The first Methodist Society was formed in the log cabin home of Wheeling, West Virginia’s founder, Ebenezer Zane, in 1786. That initial gathering of the faithful became the first organized church in the area and the first Methodist appointment west of the Appalachians. Throughout the 19th century, that first congregation grew with the community and gave birth to many other congregations and missions within this Gateway to the West. At the beginning of the 20th century, Wheeling was on the verge of great economic growth. It teemed with glass factories, tobacco markets, steel mills, textile industries, rich coal mines, and river commerce. Population expansion and visitations by evangelists such as Billy Sunday prompted the church to engage in building worship centers in the city’s many new neighborhoods.
However, Wheeling’s prosperity—and that of the entire upper Ohio River Valley—peaked mid-century and subsequently declined. The next half century brought industrial downsizing and closures, rising unemployment, substance abuse, family deterioration, and a mass exodus of youth in search of employment. By the beginning of the 21st century, the inner city was economically and culturally impoverished. There were seven United Methodist churches within a four-mile radius of one another—all in serious financial and spiritual crisis. They had long ago shifted from mission mode to survival mode. They had no ministries for making disciples, no hope for the future, no vision for discipleship, and few young families. Time, energy, and money were spent solely on self-preservation. Membership aging and financial demographics clearly indicated a predictable demise date for congregational existence.
I was appointed to serve two of these congregations in 1997. It quickly became apparent that this community of faith was facing life-and-death choices—during my watch. Discernment workshops began the process of awareness. Bible studies began to open a few eyes to the truth of the dilemma. In 1999, God gave us a vision: the necessity for a shared ministry—the uniting of the people of God for the purpose of combining our resources, unifying our leadership and mission, and forming partnership ministries to share the gospel of God’s grace and power in the city’s neighborhoods. The challenge would be casting this vision in such a way that the people could embrace it—and own it as their calling. Research and study revealed a process for change: create a new culture of cooperation to replace a culture of competition, develop a focus on self-giving rather than self-preserving, and make the major and extremely difficult transition from survival to mission. But the road ahead would be long and troubled.
There were many boundaries to cross and barriers to tear down. The makeup of the congregations was quite diverse and deeply rooted in the ethnic and cultural identities of their locations—neighborhoods once delineated according to ethnicity, religious association, and even place of employment (which mill or mine you worked in). One congregation was the remnant of a hard-working, hard-living, hard-fighting neighborhood where the parents worked in the mills and the children stayed with grandparents in rows of modest clapboard houses. Another was descended from a Scottish and Irish white-collar middle-class. The streets are wider in that neighborhood and the homes there are built of brick. Another congregation is the remnant of the white, German, upper-class business owners’ neighborhood, where the homes, once elegant, large, and luxurious, are now low-rent apartments. Three of the congregations’ memberships were each 90 percent contained within their own half-mile circle at the edge of town—not country, not city—and not about to change. One inner-city congregation was nominally upper-middle-class professional African American with a scattering of white spouses and related white families.
These diverse groups had lived and worshiped in secure insulation from one another, and in many ways from their surrounding environment. The generations of their ancestry established rigid boundaries along ethnic, cultural, and economic lines. These boundaries have gradually eroded over time. The lines are blurred now. Today a culturally and racially diverse population is common to most of the city. Neighborhoods are run-down. The homes are in disrepair, some condemned, and are occupied by racially mixed families and single-parent households. Unemployment is high. Substance abuse and violence abound. The urban landscape has changed.
Over time, the face of each congregation had changed with its neighborhood, presenting opportunities and challenges to become more inclusive and grace-filled toward their new neighbors of different class and race. But old walls of division between the congregations still remained, effectively separating the body of Christ into factions, rendering them helpless to carry on the mission of Christ. The church was dying along with its surroundings. Everyone agreed: revival was imperative. But revival could not come without repentance.
This is a familiar pattern, repeated across the land and around the world. The influence of culture and history can distract us from our mission. Our human tendency to separate into groups can cause us to forget our one calling as the one people of God with one mission and one purpose. Repentance must begin with a realization that we all are on the same journey, all serving the same Lord, even if we are traveling what seem separate paths. The path of convergence must begin with a return to our story, our sacred Story, our particular story, our one story.
So we set out upon a long and arduous course of “coming together,” a gradual process of socialization, the repatterning of shared assumptions about the worship life and mission of the church. We worshiped together (on a Sunday morning) for the first time in longer than anyone could remember. We formed a ministry council and met once each month. Each session was framed in an experience of worship and a searching of scripture. We explored new songs for singing and new ways of praying. We engaged in a focused Bible study to understand our identity as God’s people, called to mission and commanded to unity. I introduced what Eric Law calls “mutual invitation”1 as a process of sharing and listening, so that each person might have an opportunity to tell—and all have occasion to hear—one another’s story.
And the miracles began! People shared first their “best memory” of their church: stories of the glory days and packed houses, stories of beloved Sunday school teachers, stories of chicken dinners, playing hide-and-seek after the lights were turned out, stories of being the “heathen” neighborhood children who were welcomed by the church. One at a time, they journeyed through the past. Tears were shed and laughter broke out (though they tried so hard to restrain it). Together, the members of once separate congregations began to see a common thread—and each other from a different perspective. New relationships were forged and old friendships renewed. The first foundational pieces of a healing bridge were laid.
In the weeks and months of meetings that followed, I asked the people to share stories of their worst experiences in church, their saddest times, their toughest decisions, and their most painful mistakes—stories that increased in degrees of personal intimacy as levels of shared trust increased. The loss of young people topped the list of shared pain. Few still had children in church. Then there were memories of friends and family who had left the fold, hurt by something or angered by someone. They told stories of pastors who broke their trust, decisions of the “hierarchy” that squelched their enthusiasm, and the endless, unstoppable decline of their church to a mere shadow of what it had once been. They recognized themselves in the experiences of others shared around that table. They heard their own stori
es from the lips of strangers.
Awareness grew of how our story crossed all the old barriers and our mission now transcended neighborhood boundaries and extended across the community. The cultural meld of our age had touched and shaped the family of faith, and in surprising ways prepared them for a new kind of ministry to a new kind of society. Gradually, they constructed a common narrative, and realized they were each part of a larger story—a shared and binding story. To make a long story short, now they are one church, one people of God with one missional focus, one set of values, and one congregational identity. Together they are writing a new chapter in their story.
NOTE1. Eric Law, The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1993), 76.
Douglas Liston is a retired United Methodist minister. Prior to his retirement in June 2007, he served as pastor of New Life United Methodist Church in Wheeling, West Virginia, a congregation created from the consolidation of four other churches. Doug was the architect of that consolidation.