had come with her daughter asked the question of the ages:  “which one was God”.  Since then she has found her home at John Wesley, and is not only inviting other children to come to the program, but welcoming both children and parents every week!  She speaks spanish, a gift that we will be needing as this story continues to unfold.

We have been developing strategic partnerships with other churches who are going to send teams into John Wesley on a monthly basis.  The Korean church of Atlanta will send a youth group in once a month to work with the children giving the JW volunteer team a break, and Tucker UMC will be providing meals for the children and volunteers.  A Korean youth team ministering to hispanic children: who saw that coming!  Wow.

As the children have become more comfortable, they have begun to share what life is like for them in that area of Norcross.

First of all, they are hungry.  We can’t tell what their home situation is, but it appears that multiple families live together in single dwellings, and we suspect it is not uncommon for them to sleep on the floor.  We are learning that they come from as far away as Guatemala, and beyond.  The local laundry mat is a hot spot in the community, and family is very important.  The children speak English, but their parents struggle with it.  We have noticed some preschool children are not bilingual yet which lets us know that these children may be the first generation in our country.

This past Sunday afternoon the church gathered in the fellowship hall where the new emerging church would be gathering in under two hours.  They came to discuss how they could begin to build bridges to the parents who are coming, and after one of the most joyful conversations we have yet to experience in our journey which is The Matthew Initiative, here are some things the members of John Wesley came up with:

Offer English classes for the parents while their children attend the Sunday evening program.  Who knows where this could lead!

Offer the church laundry facilities to parents, also while the children attend their program.

Start a mattress ministry for the community to families.  Simple, but could really make a huge difference.

Invite the parents to share the recipes their families enjoy, and perhaps begin to share the kitchen and rich food traditions of this emerging community.

And, our favorite:  Start a John Wesley men’s soccer (football) team!  Get out on the soccer field and kick that ball around with the community.  We predict this will become legendary as the members of John Wesley qualify for the senior discount at the Hibachi Grill.  I think they are really going to do this!  Stay tuned.

As the spiritual heirs of the wesleyan revival, we love to quote “the world is my parish”.  The next time you see Steve Thomas, the part time pastor of John Wesley UMC, ask him how that is becoming a reality at his big brown church on Jimmy Carter Boulevard. Also, let him know if you have a mattress or perhaps some soccer sports shirts for their new team.

Thanks Be to God!

The Best Day Ever!

We met Emile on the playground of John Wesley UMC in Norcross, just before the launch of their new children’s program yesterday afternoon.  Hundreds of children live in the neighborhood behind the church, and lots of them hang out on Sunday afternoons during soccer practice on the fields behind the church.  Like too many small churches, John Wesley has struggled to get children and young families back to their church, and The Matthew Initiative has gone forward with a launch in December, with an eye toward a bigger one in January.  Unlike the other kids hanging out on their playground, Emile did not have permission from his parents to attend the Advent workshop event that we like to call “Jingle Jam”.  When the other kids went in to begin the fun, Emile looked up and asked, “can I come too?”   That seemed to be the response of several children in the neighborhood yesterday afternoon, as we went door to door inviting children to come to John Wesley.  26 children and several more of their parents attended and the great room was a buzz of activity.

So, we set out with Emile to find his father to ask if he too could attend, and though permission was granted, but they had to leave early.  Emile jumped right in with great enthusiasm, and made the round through the various activities.  He has a great smile, and seemed really glad to be part of the activities.  During “game time”, Emile volunteered to be the kid his group would turn into a decorated Christmas tree.  His group won “most creative tree”, and he was decorated head to toe in tinsel, stickers and crepe paper.  His brother came in from time to time to get him to go where they were going, but Emile would have none of it.  He stayed until the event was almost over, and then turned to a volunteer and stated “this was the best day ever” before heading out the door. He promised he would be back next week, along with most of the other children.  We can’t wait to see him next week.  We believe that John Wesley began a new chapter in the life of their church last night, and here is why they must continue to be successful: there are hundreds of children behind their church like Emile, who are just waiting for someone to invite them to experience joy, hospitality and hope.  Even more important, they need to know that for them a Savior has come and they have a very big God who holds them precious.

So John Wesley, here we go! The world is literally your parish, and let’s be about it.

You have a great mission, and we have a great promise that God will always be with us even when we don’t know what is behind those doors we knocked on.  First come the kids, and then come the resources.

And to Emile, thanks for the reminder that you are our great mission, and we look forward to having many great adventures with you in the coming weeks and months.  See you next  Sunday at John Wesley UMC !

