Making The Connection

9/18/2007

By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

In the buckle of the Bible Belt, it might be hard to grasp that a growing percentage of the population doesn’t go to church regularly and never has. 

“I never thought in terms of anybody not knowing Jesus Christ,” said Diane Goolsby. “Once I realized (that), I knew I had to try to do something about it.” 

Goolsby takes part in an East Jackson District ministry that seeks to bridge that gap; to reach those who haven’t grown up in church or were turned off by it. The Connection meets twice a week in a store-front space in a small shopping center along U.S. 51. 

”I was born and raised Catholic,” said Goolsby who later became United Methodist. “The traditional church as I know it is about the traditional church as I know it. We’re not doing a good job of reaching the unchurched. We’re doing a good job reaching people at other churches. 

“People who do not know Christ are not being reached by the traditional church. It’s not a comfortable place for someone who doesn’t know about the traditional church. Walking in (wearing) nice clothes and hearing a sermon about a book you’ve never read can be intimidating.” 

The Rev. Chuck Meador serves as the clergy leader of the 3-year-old Connection, which he says is engaged in relational evangelism. 

“We’re building relationships with people,” Meador says. “We were forced to learn to give ourselves away and not compete with other churches. We want to have relationships with people and want people to know Jesus.” 

That philosophy means that The Connection does things differently. It offers few programs, outside of after-school tutoring and a just-started Bible study. Meador focuses more on getting to know those who attend and sharing with them the love of Christ. 

“We’re about relational evangelism and discipleship,” he says. “We’re not about programs, events or things. It’s about saying I’m following Jesus in my life, why don’t you follow him, too.” 

Meador defines relational evangelism as “caring for people instead of trying to market” a church. 

“You reach out to neighbors and people on your street, show your love for God,” he said. “You plant the seed and let it grow over time. It’s not viewing people as a project, but as someone to be connected to. You share your life with them and let God work.”

 Meador, who also serves as pastor of Ridgeland First United Methodist Church, began working on a non-traditional church in 2002 while on staff at Madison UMC. That’s where he got to know Goolsby and her husband David. He left for a time to earn his doctorate, and then returned to the Madison County area. At first the goal was to start a church in the Gluckstadt area, but that didn’t work out. Eventually, Meador and his wife Katie began the ministry in their home, then the ministry grew to need a larger space. 

Meador said the ministry’s name comes from the desire to connect people with God. It reaches out to the “unconnected and disconnected,” he said. 

“God led us to the idea of reaching out to disconnected people. Disconnected from God is saddest. The body of Christ should be the connection; we connect with the love of Jesus Christ.” 

Luke 15 is a key scripture for The Connection, Meador says. In those verses, Jesus tells about a woman searching for a lost coin and a shepherd seeking a lost sheep. 

“We want to connect with God’s most valuable treasure. The things that are most valuable to God are things that are lost,” he said. “Sometimes they wander off; sheep get lost. Coins don’t lose themselves. Sometimes there are a multitude of ways people get lost.” 

Reaching out to children

Ministry to children has played a major role in the development of The Connection, which offers tutoring, a snack meal and a devotional time. The Meadors, Goolsbys and sometimes other volunteers drive through the neighborhood, picking up children. They also drive them home afterwards. 

On Sundays, The Connection has started a Bible study at 5 p.m. and a worship service at 6 p.m. 

On a hot Sunday afternoon in September, Meador prepared to lead worship wearing a dark T-shirt, shorts and sandals. Those in attendance were also casually dressed. Using a multi-media presentation, the service mixed scripture reading with singing and a sermon. Counting Meador, 12 people were in the room. 

Later, he explained how the nature of the ministry means varying attendance.

“At the end of (the last school) year, we had a large group of kids and on Sundays,” he said. “It slowed during the summer and is still kind of slow, but last Wednesday we had 16 kids.” 

Meador and Goolsby believe serving children will help bring their families and friends into The Connection. 

“I think none of us ever thought children’s ministry would be one of the major parts of this ministry,” said Goolsby, who has made The Connection her church home since it started. “We went to New Orleans for a conference. Everywhere we turned, everything was talking about children’s ministry. It was like God kept saying, ‘Are you hearing me? Are you hearing me?’ 

“Often in church children are not quite as valuable because they don’t bring anything to the table financially,” she said. 

“That is a big part of our church. Watching what has happened in some families through children, I have to believe there is a bigger picture. God is working through the children. Kids are great evangelists.” 

Meador said often when picking up children on Wednesdays, they’ll see a friend and beg him to stop and bring the friend along, too. “That’s when God’s doing something and making a difference,” he said. 

Some of the children have referred to The Connection as their “safe place,” Goolsby said. 

She and Meador measure success in small steps, signs that God is working among those who attend. Both shared the story of a young couple who attended for a while shortly after getting married. A job transfer moved them to another city, but they wrote The Connection thanking them for ministering to them and helping them grow spiritually. 

 Another couple that had been living together recently became Christians and got married at The Connection. 

What about the future?

Meador admits getting the ministry started was hard. He had to rethink some things.

“The first year or so was painful,” he said. “We were forced to give ourselves away and not worry about growing. In our culture how many people you have coming is the most important thing. 

“It is important, but not the only thing you are defined by. We’ve gotten comfortable with what we’re doing.” 

Goolsby believes the ministry will continue to grow. 

“With the unchurched, if they come once a month that’s a commitment to them, she said. 

“It’s important for us to be a church. These kids need a church. They need to know what a church is and what a church means. That’s really important for kids to know a church is more than the building on the corner with a cross.” 

Meador said he believes growth will come when those who attend reach out to people in their own neighborhoods, when people become Christians and then share their faith with others who don’t know Jesus. Meanwhile, The Connection will keep doing what it does best – meeting people where they are.