Huntertown United Methodist’s multisite ministry approach hopes to breathe new life into Forest Park United Methodist Church in Fort Wayne

Pastor Connor Guerzini, left, and Pastor Tony Johnson, are excited about Huntertown United Methodist Church establishing a satellite ministry at Forest Park United Methodist in Fort Wayne. Guerzini will lead what will become Lifehouse Church-Forest Park, while Johnson leads Huntertown UMC, the hub for that congregation's multisite ministry efforts. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)
Members of Forest Park United Methodist Church in Fort Wayne have asked Huntertown United Methodist Church to take on their congregation as a satellite ministry. Multisite ministry is a growing trend among faith communities. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)

Forest Park United Methodist Church needed a lifeline. The once-vibrant Fort Wayne congregation at 2100 Kentucky Ave. may not have expected help would come all the way from Huntertown.

On June 30, Forest Park UMC will close. The next day, it will be reborn as Lifehouse Church-Forest Park Campus, one of two satellite locations that are part of ministries based at Huntertown United Methodist Church.

“We are one church with multiple locations,” Huntertown Pastor Tony Johnson said.

Multisite ministry is a growing trend among faith congregations, Johnson said.

A NEW APPROACH

The current approach differs from what happened decades ago, when “mother” churches downtown sent people out to start new congregations in the suburbs. In that era, the goal was to launch new, independent congregations.

Today, churches launch satellite sites with the idea that the new congregations will remain part of the original ministry.

Central Ministries in Leo-Cedarville, for example, has a Leo campus at 14717 Amstutz Road; a Chapel Ridge campus at 5801 Schwartz Road in Fort Wayne; and an online campus at http://www.centralministries.com.

St. Joseph United Methodist Church, 6004 Reed Road, has a satellite congregation, Aspire Church, that meets at the nearby Jackson R. Lehman Family YMCA, 5680 YMCA Park Drive West.

‘MORE EFFECTIVE’

The new multisite model offers advantages, said Johnson and Pastor Connor Guerzini, who recently joined the Huntertown United Methodist ministry as the pastor for the Lifehouse Church-Forest Park campus.

• “It’s more effective and more cost-effective,” Johnson said. Some of the same staff can manage portions of the ministry at more than one site.

• Faith communities can stay smaller and more-intimate rather than grow into one, huge congregation.

• There are more opportunities for people to serve and get involved.

“We believe we can reach more people and not drastically change our DNA,” Johnson said.

WORKING FOR THE KINGDOM

Part of that viewpoint grows from the Huntertown congregation’s decision to operate as a “kingdom” church, Johnson said. Rather than focusing on increasing the size of their congregation, they devote their efforts to building up God’s kingdom by reaching out to let as many people as possible know God loves them.

The kingdom focus resulted from a staff retreat after Johnson became pastor about two years ago. The congregation members present rallied around the Biblical verse John Chapter 10, Verse 10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

The congregation started by turning its The Third Place building at 1601 W. Cedar Canyons Road into Lifehouse Church, Johnson said. The building, which was built in 2007, contains a gym and event space.

Huntertown United Methodist previously had used as a community center, with the idea the congregation someday may move all of its operations to that site, he said.

They started a contemporary worship service there on March 5, 2017, and continued with a traditional worship service at Huntertown United Methodist’s main campus at 16021 Lima Road in Huntertown.

Attendance at each site has grown 25 percent since the change, Johnson said.

STAYING CONNECTED

He and other church staff keep the campuses connected.

People at the main campus, Lifehouse Church — and soon, Lifehouse Church-Forest Park — all will get the same spiritual message during sermons each week, as well as the same announcements, Johnson said.

He and the clergy staff do group sermon writing, he and Guerzini said. They all work out the message and then each pastor takes those main points and adds some of his own anecdotes or stories for what he will say to people attending at his location, they said.

Church staff from all locations meet together once a week to stay connected and continue their team approach to ministry, Johnson said.

STARTING A PARTNERSHIP

The Huntertown congregation’s initial contact with Forest Park United Methodist came through the Huntertown church’s clothing ministry, Johnson said.

Huntertown members collected a lot of clothing but never had any interaction with the people who actually received the clothing, he said. They then had the idea to take the clothing and distribute it at Forest Park, which operates a neighborhood food bank.

That change allowed Huntertown congregation members to have face-to-face contact with people receiving clothing and to share their faith and pray with them, Johnson said.

The partnership between the two congregations eventually resulted in Forest Park members asking Huntertown United Methodist to take on their congregation, he said.

The Forest Park congregation, which had gotten older and hadn’t been able to attract younger people, likely would have had to close within a couple of years, Johnson said.

NEW OPPORTUNITY

At the time Forest Park members proposed becoming a satellite campus, Huntertown United Methodist staff didn’t know much about the people or area around Forest Park United Methodist, which is located two blocks south of State Boulevard just west of Crescent Avenue.

“It is a much younger, vibrant community than I expected,” Johnson said. “It is such a great place to do ministry and share Jesus with people.”

Guerzini initially saw the Forest Park church area with Johnson while Guerzini was visiting Fort Wayne for church conference on multisite congregations. Guerzini, who was working in Evansville but knew Johnson from a previous congregation, also saw a lot of potential and was happy to take the job leading Lifehouse Church-Forest Park.

“The greatest joy I have in ministry is seeing people come to see Jesus in a new and refreshing way,” Guerzini said.

Lifehouse Church-Forest Park will start with a traditional worship service using the church’s renowned pipe organ and add a contemporary worship service with a praise band in early October, he said.

LENDING SUPPORT

Guerzini will have a lot of help revitalizing the Forest Park site: Along with the support from the Huntertown United Methodist and Lifehouse Church staff, Guerzini said a group of about 60 adults and children from those congregations has committed to attend Lifehouse Church-Forest Park for 18 months to help launch the new ministry effort there.

The launch group will help plan and carry out a number of outreach events, such as a neighborhood block party June 29 in the church parking lot, he said.

Huntertown United Methodist has received three years of grants from the Church Development Office of the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church to assist with costs associated with launching Lifehouse Church-Forest Park and getting it on stable footing, Johnson said.

A BETTER APPROACH

The multisite approach and the support it provides have proven much more successful in starting and growing congregations than the traditional church-planting approach, Johnson said. The latter drops a minister in a location with the goal of gathering together enough people to start a congregation.

Huntertown United Methodist also has found the multisite approach has increased outreach and missions activity, Johnson said. For example, a coordinator for the community garden at Lifehouse Church on Cedar Canyons Road now has begun taking produce from the garden to the food bank at Forest Park United Methodist.

In addition, people from all three sites will join together to work on large community-service projects, he said.

THE FUTURE

Johnson and Guerzini hope the Forest Park site will be one of many satellite campuses connected with Huntertown United Methodist Church. They also hope to share sermon material and other resources with congregations that aren’t part of their network.

They are committed to everyone having the opportunity to have a life in Jesus Christ, Johnson said.

“We do not have all of the answers,” he said. “We are just trying our best to keep up with God.”

LEARN MORE

For more about Huntertown United Methodist Church and Lifehouse Church, go to http://lifehousefw.com.

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