The Little Church that Could – Waleska United Methodist Church

In our process with working with churches there comes a moment when you realize they are going to go all in, or they are not.  The things we usually hear are issues all under resourced churches have in common: we can’t get volunteers, we have very few children, we have VERY limited resources, and our favorite; we don’t know what to do. When we first met with pastor Tim Emmett of Waleska UMC, that sits on the campus of Reinhardt University, we immediately knew they had another issue: their church was physically tiny.  In addition, they had been through a very rough patch in their recent history and they were in something of a “free fall” for lack of a better description.  Pastor Tim was the new pastor, and he knew that a revitalized children’s program could make a huge difference.  And, his children were two of the few children attending.

We met in October, and wondered if the essential things that need to happen on the church’s end would happen.  We were glad when we heard from Tim the first of the year who said they were ready to meet and get going.  They had pulled together a leadership team, and they were ready to start the process.  After they decided to launch with a community Easter Egg Hunt, it became evident that this was a special group of lay leaders who were going to go all in to reach the children of their community.

To our amazement, the Easter Egg hunt was advertised in the community water bills, and over 250 people showed up for the hunt on a Saturday in pouring down rain.  In a tiny facility you have to get creative, so the eggs were placed in the pews and on the window sills of the Sanctuary.  The over 80 children who attended thought this was very cool, and the rest as we say, is history.

They launched their new children’s program with just under 30 children and they have made Wednesday nights at Waleska UMC “the place to be” for the children of their community.

Here are some of the reasons we call Waleska UMC: The little church that could.

No money or resources for feeding almost 50 kids and volunteers?: a lay leader leader stepped up, got a separate group of volunteers going, cooked most of the food in her home kitchen, and served up menu’s that are loved by kids and adults alike.  Mary Helen’s menus are now a staple in our current and future churches.

A legendary Halloween event that drew over 40 children, and many of them came back to attend the program.  A PJ party that drew almost 50 children and stretched the facilities to the max, but many more of them came back for the program.

A community “Jingle Jam” event held on the campus of Reinhardt that brought in over 80 people and more new families.

Pastor Tim greeting parents on Wednesday nights who have not been in any church in awhile.

Waleska UMC being named community partner of the year by the local elementary school

Young families beginning to show up on Sunday morning!  It took a year and a half, but now they are working on a staff person to implement a Sunday morning ministry for children.  The volunteers are moving forward with the Wednesday night “Super Kids” ministry.

Best of all for us, Waleska launched their new fall program in August with “water night”.  We were not there, but just under 40 kids were, including a big number of 3rd and 4th graders and their future youth group is looking really good.  Looks like they are executing a stronger program without us, and that is the best thing of all about the little church that could.

We miss you on Wednesday nights, but you have inspired other churches to launch their own ministries and we are going to be busy for a long time to come.

Thank you Waleska UMC for teaching us that little does not matter, and may you continue to shine brightly on your corner for the children and families of your community.  This story is just getting started.

Getting out of the Boat – Hampton UMC Launch

Ready to meet their new children

Ready to meet their new children

Registration line at Hampton Launch

Registration line at Hampton Launch

At a church council meeting a few weeks ago, Pastor Brent White from Hampton UMC delivered a homily to his church leaders, asking them to join him in moving out of the boat of their comfort zones in three areas of their church.  I am certain that the scheduled launch of their new children’s program was one of them.   Last night the great group of volunteers pictured here,  one of the largest we have worked with for a launch, formed a circle of prayer and asked God to make their church a place of joy, hospitality and hope for the children who would be arriving in less than an hour.  They knew they had at least 30 coming from all of their efforts to reach out to the children of their community; 56 excited children got in the registration line in front of the church and Hampton UMC now has a vital Sunday night children’s ministry.  And, they are just getting started.   Also, there were lay leaders from Midway UMC in Griffin and the ITS Churches from the South Georgia Conference.  They were observing the Hampton launch, getting ready for their own launches in the next couple of months.  Thank you Hampton UMC and especially Paulla Groover for all of the work and preparation that went into an extraordinary evening, and for welcoming these little ones into your church family; several of them for the first time.  A little three year old asked his leader  “but, where is God?” with that great child like faith Jesus talked about.  That question will be answered on the many Sunday nights to come, but last night God was at Hampton UMC, entrusting them with 56 little ones, precious in His sight.  

 

 

Thursdays

 

When I was an intern at Wesley’s Chapel in London, England I learned that Thursday was always John Wesley’s favorite day. Growing up, Thursday was his time with his mother Suzanna, receiving religious instruction from her. I think for many of us in the church world, Thursday is a special time too because it is the beginning of our weekend and a time to reflect on the week that has passed, and prepare for the Sunday that is coming. So, in that spirit, I am going to begin to update you on what has been an extraordinary time for The Matthew Initiative.

