The Rev. Erin Porter, pastor of Columbus Avenue UMC in Sandusky, Ohio, looks at her congregation and likes what she sees.
The church made an intentional decision to realign itself around community relationships. That decision has enabled them to help people of all kinds go deeper in a relationship with God and the church.
We allow our discipleship to develop organically. I make it a priority to create an environment that encourages people to be in a growing relationship with God and each other. When this is happening, they start to look like disciples, doing what Jesus would want them to do.
“We don’t see what we do as a program at all,” Porter said. “We allow our discipleship to develop organically. I make it a priority to create an environment that encourages people to be in a growing relationship with God and each other. When this is happening, they start to look like disciples, doing what Jesus would want them to do.”
Columbus Avenue follows a self-given directive: We make space for anyone. They do that in part by offering radical hospitality and grace to anyone.
“Wesleyan grace is heartily practiced at our church,” Porter said. “We give grace freely and fully.”
The church looks to find ways to radically minister to people in need, making room to include them in their circle of fellowship.
They make space for the city’s homeless population by being open to forming relationships with them and helping them deal with their issues, like mental illness and hunger. Members have started a meal and Bible study for a group of homeless people and give them the dignity of helping make decisions about what they study and meal planning. They eat together, clean up together and study the Word together.
The church has started a Bible study in a local coffee shop. Hosting in the non-church setting makes it easy to invite anyone to come.
“We have had some developmentally delayed adults begin to join us,” Porter said. “We have made space for them and welcomed them into our space. As much as welcoming them, we have made their families feel welcome, too.”
A man from Nigeria has been welcomed into the church. “English is hard for him,” Porter said, “so he likes to sing and worship in his own language. Once a month, he sings for the church. We allow space for him to let that happen.”
What Porter finds most fulfilling is seeing how her people are being so deliberate in forming these relationships.
These are genuine relationships ... These are not just transactional, but truly transformational. I see our people being transformed by opening themselves up to relationships with people who need someone to care.
“These are genuine relationships,” Porter said. These are not just transactional, but truly transformational. I see our people being transformed by opening themselves up to relationships with people who need someone to care.”
What Columbus Avenue does is simple – they see who needs love and they give love – but it isn’t easy. Establishing relationships is hard with people who are similar to each other, but when people are vastly different, it takes work, understanding and forgiveness.
“Our plan can’t exactly be replicated because it’s about loving people who come in, but mostly it is about where we are willing to go,” Porter said. “We sit down and get to know people and engage in Bible study and prayer time with them.”
She added, “I seriously could retire here. I love seeing how the people are so open and willing to let others minister and worship with them. I did a pastor’s report for our charge that was just stories about what our people are doing. Stories communicate so much. They tell all about transformations. Our church is growing one story at a time.
“It’s saying you belong here, regardless of if you feel like something in your life is holding you back – your past or your present. The congregation is blessed to get to join God and Jesus in what they are doing.”
The best compliment Porter has heard was when one of the people who had been welcomed into the fellowship tell another, “We belong here.”