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Moving Forward into 2018

Highland United Methodist Church is a neighborhood church located in Raleigh, North Carolina. It has many diverse programs that nurture both the congregation and the community at large. Often described as a “mission oriented church,” the church’s mission undertaking includes a community garden, an English as a Second Language Program through a local community college, a library, a computer lab, Highland Service Project, and an annual Pumpkin Patch. Some describe the church as “thriving” and “stable” while others reflected the church was “aging” and “static.” Some say the church must “change or die,” while others are concerned that too much change will drive away existing members.

On December 4, 1953, The Reverend Brooks Patten was appointed by the North Carolina Conference “to organize a new church in West Raleigh to be known as Ridgewood Methodist Church.” The first worship service was held on May 2, 1954, in the Frances Lacy Elementary School. Early in 1955 plans were developed for a four-stage building project consisting of the Fellowship Hall and Chapel, a Church School unit, a youth wing, and a Sanctuary.

At the Annual Conference in 1975, Highland Church was the recipient of The Church of the Year Award, awarded to churches with a membership of 1000 or more. The Highland Service Project, a local outreach ministry, was established in the early 1980’s. In 1992 a project was completed that renovated all existing facilities other than the Sanctuary and constructed a large, new building with a fellowship hall/gymnasium that would seat over 400 people for a meal, a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen, several classrooms, and an elevator.

The church added an early worship service in the sanctuary in the 1980’s.  A third service, called The Connection, was introduced in 2002, and would feature the informal atmosphere of Bradley Hall along with a more music in worship, played by a Praise Band Team.  The early model for this service was to have the Associate Pastor as the main preacher for Connection, while the Senior Pastor mostly preached at the Traditional services.

In 2004, Highland celebrated 50 years of ministry.  Since then, the church has become widely known for our Victory Community Garden.  In recent years, our commitment to Family Promise (formerly WIHN) has become the largest outreach of Highland, utilizing over 60 volunteers per hosting week.

In 2010, Highland focus group participants reflected that we had no clear commitment to our mission, and “the church as a whole needs to define its direction.”  This led to Youth Ministry Architects helping shape the youth ministry focus, and teams assigned by Church Council to establish our existing Mission Statement and Values.  A Long Range Planning team focused on property issues was formed, leading to our 2017 Making Space for God campaign, and approved plans for renovations to come in the next few years.

Highland experienced a noticeable drop in average worship attendance beginning in 2015.  This was most likely a result of natural decline experienced by churches nation-wide, combined with a lack of clear vision and buy-in regarding changes being made, and instability of changing leadership.  Longtime members were experiencing burn-out in ministry, and many were stepping out from leadership.  Many members spoke of Highland as if it were three separate churches (divided by our worship services).  When our current pastors came on board in July 2016, SPRC approved a new preaching rotation, with the Senior Pastor preaching all three services, and the Associate Pastor preaching once monthly at all services.  The purpose was to establish a greater sense of unity and commonality across all three worshipping bodies of Highland.  It also meant that the Associate Pastor would function less like a ‘pastor to the Connection,” and more like a traditional Executive Pastor, responsible for fleshing out the details of the church’s vision as it develops.  The hope was that this small change in job role would serve best for Highland’s long-term sustainability and growth.

In 2017, a Worship and Evangelism Task Force was formed by Church Council to research demographic trends in our area, national trends in church decline, and listening groups within the church.  

From this work, the Task Force established 3 goals for worship, and 3 goals for evangelism that are intended to shape the vision of every area of Highland ministry.  Council unanimously approved these goals and strategies in 2017.

The first action taken was a summer worship schedule “experiment,” beginning with council approval and Roundtable Holy Conversations to explain the reason for the schedule change, and to allow feedback from the congregation.  Some were hesitant, others were excited that we were finally trying something for the sake of growth.  

