McKendree United Methodist Church has an imposing edifice that hides her true character. From the street she looks like the typical old-fashioned downtown church with an aging congregation. From the outside, no life or living ministry is expected to be found inside. However, if one takes a moment to step inside the 100 year old sanctuary one will find a missional congregation that reflects both the history of the 226 years and the ecology of a diverse, vibrant, and growing downtown community. Ecology
No congregation exists alone in a vacuum. Within the community surrounding a congregation there are numerable unique individuals, religious organizations, businesses, and associations of all types. The environment that a congregation finds herself in — both geographical and anthropological — has a profound impact on her character of and capacity for ministry. I narrowed my study of McKendree’s ecology down to the geographical context — where physically McKendree is located and the impact of that location — and the demographics of the area surrounding a McKendree.
McKendree has been firmly planted in downtown Nashville, Tennessee since her founding 226 years ago in the then new town on the bank of the Cumberland River. McKendree’s original buildings were near what is now Nashville’s public square, but since 1833 McKendree has occupied the lot presently at 523 Church Street in the heart of downtown Nashville. McKendree’s buildings, pastors, and parishioners have been fixtures of the downtown community and have made a permanent mark on the geography of downtown Nashville. McKendree’s situation in Nashville is best discovered by utilizing a method proposed in Studying Congregations, a “space tour”. In this methodology one walks around the few blocks surrounding a congregation’s building and notes what one sees. Observations are then broken down into two categories: that which is new and that which may have become familiar.
New is a relative term when a congregation has been occupying one spot for 180 years. When I first moved to Nashville in 2009 I lived in the apartment building directly next door to McKendree. For the purposes of my space tour, I took anything that was not in McKendree’s area prior to my moving in 2011 as new. One key observation I made was the number of artistic bike racks that had been added to the small park and library a few doors down from the church. In addition to the bike racks I saw numerous people cycling down Church Street, including a few tourists on the bikes that can now be rented at the riverfront. Nashville’s mayor has been leading an initiative to make Nashville a more bike friendly city. It seems this initiative has made its way down to the urban core.
During my time in the 500 block of Church Street, tourists rarely were seen venturing to that part of the city. Except during major events when tourists would have to park further away from the entertainment district near Broadway, only residents, the displaced, and — during business hours — downtown employees were generally seen in the area. Though there weren’t any major events going on on the days I did my space tours, many more tourists were seen strolling in the area around the church than I was used to seeing. I believe this growth in tourist traffic is due to the new Puckett’s restaurant that has opened up on the intersection of 5th Avenue and Church Street. This restaurant often has a decent wait during peak hours and many tourists stroll the otherwise unknown street and look at the architecture while waiting for their table.
Someone unfamiliar with the 500 block of Church Street might list the displaced occupying their spots on city benches and along the wall marking the front lawn of McKendree as something that has become overlooked and may need to be reevaluated. Though the displaced have become an all too familiar sight in Nashville, they are not overlooked and will be discussed at several points later in this study. In my space tour a very familiar, yet overlooked, sight caught my attention that didn’t involve the displaced community. At any given moment there was at least one downtown resident taking his or her dog on a walk. The little park just a few yards away from McKendree is a perfect spot for urban dwellers to take their pets. Within one block of McKendree there are two high-rise apartment buildings. It is understandable that these people would need a quick and convenient place to take their pets. A familiar part of city life, these people and their pets go mostly unnoticed.
