LINK: UMC.org Home
Interpreter Magazine
Lighter Fare
Letters
Archives
Search Interpreter Magazine

Open Enrollment
Digital Interpreter


Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2010 Archives > September-October 2010 > Bless Austell!

Bless Austell!

When First United Methodist Church, Austell, Ga., opened its doors to a faith-based, tuition-free preschool, the congregation took the first step toward living a revitalizing, new vision. Today the church's mission and its popular name in the community are the same—"Bless Austell."

(From left) Jason McLain, Ron Lewis and the Rev. Brett DeHart work the grill at Austell (Ga.) Intermediate School's Fall Festival.
(From left) Jason McLain, Ron Lewis and the Rev. Brett DeHart work the grill at Austell (Ga.) Intermediate School's Fall Festival.
PHOTOS COURTESY FIRST UMC

The church had no children's ministries and little other outreach when it opened the "Feed My Lambs" preschool in 2006. Within months of starting it, congregants were also opening the doors for a free dinner every Thursday night and free weekly aerobics classes for the community.

The Rev. Brett DeHart arrived in the summer of 2008 and "has taken that ball and run with it," said longtime member Ron Lewis. "He is always coming up with something new that we can improve and build on some of these missions already in place."

"I realized quickly that the attractional model (of church growth) just wasn't working here," DeHart explained. "We don't have all the bells and whistles." So he offered a new model—"Bless Austell"—under which the church's outreach ministries and more would fit.

"Internally, our goal is to have our church and its members focus on blessing our community," DeHart said. "Externally, we hope the campaign will signal to the community that we are ready to serve, to be an asset to this community."

When an historic flood hit Austell in September 2009, the community took the congregation at its word.

Austell Primary School sits next door to the church. "The school contacted our church first when it wanted to provide help to its families," DeHart said, and the church quickly agreed to assist.

The school sent a letter home with every student, telling parents that Austell First UMC was ready to help. The church provided immediate assistance to 16 families who had lost everything in the flood and continued its relationship with those families for months.
Squishing paint is fun for a Feed My Lambs preschooler.
Squishing paint is fun for a Feed My Lambs preschooler.

Since then, the church has become an official Partner in Education with the school district. Members volunteer extensively in the primary, intermediate and middle schools; host teacher appreciation breakfasts; serve at school festivals; and volunteer in the classrooms.

The Thursday night community dinners have "served their season," DeHart said, so a new ministry is beginning this fall—Backpack Blessings, a weekend food program that will serve 140 students.

"Seventy-five percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch," DeHart explained.

Last year the Austell Business Association named the church "Business of the Year," recognizing the church's positive community involvement.

And how has this new vision affected the church?

Feed My Lambs preschoolers pose for one of their first class photos.
Feed My Lambs preschoolers pose for one of their first class photos.

Attendance and giving have risen measurably, DeHart said. "The biggest thing for us is the vitality of the congregation," he added. "They feel alive."

"'Bless Austell' is the mantra we all say, but I think we are being blessed," said member Beverly Lewis. "We've gotten outside of our own box and our own comfort zone."

"It's built enthusiasm among our members who feel more involved in the church agenda than ever before," Ron Lewis added. The retiree volunteers at the preschool several times a week.

"It's been an evolution for all of us," Tania Havron, a schoolteacher and lifetime member, said. "Some caught on sooner than others.

"We don't measure success by how many are in the pews anymore. Now it's more about how many people were fed; how many got flood assistance."

Diane G. H. Kilmer, freelance writer, Nashville, Tenn.




Click for a printer friendly version of this pageClick to email someone a link to this page


Site Tools:  Site Map |  Glossary |  Directory | Calendar  Content Tools: Email Updates | Syndication | RSS Feed

About UMC.org  |  Press Center  |  Jobs  |    Image Link Title Korean UMC