Conversations had been ongoing for years for the Connection to have a later starting time that would better serve the demographic of a majority of its congregants.  The church also had major pushback against any plan that would have worship overlap Sunday School.  As our Task Force saw that the majority of folks moving into a three-mile radius in the next 5 years are projected to be families with children and teenagers, we agreed that Connection was a service we needed to put our first focus for change for the possibility of growth in worship.

The summer ended with more conversations with the congregation, and the decision to continue the worship schedule “experiment” through Fall and Winter.  During this period, church membership experienced a slight increase.  Children’s Sunday School experienced a decrease in attendance, while the presence of children in worship, especially at Connection, experienced a large increase.

Another roundtable conversation took place in January 2018, with over 60 members representing all services and age ranges in attendance.  The conversations revealed an overall satisfaction with the quality of worship across the board.  The congregation is finding a better appreciation for the music offered at other services one may not regularly attend. Most said that they would prefer the worship space to have more people in it, but all agreed that they were not willing to go back to having only two services if it meant the elimination of “their” service.  They were surprised to find out that though the sanctuary feels more full on Sundays where we only have one service (such as the Love Feast), we actually lose between 80-100 people in worship who would have otherwise come if we offered our normal schedule.  

Attendance at 8:30 and Connection services have remained steady, with Connection benefitting the most by having everyone present for the entire worship service for the first time in the history of this service.  Worship attendance of families with children has grown since the schedule change, and it has been noted by newcomers that we are one of the few churches in the area where their children are welcome and enjoy being in worship (in contrast with other churches that feature a separate children’s church).  While 11:00am worship feels smaller than before the church began experiencing decline in 2016, the average attendance has remained constant, and members have applauded the consistent quality of music and leadership of Jo Anne Swartz as music director.

The conversations also revealed a division of opinion around the Sunday School hour, and the time before 11:00am worship.  The gap between the end of Sunday School most effects those who view 11:00am as their service, so we will focus on the concerns of those people.  The older classes have indicated a general pleasure with the time between, as it allows them to take their time between Sunday School and the beginning of worship, and it allows choir members to enjoy all of Sunday School before choir rehearsal.  Others note the time is too long, and they are finding members of their class choosing to skip Sunday School or worship because they do not wish to “waste time.”  A few others are concerned that this time gap is unfriendly to families with children who may wish to attend 11:00am traditional worship.  The 11:00am crowd expresses a sense of loss that there are no young people or children in their service, though many acknowledge that this has been true for years, possibly since the church moved to having three services.  People used the term “heritage” both positively, to speak of the rich ways we have been reconnecting with what has been in the life of the church, and also in unhelpful ways, referring to “heritage” as a mourning a time that no longer exists.

Other members expressed concerns about staff presence in worship now that Connection overlaps with 11:00am.  Some have expressed a desire to hire another elder, though they were not clear about what they hoped that would accomplish.

The conversations revealed a desire for a clear decision to be made about what we offer in worship, in order to eliminate certain fears of the unknown, and move ahead with God’s future for Highland.

Therefore the pastors and staff wish to make the following adjustments:

First, we will ask Church Council to approve the current Sunday schedule as our permanent schedule.  There has been enough evidence that the congregation as a whole has accepted it, and also that we are receiving consistent and increasing visitors in worship.  While there are pockets of complaints about the time between Sunday School and 11:00 worship, we believe we can can work towards solutions to those problems while keeping the existing schedule.  We recommend further conversations with classes who feel most impacted by this decision.

We feel good about staff presence at the 8:30 and Connection services, but realize we need to improve Staff presence at 11:00 worship.

Even though we have three services, we have a shared identity through biblically based sermons preached by the senior pastor, with an associate clergy preaching once monthly.  One preacher on Sunday is meant to form us better as one congregation separated only by service times.  It is also a better use of staff time to only have one pastor preparing a sermon weekly (which can take between 12-18 hours).  We would like to remove the idea of going back to both Senior and Associate preaching every week.  This has nothing to do with the abilities or ordination of our clergy, and everything to do with consistency of what people are hearing in preaching at Highland. We wish to uphold SPRC’s decision to keep the Senior and Associate pastor in these roles.

