Going Deeper as We Go Wider: 6 Lessons from Simply Grace Church

By Doug Ruffle

In May of last year, I had the privilege of interviewing Eric Drew, Director of Worship for the Connectional Ministries’ Team in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference. Eric himself has recently released an album of songs that are richly blessing worshipers. These are available at www.ericdrewmusic.com. My favorite of the songs is “Center of it All.” Hear it on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XwbWt2-uPY.

I asked Eric to identify bright spots of ministry that he has witnessed since coming on staff. Among the ministries mentioned, he talked about Simply Grace, a United Methodist community of faith in Bloomsbury, New Jersey, and their pastor, Gina Yeske. Gina now serves as Director of Small Groups for the conference. Gina helped lead Simply Grace from an average worship attendance of 17, when she became pastor in 2005, to more than 95 today.

Gina, and her husband, Steve, were part of one of the first “Lay Missionary Planting Network” classes. Greater New Jersey helped pilot the initiative in 2010-11. The class emphasizes how laity can be proactive in creating new places for new people in the life of the church. The first session is entitled, “Church Planting 101.” From my interview with Eric, I learned six key principles that Gina lived out in ministry and that could help smaller churches everywhere. The principles are associated with starting new faith communities but can easily be incorporated into the life of existing churches.

  1. Deep Listening. Gina is a deep listener. Whether meeting up with new people at the pizza place or visiting with a first-time worshiper, Gina takes the time to get to know people. When meeting with persons new to worship, she discovered that two regular attenders were professional musicians. Once she built a relationship with them, she invited them to help form a worship band. This is not a high production band with bells and whistles. It is a band that plays music well and helps lead vibrant worship. Gina’s gift for connecting with younger people helped bring new life into the life of her community of faith without leaving behind the folks who had been there.
  2. Following a Process. The church followed the process outlined in the first edition of the book, Roadmap to Renewal, which has now come out in a revised edition with study guide. Gina worked with laity to gain clarity on the vision and mission God was calling their church to be at this time in its history. They received coaching help from Paul Nixon as they lived into the implementation of their plan. A major part of the plan involved rebranding the church from Bloomsbury UMC to Simply Grace, a United Methodist Faith Community. A church name, they reasoned, becomes the first opportunity to cast vision. Rebranding to “Simply Grace” marked a shift in the congregation’s outlook and missional emphasis. It was the fruit of a process they embarked on and saw through toward the articulation of a new direction for mission and ministry.
  3. Having Patience. The process of transitioning and renewing the congregation did not happen overnight. It took several years to articulate a plan and to begin its implementation. It took patience to live into the new vision and mission of their ministry action plan and to begin to see the fruit of their changes. Most of the Bloomsbury UMC members were on board with changes happening, but not all. Several members, including those who were big financial supporters, left the church because of the rebranding. When more and more younger people became part of Simply Grace, they knew they were on the right track and that the changes were necessary to go into a new direction. Eric Drew commented, “It seems every time I worship at Simply Grace there is a baby being baptized.” Indeed, 19 infant baptisms have been celebrated over the past 12 months.
  4. Gaining Clarity. The vision the church articulated in the process of renewal was: “To transform their church into a place that will make a difference in the lives of those in their community, region, and the world.” Their mission began at home. You don’t have to be a large membership church to reach out to people in your community. Gina led her congregation in an intentional outreach with an elementary school located directly across the street from Simply Grace. Gina organized laity from the church and together they began to offer a free program for students from the Elementary School. At no charge to the families, students spend two hours after school in crafts and activities led by the volunteers and by enjoying tasty snacks. 20-40 students participate. The relationships built with those families helped make a positive name for the church. In addition, Simply Grace makes regular visits to Honduras where they relate to people in that country and provide meaningful ministry for a week at a time during the summer.
  5. Living Authentic Relationships. Gina and Steve used to be in the food catering business. They love to cook. One of the ways they connected to young adults was by inviting them over to their house for a cook-out. Younger people experience Gina and Steve as real and caring. They create a space that is inviting and comfortable to younger people. It all starts with being authentic. Eric Drew commented, “I never thought it could work, but they actually take a “halftime” in the middle of worship to invite people to fellowship with one another and have a cup of coffee or tea. They are invited to re-enter the worship center with their coffee!” They created an inviting space where younger people, many of whom had never been a part of a Christian faith community, could feel at home. There is an authentic sense of comfort and acceptance that is felt by worshipers.
  6. Empowering laity. When Gina invites a person to share his or her gifts in the ministry of Simply Grace, she doesn’t stop with the invitation. She walks with them as they live into their service, providing guidance and encouragement. She helps people take logical steps toward becoming fully devoted followers of Jesus. She discerns how best to empower them so that they use their God given gifts fruitfully in the life of the faith community. She and lay leaders have been intentional about accompanying newcomers in their faith journey. We call this an intentional discipleship system (#SeeAllThePeople) that meets the needs of the people. It is a way to see all the people in one’s community and build a bridge of love between the church and the people.

[bctt tweet="The six principles associated with starting a new faith community are deep listening, following a process, having patience, gaining clarity, living authentic relationships, and empowering laity." username=""]

I have always affirmed that new church planting is the “research and development” department of the Church. We can see how Pastor Gina Yeske, together with her husband, Steve, and other lay members of Simply Grace, implemented learnings from church planting into the life of a congregation that had been around for more than 180 years. Theirs was a way to see all the people (#SeeAllThePeople) in their community and to work with laity to bring about renewal to a congregation. There is a lot that churches small and not so small can learn from their experience.

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