The last decade has seen much growth and development in Metropolitan Nashville/Davidson County. Areas such as the Gulch and East Nashville have been transformed from poorly maintained, crime-ridden neighborhoods, to urban renewal and an influx of trendy young adults. Within two years of the 2010 US Census, Nashville’s population had already grown by 3.5%. However, this doesn’t give the entire picture of the demographic shift that is happening in the city McKendree has called home for over 225 years. From 2005 to 2011 Nashville saw a 32% increase in the number of residents between 25 and 34 years old. The previous five years, 2000 to 2005, had seen a 12% decrease in this population. An even greater increase in population can be seen amongst those in their early twenties, ages 20 to 24. This group saw their numbers increase by 62% in Nashville between 2005 and 2011. The massive increase in the 20 to 34 year-old demographic has had a profound impact on Nashville, especially in the urban core surrounding McKendree. New high-rise apartments have been built, coffee shops, restaurants, music venues, farmers markets, and enumerable new festivals have been started in the last decade by this emergent group in the city’s life and culture. All is not positive in Nashville, however. In McKendree’s city council district and all but one adjacent district between 20% to 43% of the population meets the Federal definition of living in poverty. In addition to the poverty surrounding McKendree, the downtown community is riddled with anywhere from 800 to 1000 people who do not have a permanent, adequate residence. During my several space tours and in the years I have lived and worshiped on Church Street, the displaced are an ever-present sight. The public library two doors down from McKendree is a known place for the displaced to cool off, wash-up in the restroom, and use the Internet. In addition, the numerous benches in the park across from the library, all along Church Street, and McKendree’s own low wall, are perfect, legal places for the displaced to rest. The community around McKendree is a study in stark contrast. There are expensive high-rise apartment buildings, trendy restaurants, organic food markets, and live music abounding for the young adults who are flocking to the city. Within blocks and sometimes even feet of these new comers, are neighborhoods of poverty and hopelessness. McKendree sits in the middle of these two communities and must find a way to minister to both. Culture
Though I think few congregations recognize this fact, culture and identity are the driving forces behind a congregation’s past and most definitely her future. The often times unspoken rituals and self-image of a congregation can be destructive as well as transformative. Culture and identity are spawned from the history of a congregation, her rituals — both formal and informal —, and her self-image.
McKendree’s long history is well known in the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church and her parishioners, buildings, pastors, and ministries will turn up in any study of the history of Nashville. The years after the dedication of McKendree’s first building on what is now Church Street hold much history and do inform the present culture of the congregation. However, the last thirty years have had the greatest impact on the McKendree of 2013 and it is the transformative years of this period that will be discussed here.
The 1980s were pinnacle years in the history of McKendree. In 1981 longtime pastor, Rev. Chappell left McKendree and Rev. Chraighead was appointed senior pastor of the congregation with over 2000 members. In 1986 McKendree would celebrate 200 years as a congregation with much fanfare, including a homecoming with descendants from all of McKendree’s pastors, a parade from her original site on Public Square to her current building, and official proclamations from the Bishop, Mayor, and Governor. The 1980s saw the completion of a large day care center, gym, track, and other facilities in the new Christian Life Center behind the parking garage McKendree had now also purchased. There were three Sunday services, a large choir, and numerous programs for youth and children.
By the turn of the new millennium McKendree was down to one Sunday service, losing members, and rife with internal conflict. None of the longtime members knew exactly why McKendree had changed. There was, of course, gossip of why one pastor left or the true reason behind the conflict with the choir and so forth, but no hard evidence to how a congregation of 2000 had dwindled down to around 500 in twenty years time. Around the time of the start of Nashville’s transformation by the influx of young adults into the city, McKendree was assigned a new pastor, Rev. Tom Haliburten. Pastor Tom resolved many of the conflicts in the congregation and brought new life and vision. It was under his leadership that a new praise and worship style service was started at the church. This service met in the gym in the Christian Life Center and attracted many of the new younger residents of Nashville to McKendree. This new service and its associated members were mostly ignored by the slowly dwindling members of the original worship service in the historic sanctuary.
By the time the current pastor, Rev. Stephen Handy, was appointed to McKendree in 2009 McKendree had become two churches sharing one building. There were committees and ministries staffed only by the new service — now called the 9 o’clock service and meeting in the sanctuary — and the existing committees of McKendree’s original members — now styled the 11 o’clock service — continued to function has they had for decades. Pastor Stephen saw the energy brought by the parishioners of the nine o’clock service, but also saw the division apparent in the church. He quickly worked to resolve these issues. In the last few years McKendree has continued to grow, pulling from the diverse new groups of people flooding into the urban core of Nashville. Pastor Stephen merged all committees and ministries shortly after arriving at McKendree and merges both services every month with a fifth Sunday to one 10 o’clock service. There is still much tension and many of McKendree’s longtime members have left, but those who remain behind are working hand-in-hand with the new, younger parishioners. McKendree once again is a leader in the Tennessee Conference. No longer by sheer size, but by showing true ministry and diversity in a completely unexpected place, the supposedly dying historic downtown church.
The leadership of McKendree, both lay and clergy, are very clear on the mission of the congregation. McKendree is building bridges across the community, making disciples of Jesus Christ, radically living as a faith community in small Wesleyan groups, and taking risks in ministry for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The leadership of the church shares a clear image of what McKendree is and what McKendree is striving to be. Having been part of the lay leadership structure of McKendree since my first few months attending there, I am very well versed on what the leadership team’s image of McKendree is. To discern if this image is shared by the congregation I adapted some appreciative inquiry methods from Mark Lau Branson’s Memories, Hopes, and Conversations and queried the congregation during a recent church potluck.
