The Heart of a Small Church – Part 1
By Sue Zakovec*
During the summer months, whether large, small, rural or urban … churches seem to take on a new life, full of enthusiasm and energy. As members throw open their doors with a renewed commitment to community and mission, ice cream socials, carnivals, fairs, Vacation Bible Schools and music concerts come alive!
Car shows, and car enthusiasts can be found everywhere in rural small towns, such as in Waynesburg (Centenary UMC), in Polk (Red Haw UMC), just to name a few.
In the village of Smithville which is in the heart of Wayne County, Smithville UMC (Canal District) has named and hosted their car show, “Cruisin’ in the ‘Ville”.
Its founders, Linda Ferber, a former missions committee chairperson and her husband, Bill, a car enthusiast combined their passions of restored vehicles and raising mission funding into a popular community event.
“What I really like about the car show is that not only is it a fund raiser to support our other mission work, but it is outreach in and of itself. The car show provides an opportunity to introduce Jesus and our church to a whole range of people that we may otherwise never encounter. Best of all, we get to meet them on their own turf, where they are comfortable.”
“I have heard a number of friends echoing my feelings on being a Mission focused Church. I feel that spreading the Word of God is one of the most important parts of being a Christian. Whether we actively seek opportunities like the car show or just let it shine through our daily lives, we are called to share God’s love,” current missions chairperson, Michael Thompson said.
(Click on any photo to enlarge and view full gallery)
This year’s “Cruisin’ in the ‘Ville” missions recipients were OhioGuidestone, Akron’s Open M, Wooster’s People-to-People Ministry and Green Local Breakaway Program.
Grounded with Historic Roots
Smithville UMC’s commitment to community and mission was founded in its heritage. The church had its beginnings long before the village was laid out in 1836. In October of 1812 when sixteen people met in the cabin of Michael Thomas, Reverend Gray, a circuit rider was passing through the area and saw the group and exclaimed, “I believe I have found my flock in the desert!”
Two years later, the first religious group in Green Township was organized as a congregation of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Today, the village of Smithville, with a steady population of approximately 1250 and its nine different denominational churches within its 1.25 square mile area, is a very close-knit community that places high importance on Christian faith and historical roots. There is a lot of trust in this small community. With generations of people growing up together, forming close relationship, it is like the old television show, Cheers – a town where everyone knows your name.
Seems idyllic, but there are challenges for Smithville UMC and other small community churches with deep roots. New and inventive ministries are hard to sell since people like familiar and comfortable ways. Limited financial resources are always a challenge when doing big projects. Attracting new people to the church is even harder. Being a small community … not many people move out, thus not many move in. In turn, the average age of membership is older with few young people.
With these challenges, members of Smithville UMC focus on their strength – their mission, rather than the numbers.
“If we aren’t mission-focused, we’re just in it for ourselves, creating a ‘feel good’ atmosphere on Sunday mornings. But mission-focused means having a goal beyond ourselves and the operation of our own facility to help people in our community and around the world. It means following the example of Jesus and offering a helping hand,” said member and organist, Jerri Lynn Baxstrom.
1 Peter 4:8-11 says (Message Bible), “Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything. Be quick to give a meal to the hungry, a bed to the homeless – cheerfully. Be generous with the different things God gave you, passing them around so all get in on it: if words, let it be God’s words; if help, let it be God’s hearty help. That way, God’s bright presence will be evident in everything through Jesus, and he’ll get all the credit as the One mighty in everything.”
“We’ve been loving and serving each other in this facility since the 1950’s and much longer in a couple other facilities before that. Many of our members are older but are active senior adults who minister to each other in a variety of different ways. Our younger members are a smaller percentage of our Church Family but wear many hats when serving within the body,” said Cheryl Hadsell, administrative assistant for Smithville UMC.
Smithville’s dedication to serving the community is well known and members are not afraid to get in and get their hands dirty while loving and caring for others. Their enthusiasm and energy does not just crest in summer, it is an ongoing commitment to their mission year-round.
Lay Leader, Bernie Caldwell explained it this way, “I feel that our mission is to reach out into the community and find some commonality within ourselves. Today the country and world are so divided that any way we can come together and find a common ground is a great way to provide in a mission church.”
To Smithville UMC members, serving others means baking monthly birthday cakes for the residents (kids under 18 years) of Boys Village and baking cookies for Breakaway, a religious education program in the Green Local Schools.
It means serving the community’s young people and their families, by offering summer outdoor movie nights, Trunk or Treat, 5th Quarters and tailgate parties (after Smithville’s football games), community Red Cross blood drives, monthly Messy Church events and a combined Vacation Bible School with the Brethren Church.
By serving others, it means giving gifts of appreciation and encouragement to those in the community that serve as firemen, police officers, school teachers and staff.
And by serving others, Smithville UMC is raising community awareness of a growing drug, alcohol and dangerous behavior epidemic by hosting a program, this past spring, called “Hidden in Plain Sight”.
Sharing their Facilities
During the week, Smithville UMC partners to house a community school (Liberty Prep Academy). This school gives a second chance for both junior high and senior high students, who struggle in a traditional school setting, to get their High School diploma. Each year the community school serves 60-90 students from all over Wayne County.
Smithville UMC also provides a home for a Saturday School called Wayne County Juvenile Justice Center for students who have found themselves in trouble with the law.
It makes available to the community its Family Life Center for elementary, junior high and high school basketball and volleyball practices, as well as, a men’s basketball group and a 4-H Club.
Mission becomes more visible to the community and the community is more visible to the church during the summer months, but community out-reach and support are ongoing for Smithville UMC. Members know who they are and what they are.
“We are a mission focused church because God calls us to be outside focused when sharing what we have in Jesus and our relationship with God, our father and Christ, our brother. Who is our brother? Our community is our brother and God commands us to go forth and love,” Caldwell said.
*Sue Zakovec, East Ohio Conference Communications Office
Many thanks to Cheryl Hadsell, administrative assistant for Smithville UMC for her detailed contributions to this article.
Whether in a quaint, rural setting or in a bustling, ever-changing urban area, every church has a unique story to tell. Each works with its own story-line and parameters with its blessings and challenges.
East Ohio Conference is seeking to find more defining stories among our churches. What is your story? Contact us @ firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay tuned for The Heart of a Small Church Part 2 – Fitchville UMC – A Holy Spirit Summer, coming the week of August 20.