Philadelphia Church Adopts a Grass-Roots Approach to Community Outreach

The Church: St. James United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Challenge: Adopting a grass-roots approach to growing a congregation.
One Big Idea: Knock on doors, text, post, pray—embrace all means possible to find out what the community wants and needs.

John Brice was a young, energetic man, fresh out of seminary when he was appointed as senior pastor at St. James United Methodist Church in urban Philadelphia. Eager to meet his first congregation, he had visions of leading a mix of seniors, adults, children and millennials. Brice’s face fell, however, when he stepped into the sanctuary and saw just six people.

“I said, ‘OK, Lord. Now what?’” recalls Brice. That’s when he decided to take a grass-roots approach to growing the ministry by going door to door in the church’s neighborhood and asking people what they wanted.

“My district supervisor and I asked folks, ‘What do you need from us?’ rather than saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do for you,’” he explains. “We directly connected with the community so we could build the ministry based on their vision.”

Brice learned that people wanted to get their kids off the street, and to keep their neighbors out of prison and their families safe. The church began addressing these needs by launching a basketball league for underprivileged children funded through the congregation’s tithes and offerings. This league allows kids who can’t afford other programs to engage in a productive, healthy social activity.

Brice notes that the No. 1 way to reach youth is through sports. A close second is by using media and the arts, which is why St. James offers free music classes. The church also recently built a recording studio, complete with a sound booth and a soundboard.

“This enables people to express themselves through music—to rap out the problems in their neighborhood,” says Brice.

The church also provided an expungement clinic for 49 former inmates from the neighborhood who had served their time and wanted to start fresh with a clean slate. So pro-bono lawyers stepped in to aid in that process.

“If God can forgive us and give us second chances, then we wanted to find a way to forgive these men and allow them to become productive citizens,” says Brice.

St. James’ ministry has grown dramatically in the past year and is now more than 12 times the size it was when Brice arrived in July 2016. Not only do people show up to worship (the church averages a weekend attendance of 80), but volunteers abound, enabling St. James to offer a number of ministries to the community, including English classes, a free breakfast, a food program and an after-school program with a computer lab.

“St. James is unapologetically community-driven and has given all families in the area a sense of hope,” says member Lauren Linder. “I’m extremely blessed and humbled to be a part of [a church] that is built around love and encouragement, all while ministering the Word of God.”

Brice finds that incorporating social media into outreach is a primary avenue in connecting people and inviting them to fun community-fellowship events like car shows and cookouts. He uses Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and texting to alert members to things like “Hour of Power and Prayer,” in which church leadership prays for requests received via text.

Nothing, however, can substitute for face-to-face interaction. Brice knows this firsthand, recalling the time he knocked on the door of Susan, a former member who had lost her way and become addicted to drugs. Brice invited Susan back to church, but she declined. He persisted, however, and last spring, Susan showed up to a Sunday service. To Brice’s surprise, she returned again and again for a solid month, even volunteering to help with the children’s Easter egg hunt.

In April, Susan was murdered in her home. Though it was an unthinkable tragedy, Brice takes comfort in knowing that before her death she had reconnected to Christ.

“Faith is all about finding God in these moments of despair,” says Brice. “With Susan,” he says, voice cracking, “she came back to church and we got her just in time. Literally … just in time. This is exactly why we have to keep going with the ministry. Giving people access to the cross is what it’s all about.”

When it comes to a grass-roots approach, Brice says one must lead with a heart of faith.

“We can have all of the degrees, know all of the philosophies and study all of the theological approaches to the community,” says Brice. “But all of that is pointless until we say, ‘Lord, what is it that you want us to do so that we can make sure we reach your people?’”

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania