The pastor of the Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church is hopeful that some strategic moves will lure more people to the pews of his building.
Principles of faith don’t change, but how a church connects with people tends to adapt to the times.
At the Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church in Mayfair, the congregation and its pastor have updated their Sunday services and have reached out to their surrounding neighborhood with programs for kids and meeting space for self-help groups and other congregations.
The activity, said its pastor, the Rev. Ted Bach, is based on the realization that membership is dwindling as people move away or grow older — and also that there are a lot of folks in the area around the Longshore Avenue house of worship who have not been inside the church, or any church.
“We’re trying to bring religion to the people,” said congregation member Gerry Flynn. “We’re doing what Christ did.”
The congregation number at Johnson Memorial is low, said member Jerry Adams, who puts it at about 120. During a Sept. 13 interview, Bach, Adams and Flynn estimated that 50 people turn out for the Sunday service. Although he’s unsure of Johnson Memorial’s origin and history, Bach said the numbers are down from the 400 to 500 who represented the congregation’s peak some years back.
Sundays are busy for Bach. He’s also pastor of the Holmesburg United Methodist Church on Frankford Avenue, and he leads services for congregants there each week before rushing over to Johnson Memorial.
For almost a year, Johnson Memorial, which has never been anywhere but Longshore Avenue, didn’t have a pastor. Sunday services were led by Flynn, the church’s Christ service minister, who also is a police chaplain. Bach was appointed to his dual role in November 2010. Such a long time without a pastor is unusual for a United Methodist congregation, he added.
One of the big challenges in subbing for a minister, Flynn said, is putting together a weekly sermon, which he noted “is supposed to be God’s word through you.”
Besides not having a pastor for a while, Johnson Memorial’s congregation has had other adversities to overcome, Flynn and Adams said.
There were problems with the building. For example, an oil tank leaked and a heating system had to be replaced. Money had to be spent to bring the educational building up to code so that it could house a day-care center.
“It’s now the safest church in Northeast Philadelphia,” Flynn said.
Recently, the church hired a music director. Now, Johnson Memorial has what Bach calls a “blended service” — one accompanied by contemporary and more traditional religious music. The choir has moved from the loft to be closer to congregants. A large screen is used to project the words of the songs.
The tone of services is more informal, the pastor said, adding that he does not wear a robe except for special liturgies.
Congregation members are greeted when they arrive, Bach said. The altar, which used to be as far from the pews as it could be and still be in the church, has been moved forward — and much closer — to the people.
To promote awareness of the congregation among neighborhood residents, the church has been making itself available in several ways. Johnson Memorial’s leadership recognized a neighborhood need for child care. The congregation has its own preschool program and also leases space in the church’s educational wing for a new day-care center.
The church is a voting place on election days.
To serve the diverse, multi-ethnic neighborhood, Johnson Memorial offers space to Liberian, Pakistani and Indian Christian congregations.
In fact, space at the church is pretty well booked each weekday, too. Groups from Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon to Narcotics Anonymous meet at Johnson Memorial. Zumba dance classes are held there. There’s a kids camp and a flea market too, Bach said.
“The flea market offered us an opportunity to meet and talk to people in the neighborhood,” he explained.
The decision to make the church so available simply reflects a bit of marketing — enticing more people to come to Johnson Memorial. “People often come to a church because they know somebody there,” the pastor said.
Are the changes and increased accessibility helping the congregation’s numbers?
“We see a few new faces,” Adams said.
Bach, Adams and Flynn realize that growth will take time, but they have expectations.
“We hope our congregation that comes to worship grows by approximately fifty people … and they’re married with young children,” Flynn said. “I think that’s attainable.” ••
Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s the lowdown …
What you need to know about the Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church:
Address: 3117 Longshore Ave.
Services: 10:30 a.m. Sunday
Pastor: Rev. Ted Bach
Web site: johnsonmemorialumc.org