We recently cleared $3,000.00 in our “Shazam” fun run at the North Georgia Annual conference and are preparing to lead the children’s program at Pastor’s School at Epworth by the Sea on St. Simons Island. I hope John had some special Thursday’s while he was there, but I am not too sure about that one.    

 Several weeks ago, we returned to the Brownsville community of Pensacola, Florida with our partners at Sacred Tapestry UMC and over 40 children attended 3 days of joy, hospitality and hope with us at Richards Memorial UMC. Next week a group from First UMC Pensacola will return to Richards to give the children another week of fun and learning there.   The situation seems to be deteriorating for many of these children, some of them now living in one room motel rooms around the area because of the recent flooding.   But, as always transformation comes in the most unlikely of ways as all who experience time there seem to leave with a new perspective on life and our call to the least of these. Thank you Sacred Tapestry Youth and adult leaders; looking forward to a bigger conversation about a permanent program for those children, some of whom waited an hour in the heat for the joy and hospitality to start.  

 

Meanwhile back in Georgia, something extraordinary is starting to happen.

Church clusters are starting to form around the model and process of The Matthew Initiative. A group of three churches south of Atlanta are going to work together to bring joy, hospitality and hope to the children of their communities.   Another group seems to be forming in the Rome area of Georgia and the possibility of another one is taking root in the greater Atlanta area. There seems to be something about this that John Wesley would be excited about, and I would love to talk with someone who can tell me how he handled things like this when the Wesleyan revival was taking shape. But, the best of all is God is with us, and seems to be doing a new thing in some most unlikely places.

 

For that and for Thursday’s

Thanks be to God  

 

Gloria

Tomorrow is the 4 year spiritual anniversary of The Matthew Initiative, and we cannot let the day come and go without a bit of reflection on this amazing new thing that God is doing in our expanding family of churches.

The sounds of children playing and volunteers preparing for another great evening of fun and learning at Waleska UMC,  says it all today.  A little over a year ago, things were very quiet in the fellowship hall  and the church had 5 to 6 children attending.  Tonight ,in the hustle and bustle of arrivals and preparations, they are getting to welcome over 30 children.  What a difference a year makes!  Each week a similar story is taking place at The Bridge UMC in Cartersville,  St. Paul UMC in Grant Park, Princeton UMC in Athens and Chapel Hill UMC in Rome.  And then there is Kresge UMC in Cedartown where it all started 4 years ago: they are getting ready to welcome over 50 children and just added a 4th van to their growing fleet of buses that are bringing these children to a church that has become their spiritual home.

In the 4 years since The Kresge Maundy Thursday meeting, the Matthew Initiative has been part of the re-birth of children’s programs in over 6 churches.  Most importantly, we now have given a model that is reproducible and poised to change the future direction of many churches in the future.  We are mindful that we must begin to expand our model and reproduce our leadership to we can become all that God intends for this to be, and the work that needs to be done is nothing less than daunting.  However, on this day, we would like to reflect on some of the amazing things that we have been witness to:

40 children arriving on the first evening of Kresge Kids

A packed out worship center at The Bridge church for their first jingle Jam

Over 200 attending the Easter Egg Hunt at Chapel Hill UMC the day after a tornado hit Rome

The Super Launch party at St. Paul UMC

Children running through Rock Springs housing as the van arrived to bring them to Princeton UMC in Athens

42 children at the Pajama party recently at Waleska UMC

Unexpected partnerships coming around The Matthew Initiative in unexpected places

Dances with the Clergy Stars in February and all the joy and fun it generated by some very brave clergy members

Discouraged pastors becoming allies in a wonderfully difficult ministry to the children in their community

A wonderful and dedicated group of leaders who vetted 8 new churches today

A prominent business leader saying to us “don’t stop what you are doing, keep going, and if anyone tells you to stop, call me and I will tell you to keep going”

Our close and dedicated inner circle who believe and have been witness to miracles: you know who you are! When God calls you to do the impossible, it is good to have great friends and family around you.

The volunteers and over 450 children who have been impacted by this ministry.