My survey consisted of two appreciative inquiry inspired long answer questions as well as three quick-fire questions and a place to select which service the query-taker attended. I distributed the survey during a church potluck and received 18 responses. Four of the responses came from parishioners who attend the 9 o’clock service, two from parishioners who attend both services, and twelve from parishioners who attend the 11 o’clock service. Outside of marking the service attended, all surveys were anonymous. However, in typical appreciated inquiry style, conversation throughout the fellowship hall quickly transitioned to discussing and reflecting on the questions asked.
The first long answer question on the survey focused on discerning the spiritual center of the congregation. Of the many activities of the church, which ones were having the greatest spiritual impact on the congregation? The most common answer to this question was expected, from the first visit to McKendree the welcoming atmosphere, the diversity of people in the sanctuary (rich, poor, displaced, white, black, etc.), along with the undeniable presence of the Holy Spirit were and continue to be transformative experiences for a large portion of the congregation. The second most common answer, however, was surprising. The overlooked ritual of the entire congregation coming down to lay hands on new members or the recently baptized was a powerful experience for many parishioners. Both top answers flow into and are associated with the third most common answer which pointed to the Holy Spirit’s presence in the feeling of community that is a historic hallmark of the culture of McKendree.
The community that has built up at McKendree continued to be a powerful theme through the rest of the survey. All but one top positive trait as selected by the survey-takers — location — was related to the community of Jesus-lovers present at McKendree. The community at McKendree is loving, inviting, accepting, and open. Most importantly, McKendree is diverse. To the parishioners of McKendree surveyed, diversity is not limited to race, but — as specifically clarified in several surveys — economic means, political views, and theology. The diversity of McKendree flows into her openness, ensuring that all can feel welcome in their unique circumstance. One parishioner mentioned how powerful it was on his or her first Sunday at McKendree to worship next to a “bag lady” from the street. The second question on the survey was intended to see how much buy-in the congregation had with the leadership team’s vision for McKendree. It is clear from the answers received that the community of McKendree extends to a shared vision for the future. The parishioners surveyed hoped for a future with continued diversity and worship services all week long, all over the city. The current missional activities of the church would continue, but more would be added and current programs would be extended. The parishioners also wanted membership growth, but it was of lesser concern and most wanted McKendree to stay relatively small.
The great classic of congregational culture classification, Energizing the Congregation, details five main images that congregations fall into. Without a doubt McKendree has fallen into the pillar category, a church that sees herself as a foundation of the community, for the majority of her life as a congregation. The results of this survey point to a cultural transition that has been strongly felt amongst the congregation over the last few years; McKendree is becoming a prophetic church. Prophetic churches are “assertive, restless, and ready to risk all for their vision of God’s reign.” Prophetic churches also have a clear vision of what the Kingdom of God looks like and a desire to begin building that kingdom in the present; members have high commitment and are theologically diverse. The image for McKendree dreamed by her leadership team, is being adopted and lived out by the congregation and that image is drawing new types of people into the congregation.
A missional church is a church that is shaped by participating in God’s mission, which is to set things right in a broken, sinful world, to redeem it, and to restore it to what God has always intended for the world.
Though not codified in any official document, the above definition of “missional” given by Barrett Lois is deeply woven into the fabric of McKendree’s congregational life and practice. The parishioners of McKendree know that McKendree is striving to be a missional church and they know that effort requires risk taking and a special desire to share God’s love with the hurting world. In all that McKendree does, making disciples of Jesus Christ and freely sharing the love of God is at the forefront
About three years ago McKendree underwent a process of self-discovery as a congregation to uncover, as Pastor Stephen called it, our missional DNA. In a process similar to that of Amazing Grace Church in Rick Rouse and Craig Van Gelder’s A Field Guide, parishioners would meet in small groups lead by members of the leadership team to discuss the things that were working at McKendree in the present and the vision parishioners had for McKendree in the future. Out of these meetings a fourfold philosophy of ministry was developed. All activities of the congregation were reevaluated against this new philosophy. Many longstanding ministries that no long fit the mDNA were retired and several ministries were combined so as to better reflect McKendree’s focus.