The pastor preaches early at Connection in order to be present for almost the entirety of the 11:00 service.  Because the visual elements and movements of the ceremony of 11:00 worship should be meaningful and thoughtful, we suggest the Procession of the preacher and acolyte happen during the Opening Hymn to give the preacher time to come upstairs and robe up.

The traditional music director will always be fully present at both 8:30 and 11:00 worship.  The contemporary music director (TBD) will always be fully present at the Connection.

In order to promote a more consistent staff presence across our two largest services we suggest:

  • Children’s Minister gives Children’s Message at 8:30 & Connection
  • One associate opens Connection, then comes to open 11:00 liturgy (including Children’s Message) up till sermon.
  • Other associate closes Connection, then comes up to close 11:00 (after sermon).  This would include moving the offering and Prayers of the People after the sermon at 11:00 worship.

The Goals and Strategies of the Worship & Evangelism Task Force are underway.  Here’s a quick look at how they’ve been implemented thus far:

Worship

  • Improving Long-Range Planning.  Pastors are working to prepare sermon series in advance a Quarter at a time.  We are including the Worship Committee more in conversations around the preparation and evaluation of worship.
  • Worship Vision Committee. A small group representing the music groups from both traditional and connection services has reached a conclusion on our way forward regarding how we will hire for music ministry (pending SPRC approval).
  • Improving Lay Service Experience in Worship.  We recently hosted a Worship Training Day with almost 60 members in attendance to learn better practices for serving in worship.  Notebooks are being created to bring a more uniform experience to serving in worship, and new faces are signing up to serve.
  • Expanding What it Means to Grow.  While we often think we need to grow younger in order to remain vibrant, and that is certainly happening at The Connection, recent efforts have been made to be more invitational to older adults with no church home in nearby assisted living, especially to big traditional music events like handbells and the Vivaldi Gloria.
  • One on One Discipleship. Staff members have been working with church leaders and volunteers in weekly one-on-one discipleship involving prayer, scripture, and soul-conversation.  The goal is to refresh a sense of purpose in discipleship, and to slowly spread this model through the congregation.  We believe this will significantly impact our worship and ministry experiences in the years to come, like yeast working through the dough.

Evangelism

  • Consistent Communication:  By hiring a Minister of Communication, we are noticing more consistent communication that is making it easier for people to keep up with what’s happening.  We are also now more strategic in how we promote events, resulting in better participation. Targeted and planned advertising in the community has resulted in first time guests to worship and other ministry events.
  • Making it easier to invite.  From post-card invitations to coffee gift invitations, more church members have been inviting people to church in the past year.  We are also intentionally designing sermon series with a better eye on promoting the Gospel to those with no church home.
  • Free Coffee Tuesdays.  The pastors provide free coffee every Tuesday for Children’s Center families and ESL students and teachers.  We have noticed an increase in these families attending worship or other Highland activities since starting this.
  • Improving Guest Follow-Up and New Membership Process.  Greeters are now trained to more proactively engage visitors, which means we’re getting more contact info from visitors, making it easier to plug them into church life.  Monthly new membership classes are making it easier for guests to become members.
  • New communities for spiritual growth.  It is often difficult for a new person to join a long-established Sunday School class.  We have recently begun two initiatives to make it easier to reach out into the community and help existing members connect.
  • Pub Theology – Is a once monthly theological conversation open to the public, 7pm at Buffalo Brothers Restaurant.  The goal is to get enough established Highland folk coming that they will start inviting friends who might not otherwise come into a church building.
  • Small Groups – Our first small group is underway, meeting in a home around dinner, 12 adults (and a few children) gather to read & discuss the scripture that was preached on Sunday, share about God’s work in their lives, and pray for each other.  This group has 3 non-church members in it.  The goal is to establish faith community for existing members of Highland, and for non-members who would benefit from an 8-week commitment like this.