Last Sunday in Norcross, Georgia  John Wesley UMC welcomed over 300 people to their Easter Egg Hunt and community party.  85 of them were children, and the members of JWUMC were amazing out welcoming, handing out hot dogs, parking cars and just talking to their new guests.  No one wanted to leave, so at the end of it all, everyone just broke out in a celebration dance in front of the church with the kids joining in.  One child was over heard say, “this is the best day ever!”  John Wesley is not a church where many people expected this to happen, but Ms. Becky believed and prayed for years.  We now know that prayer aligned with a great purpose and a mission that is close to God’s heart, is one of the most powerful things on this earth.

Today we celebrate our great God and all that is to be.  I have been searching for the right words, but have had trouble coming up with some to truly capture this amazing “movement” that is underway now.  I think the Angels of Bethlehem got it right:

“Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

Thanks Be to God!

The Matthew Initiative, 2014

PS  – make that 32 children at Waleska UMC tonight!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Mike:

Thanks for coming into our lives yesterday, and it was special to meet you.  I noticed you coming in with your grandmother as I arrived for a Sunday visit in your church.  I had just come from looking in on a huge church less than a mile from your church with lots of people ( an understatement), vans to shuttle them all around, and a state of the art children’s facility with all of the bells and whistles money can buy.  The parking lot at your church was much smaller, and the children’s room not nearly as exciting, but you were glad to be there.

I later learned that you were in the 4th grade.  I also learned that you live with your grandmother, it is now just the two of you who come together to church.  I was sorry to hear about the death of your grandfather this summer and for all of the other important people who are not part of your life as well right now.  During one of our activities you said that you were not very smart, and during prayer time you asked for God’s help with your tests this coming Friday.  Thanks for jumping into new songs and activities with great enthusiasm.  Your Jericho march noise maker was amazing, and being with you was a great reminder that big is not always better, and that God has called all of us to help make your church an amazing place of joy, hospitality and hope for you and many others who need to know they have a really big God who will stand in the gaps of their life.

Mike, you are child of God who loves you more than you probably know right now, and has an amazing plan for your life.  God will always be with you, even when you may not feel it, even during your tests on Friday.  Your church family loves you, and has been talking about making your program on Sunday mornings a special time for you, and others who they have not met yet in your community.  We hope to have lots of fun, sing more songs together, and tell the amazing stories of the one who came to rescue you,  and holds you precious.

Have a great week and thanks for the smile when you left yesterday. You are an amazing reminder that our great shepherd has many sheep, and we are to be about the business of making a wonderful, safe and amazing place for them; no matter how big the parking lot is outside.

The Greatest Sound Ever

Is there anything better than the sounds of children playing and enjoying being kids?  Playgrounds are full of happy sounds, as are classrooms, and other places where children gather.   There is no silence more deafening than a church where the sounds of children have ceased.  There is nothing more wonderful than to stand in a hallway and listen to the new sounds of children who have brought joy back into churches, where that sound was once silent.  It is the best sound ever.

The sounds of children are back in four of The Matthew Initiative churches we have been partners with this year: listen in as we share what we are hearing.  

At Waleska UMC children are coming to the front during praise time; many of them spontaneously come to the front and join in the lively time of praise and worship.  The praise line stretches across the front of the church and includes enthusiastic jumping up and down from the preschool Super Kids.  Their joy is contagious and is spreading through the church on the campus of Reinhardt University .  Waleska is becoming known for their outreach to the children of their community.

The sounds of children’s praise are heard again at Princeton UMC in Athens.  As the van approached the church last wednesday some of the children started saying ” this is my church”!  A family of children who missed the van demanded that they be brought to Princeton, because this is their new church too.

At North Springs UMC in Atlanta things have gotten very lively on Sunday mornings as the new Kingdom Kids and their teen leaders gather to express their love for God.  It is of the happiest times of the week now.  

At St. Paul earlier in the spring our favorite sound was children belting out of the fellowship hall and racing down the stairs for their Wednesday night program.  A thundering herd of excited children should be heard in many more of our in town churches.  

Are the sounds of children in your church?  

God is listening in.   

 

 

GO FISH!

At the Matthew Initiative, we have been doing some serious fishing during the month of June, and I have had some of the best in the boat with me.  This blog is dedicated to them: those who have rediscovered with me the lost art of meeting people and asking them to come to a children’s event where they just might encounter the one who said we should become “fishers of men”.  Only, instead of a boat, we have been out fishing in a white mini van.

The first week of June, our fishing took place in the Brownsville community of Pensacola, Florida as we led an extreme VBS with the youth and leaders of Sacred Tapestry. Every morning we would go out into the streets of Brownsville with different members of the youth group and invite children to come to the day’s events.  Food is always part of our fishing expeditions, and when you offer children joy, hospitality and food, they are at least curious. I reminded the group that although we got to fish in a van that looked very much at home in Brownsville, John Wesley fished on a horse in the rain, snow, etc.  My Sacred Tapestry crew brought in over 30 children; not bad for 4 days.