The first building block of McKendree’s mDNA is to connect. To make disciples one must be in relationship with God and with other people. To focus on connecting means that McKendree fosters ministries that look outside her walls to the hurting people of Nashville who need to experience God’s healing love through McKendree. The three most prominent ministries under this banner are McKendree’s weekly meal to the displaced — the 5&2 Gathering —, her special ministry to the unchurched at the Edgehill Cafe on Sunday evenings, and the rooftop garden that has drawn much media attention and new neighbors to the church. In every element of worship, service, and teaching that the congregation does, they are always challenged to reach outside of their comfort zone and connect with someone different from themselves. In the diverse community of downtown Nashville there is no shortage of people looking for connection and the diverse crowd filling McKendree’s pews and participating in McKendree’s ministries shows that the congregation is successfully connecting to all those who come to her doors.
The second element of the fourfold philosophy of McKendree is to receive all those who the congregation’s efforts to connect bring in. Under this banners falls McKendree’s ministry to the displaced: the Foundry — a permanent shelter for up to seven displaced men —, the clothing closet, and the congregation’s special witness of welcome and community. Receiving has been the point of most difficulty for McKendree. It is difficult to receive the person off the street who hasn’t bathed for days or the homosexual couple who comes to take part in the life of the church. With the diversity of people McKendree must receive there is always tension. Over the years, some have not been able to withstand the tension and have left McKendree for more homogenous, safe congregations. Barrett Lois notes that truly missional congregations, “are trying to conform to Jesus Christ rather than to the surrounding society.” This is a constant struggle for the congregation of McKendree, but a struggle that has become easier over time as the congregation has become accustom to the practice of radical acceptance and love.
Finally, the foundations of McKendree’s philosophy lay in all practices and ministries equipping the people who come through McKendree’s doors sufficiently so that they can be sent out into the world to share God’s love and make disciples; equip and send. The congregation at McKendree does not see itself as a “free-time activity” or a mostly social organization as seen, unfortunately, in far too many churches. In McKendree’s transition to a prophetic church as defined in Energizing the Congregation all things must point to building up the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Eye Towards the Future
In comparison to many historic, downtown churches McKendree is well along the path towards becoming a vital congregation. The vision of the leadership team has been sufficiently explained and accepted by the congregation and the ministries and practices of the church have been realigned to reflect the mDNA of the congregation. The small group meetings that lead to the defining of McKendree’s mDNA have continued into the present and are now implementing the methods of appreciative inquiry to dig deeper into the special character of the congregation and how this specialness can best be used to the glory of God’s kingdom. This all is not to say that McKendree is perfect and in no need of improvement. During my space tour especially, I began to see an important segment of the community around McKendree that had more or less been ignored. Seeing downtown residents out with their dogs renewed my focus on the thousands of new people living in the many high-rises within a few blocks or even right next door to McKendree.
In the past these people have been discussed, but no real plan on how best to minister to them was devised. Naturally, it is difficult to focus on wealthy people living in expensive condos when so many from the hurting displaced community are sitting on McKendree’s front steps. However, I believe the best way to secure the future of McKendree’s special witness of reconciliation and hope to the displaced community is to engage those who already come into contact with the displaced and have real means to assist. The Book of Worship of the United Methodist Church includes a service for the blessing of animals. With the number of downtown residents with pets walking past McKendree it might be beneficial to offer such a service on the front lawn a few times each year. Partnering with Nashville-area animal rescue or adoption agencies to have adoption drives or other events on the front lawn might also be a great way to make downtown residents feel comfortable at McKendree.
