By Woody Woodrick
Indianola — Invoking the spirit of Pentecost, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward and other conference leaders cut the ceremonial ribbon on a new ministry aimed at aiding small-membership churches.
“John Wesley said the great miracle of Pentecost is the proclaiming in boldness the glory of God in their own languages,” Ward told a full house at Indianola Christ United Methodist Church where the Grace Network will be headquartered.
“Every church has been small,” “In small groups we can know and love each other well.
“How many of us have within a stone’s throw of our church people to whom we might ask ‘how can we be of service to you?’”
The Grace Network seeks to provide training and assistance to small-membership churches, which are defined by the General Board of Discipleship as churches with fewer than 200 members and fewer than 150 in worship.
In 2005, 60 percent of the churches in the Mississippi Conference had 100 or fewer members, while a third of congregations had 50 or fewer members. Nationally, 2005 figures show that 82 percent of churches reporting worship attendance had 149 or fewer, and more than 68 percent of local churches have 199 members or fewer.
“Small churches keep apologizing for being small, but they don’t need to do that. I tell them Christ only took 12 men with him,” said the Rev. Gary Howse, director of the new Grace Network.
Howse said the plan is simple. “Anytime a small church has a problem or something they want to do, such as a community vacation Bible school, and never done it, we will find someone who has done that, produce a DVD and send it so they can be trained in home or church,” he said.
Indianola Christ UMC, where Howse is the pastor, offers a unique opportunity to serve other churches. The church at one time had a television ministry that is no longer in operation. However, most of the equipment was still good. Howse had discussions with Greenwood District Superintendent the Rev. Vickie White and the Rev. Steve Casteel, conference director of Connectional Ministries, and Grace Network is the result.
“We have struggled for the last decade with how to provide a network for small churches,” Casteel said. “That was the intent of Wood Institute.”
Wood Institute in Mathiston closed last June.
“Timing wise, it seemed like prevenient grace,” Casteel said. “Gary went to Indianola Christ where they had the video equipment.”
Eventually, the goal is to have satellite sites around the state where church representatives could meet to view either a live video streaming conference or view a DVD together. “One location was not enough,” Casteel said. “We need a network instead.”
Sites expected to be part of the network include Ripley First UMC, Crystal Springs New Zion, the Choctaw Mission in Philadelphia and Gulfside Assembly in Waveland.
Although just getting on its feet, Howse said he’s gotten several calls and e-mails for information and a positive response.
“Some folks have said they are grateful the conference is not giving up on the small-membership church,” he said. “One church called and wanted to see how to get missions going in their church. We’ll send them some things that show how to get going in a way that won’t cost a lot of money.”
Howse said small-membership church leaders often have a hard time traveling to seminars for training.
“A lot of times a small church might have a local pastor or part-time pastor who can’t leave a job to go to training,” he said. “They have no idea what to do or how to go about doing it.
“Our goal is to strengthen what they have, to build on what they have.”
Howse said the Grace Network has drawn on the model of the Hinton Rural Life Center in the mountains of Tennessee. “We saw what they were doing and could do. That was our model. We decided instead of sending people up there, to do it locally using electronic methods,” he said.
To contact the Grace Network, e-mail the Rev. Gary Howse at firstname.lastname@example.org, call 662-207-5620 or send mail to P.O. Box 983, Indianola, MS 38751.