When Andy Oliver was appointed senior pastor at Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2016, the 100-year-old church was in significant decline and thinking about closing. They’d been shrinking in attendance since the 1960s and were down to only about 40 regular members.
The remaining congregation wanted Oliver to cast a vision with them that would help revitalize the church. But he quickly saw that what they had been doing wasn’t working and they needed to start bringing in new people before they could create a vision to grow the church.
“At that point, it felt like we had nothing to lose,” said Oliver. “So it was time for bold action.”
This bold action started with crafting a welcome statement that would make sure people in the community would feel welcome at Allendale UMC. The church spent time training in anti-racism and inclusivity to make sure they understood other perspectives.
Then, Oliver began spending more than half of his time out of the church. He attended local meetings and events, building relationships with businesses and community leaders. From there, he would invite those leaders back to the church for one-on-one meetings.
It was from these meetings that the church realized that they felt called to focus on social justice. So they began partnering with other organizations in that space. And they began working towards becoming a hub of social justice in the Tampa area.
“Social justice is our evangelism,” said Oliver. “The community is my parish.”
Opening Their Doors
For years, Allendale UMC rented part of their building to local groups. It didn’t bring in much money and only reached a few people. Besides, with a dwindling congregation, most of the building went unused throughout the week.
Space just happens to be one of the biggest needs for nonprofits and groups driven by volunteers. So Allendale decided to match their empty church to the needs of the community. They stopped charging rent to groups and started allowing the public to use their space for free.
“We no longer felt like their landlords,” said Oliver. “We became their supporters. It really helped us to start building trust with people who had turned their backs on the church.”
After meeting with an organization leader one-on-one, Oliver would had them a copy of the keys to the building. The risk of someone misusing that access was far outweighed by the benefit of trust and acceptance that it showed others.
Building a Hub
True to their goal, Allendale UMC has become a hub for social justice in St. Petersburg. Besides allowing nonprofits to use their space, they also host community meetings and trainings. They’ve even been described as a “third place”—somewhere you go that isn’t your home or work.
“We didn’t have a true plan,” said Oliver. “We had to feel our way in the dark and hope for the best. But it starts from a place of listening. We’re supposed to hear the cry of the needy. And once we hear them, we’ve got to be bold enough to do something about it.”
One of their most significant events was a meeting on campaign finance reform, let by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. The meeting packed the building with more than 400 people.
During the event, Oliver said older church members approached him in tears saying that they hadn’t seen the building full in years. They’d been fruitlessly searching for a way to reach the community—and now they’d finally found it.
Convincing a Congregation
Making a change this radical within a church is not easy. It’s not easy to tell your members that you’ve been handing out keys to the church. Oliver said he had to meet one-on-one with some of the church members to explain the reasoning behind these decisions.
“There’s naturally going to be push back from a congregation,” said Oliver. “Changes like this are going to stretch some people. But if you’re patient, the results will speak for themselves.”
Only now after more than two years of working has Allendale UMC started to see major progress being made as a result of their efforts. This shows that the road to change isn’t easy. But it’s certainly worthwhile.
This kind of community outreach is especially important for small churches looking to find their way. “Pick a lane,” said Oliver. “As a small church, you can’t be all things to all people. Find your niche. Then do something radical enough to get noticed.”
Charging rent to groups in the past only brought in about $1,000 every year in fees. But when the church opened its doors free of charge, these organizations started giving freely. Despite knowing that there was no obligation to give, they donated more than $15,000 over the last year. This money goes back into improving the space these groups meet in.
In 2016, the church had been hovering around 40 members. Two years later, the church now has an attendance of over 150 and growing. After decades of gradual decline, they’re now experiencing sharp growth. And that’s thanks almost exclusively to their work in the community.
One of the ways the church calls attention to social justice issues is by using their church sign. This sign was recently vandalized. But the community came together to raise more than $5,000 to have the sign repaired. They even publicly forgave the vandal and invited him to a worship service.
Ever since they started opening the doors of their church, Allendale UMC has never pressured people to attend worship with them. They’ve invited in people of all faiths and never wanted to appear like their generosity came with strings attached.
But the more they gave and listened and supported the community, the more people started asking about what the church was about and the more they started showing up in worship.
Oliver said they now have five self-proclaimed atheists who have joined the congregation. All of them found the church through a community event.
As part of the United Methodist doctrine, they were asked if they accepted Jesus Christ as their savior upon joining. They responded that they “were working on it.” Which, as Oliver puts it, “is probably the most honest answer anyone has ever given to that question.”
Worship services are still Christ-centered, but having that kind of diversity in your membership makes Oliver change up his preaching style. Still, it’s worth it. Because, as he said, “if your church is attracting atheists, we know we’re doing something right.”
The environment your church creates is important. Is it welcoming and friendly? Or is it cold and corporate? We explore environments on our Courageous Storytellers membership site, including a deeper dive on this topic of how churches use their space. We’ve got a resource listing examples of creative ways churches have used their space and how your church can get started. Join Courageous Storytellers to get access.
Robert Carnes wrote this originally at Church Marketing Sucks .