For a congregation so focused and impassioned about the displaced and poor, placing priority on ministering will require reflection on exactly what being a disciple of Jesus Christ is all about. Modern society is very congratulatory to those who help “the least of these, ” but less so to those who help people who already have much wealth and power in society. To continue missional ministry in her downtown context, McKendree must remember that all are worthy of the love of God. No matter how much money, power, or comforts someone has, if he or she does not have the love of God in Christ, he or she has nothing. Conclusion
I have attend McKendree United Methodist Church since 2009 and have constantly been amazed at the uniqueness of her ministry. The intent of this exercise was to study McKendree in a way I had never done before. By looking at McKendree through new eyes I began to see the magnitude of change McKendree has experienced in the last decade. I now have a great appreciation for those who have gone before me and prepared the way for the marvelous ministry I get to take part in each and every day to the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
 Hereafter simply McKendree.  Tipps, McKendree United Methodist Church, 19.  Tipps, McKendree United Methodist Church, 63.  Studying Congregations, 47.  McKendree’s building along with Downtown Presbyterian and the Nashville/Davidson County Public Library are the major architectural features of the area.  From here on Metropolitan Nashville/Davidson County will simply be referred to as Nashville.  The area south of Division Street along 12th Avenue.  Urban renewal has especially been strong in the area around Five Points, the intersection of Main Street, Woodland, and 11th Street.  “Nashville-Davidson QuickFact from the US Census Bureau.” http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/47/4752006.html (accessed July 14, 2013).  Community Needs Evaluation: 2012 Update, 6.  Community Needs Evaluation: 2012 Update, 6.  Community Needs Evaluation: 2012 Update, 6.  Community Needs Evaluation: 2012 Update, 25.  Community Needs Evaluation: 2012 Update, 89.  Though, unfortunately for those attempt to search for jobs or fill out applications, Internet access is limited to a twenty minutes session.  Studying Congregations, 78.  See McKendree United Methodist Church by Henry Thurston Tipps for complete details of the history of McKendree from 1787 to 1981  Tipps, McKendree United Methodist Church, 322.  Per conversations with several elderly members including members who had been at McKendree since the 1930s.  The tagline from McKendree’s letterhead is, “Building bridges of hope through the love of Jesus Christ.”  The mission of the United Methodist Church is, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This mission statement is recited by the entire congregation each Sunday before the creed is read.  As of a survey taken a year and half ago, 75% of those who regularly attended services took part in a Wesleyan small group.  And when the leadership strays, Pastor Stephen is always there to challenge the status quo and remind the church of her purpose.  Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change.  See Appendix 1 for the full wording of each question.  Coincidentally, independent of my research, Pastor Stephen had started holding appreciative inquiry sessions with small groups of parishioners the day before I gave my survey. Only four of my survey-takers had already been through the appreciative inquiry process, so the effects on my research are minimal.  Per interviews with many long-time members.  One parishioner specifically mentioned that he or she would not want to see attendance get above 500 for either service. He or she wanted the church to stay small enough for everyone to know each other.  Dudley, Energizing the Congregation, 56.  Dudley, Energizing the Congregation, 65, 68-69.  Barrett, Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness.  Or mDNA as it is referred to at McKendree.  Rouse & Van Gelder, A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation, 43.  The philosophy of McKendree is documented at our website: http://mckendreetoday.com/#/who-we-are/our-philosophy  In this ministry a very casual service of secular and Christian music along with a short homily are shared over coffee with people who are mostly outside of the church. People are then broken in to small groups to discuss the homily and then work together in a service project of some sort before leaving. This ministry has been very successful at reaching out to the new 20-34 year old population of Nashville and has now gained the support of the Bishop of the Tennessee Conference.  An artist from the community solicited McKendree if she could donate a mural to McKendree’s rooftop once she heard about the garden. The mural was unvailed at McKendree’s 225 years celebration. http://binglishart.com/2012/09/19/paint-a-tree-mural-in-downtown-nashville-at-mckendree-umc/  Barrett, Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness, 75.  Barrett, Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness, 63.  Dudley, Energizing the Congregation, 65.  1 Cor 13:1-3
Works Cited Barrett, Lois Y. Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004. Kindle Edition. Branson, Mark Lau. Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change. Herndon, VA: Alban Insitute, 2004. Kindle Edition. “Community Needs Evaluation: 2012 Update - Davidson County, Tennessee.“, Nashville, TN, 2012, http://www.nashville.gov/Portals/0/SiteContent/SocialServices/docs/cne/2012cne.pdf (accessed July 14, 2013). Dudley, Carl S., and Sally A. Johnson. Energizing the Congregation: Images That Shape Your Church’s Ministry. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993. “McKendree Today.” http://www.mckendreetoday.com (accessed July 14, 2013). “Nashville-Davidson QuickFact from the US Census Bureau.” http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/47/4752006.html (accessed July 14, 2013). Rouse, Rick, and Craig Van Gelder. A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation: Embarking on a Journey of Transformation. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2008. Kindle Edition. “Studying Congregations: A New Handbook.” Edited by Nancy T. Ammerman, Jackson W. Carroll, Carl S. Dudley and William McKinney, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998. Tipps, Henry Thurston. McKendree United Methodist Church: Since 1787. Nashville, TN: Parthenon Press, 1981.
Congregational Discernment Inquiry
- Thinking back to your time at McKendree, what is the experience that stands out most in your mind? Why was this experience so significant? If this was a communal experience, who else was involved?
- Picture your ideal McKendree five years from now. What ministries would we have? What would our congregation look like? Where and how would we worship? Dream big!
- I usually attend the ______ o’clock service.
- The situation/group most in need of McKendree’s help is _________.
- My favorite part of Sunday worship is _________.
- McKendree’s most positive trait is her _________.