Athens Georgia has been the sight of our current fishing expeditions, as the new program at Princeton UMC has gotten underway. When there are few children living around your church, you have to go out and invite them to come in from other areas of the city.  Along with me in the van has been Ben Wilcox, the children’s pastor, and we have had some real adventures.  We have found two great areas in Athens where there are more children who would come than we have transportation to bring them; the local elementary school and the public housing area.  Yesterday , while out in the public housing area an amazing 8 year old introduced us to as many of her friends as she could find. Two older elementary boys started hanging out with us and we learned they were step brothers.  At first they were pretty adamant that they would not be coming with us to any church.  But we got to know them as we wandered around giving out flyers, and mostly trying to convince parents that we were not child kidnappers. They did end up at Princeton UMC last night, and had a great time.  As we were driving out, a little guy around 5 years old begged us to ask his father if he could come, and dad said “fine with me”.  Before he left the church to return home he gave me the biggest hug, and you bet we will be back to get him next week.  So many children; really need a van!

Last Thursday I went on a final fishing adventure with Will Zant who will be leaving North Springs to go to Cannon UMC.  North Springs does a summer Must Ministries program and Will has known where the children were along the route, and he wanted us to know where they were too.  Under Will’s leadership and heart for children and youth, North Springs has seen a great revitalization in both of those ministries.  It has to be tough to leave your fishing hole when the fish are starting to bite big time, but he will soon be fishing in a much bigger pond.

So, we loaded the car and set out to deliver sandwiches.  Of course, we left our route map back at the church, so Will led by “I think they are over here in this area”.  Will was right; there are children everywhere in north Sandy Springs.  We found them in a non profit center close to the church, and in three apartment complexes also near the church.  I am thinking North Springs might need at least three vans to get them all, and they all want to come!

At one apartment complex we were swarmed by children begging us to give them the church flyers about their new children’s program.  One little girl took hers, ran into her home, and then ran back to tell me she really, really wanted to come on Sunday.  I will never forget her face and that is when I lost it.  I think Will might have lost it too, but was probably too afraid of my driving to think about it too much.

Why are too many of our churches without the laughter of children?  I read just this evening that each year 3500 to 4500 close, and you can bet that most of them did not have children or young families.  Our fishing expeditions have certainly proven that there are many children out there who need to be in a loving community of faith; perhaps yours.

Jesus told us to cast our nets wide, and we would catch more than we could handle.  And so my fellow fishing buddies, thanks for getting in the van and inviting children to your party. It is a great one, but nothing like the one that is coming when we all sit down together at the great banquet table.  Thanks for making room for these little ones at your table.

To Sacred Tapestry:  we will be back next summer, for the whole summer!

To Ben and Princeton:  get ready for the great catch that is coming.

And to Will Zant:  thanks for showing us where the future children of North Springs are and know that we will be back to get them.

And to all the rest of you out there: what are you waiting for?

GO FISH!

Princeton UMC: Athens, Georgia

 

 

Princeton United Methodist Churchmore info

 

2390 South Lumpkin Street

Athens, GA 30605

(706) 353-1123

princetonumcathensga.org

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Princeton UMC sits at the end of Lumpkin street in Athens Georgia; if you follow Lumpkin toward downtown Athens, you go right into the heart of UGA.   

Reaching back, Reaching Forward, Reaching out.   

 

This Wednesday Princeton UMC will do just that, as they open their doors to the children of their community with the launch of their new Wednesday night program.   Princeton has been serious about children’s ministries since the first of the year with the hiring of a part time children’s director who we have come to know and deeply appreciate.  Like too many churches, Princeton’s children’s ministry has not been growing, but that is all about to change.  Princeton sits in a changing community, and recently we learned their community is home to children with great needs:  98% of the children in the nearby elementary school are on the free or reduced lunch program, including homeless children.   

 

A team of about 20 volunteers gathered in May to prepare, pray and to welcome the children of Athens, and they have been actively raising money to provide dinner for the children who will come to their Wednesday night program.

Last week 20 children came to their very successful VBS, and we learned that nearby Young Harris UMC will be joining in the effort to create a program of Joy, Hospitality and Hope for the children of Athens/Clark County.   

 

We give thanks to God for the vision of the church’s leadership to make their corner in Athens a lighthouse for all of the children who will be soon coming through their doors. Please join us in prayer as we remember Jesus’ mandate to “let the children come”.    

 

 The Matthew Initiative, Inc.