In a time when most people are aware that mainline denominations have seen a steady decline in membership, it is easy for smaller churches to become discouraged. But in the little town of Hopewell Borough, the local United Methodist Church and its sister churches are getting creative in how they unite as the body of Christ to expand their reach to the surrounding community.
Hopewell Borough only has 1900 residents, many of whom are younger families who have recently moved to the area and do not know much about the five historical mainline churches that reside within a three block radius of each other.
“It has been difficult in previous years to keep attendance up for all the churches in Hopewell,” said Council of Churches representative Cathy Peterson. “I think it’s time we find new ways of working together to remind the changing community that we are here and want to offer our support.”
With this in mind, Peterson and newly appointed Rev. Kate Hillis of Hopewell UMC spent the summer devising a plan to bring all of the churches in Hopewell together in one common mission. Rev. Hillis expressed her enthusiasm at joining the Council of Churches in this endeavor. “It is so exciting to partner with churches who genuinely want to share the love of Jesus with the world around them.”
On Sunday, November 6, five churches in Hopewell left their buildings to participate in an ecumenical day of service and worship called “The Church has Left the Building”, a movement that began at Woodside Church, in Yardley, Pa. Among them were 70 participants from Hopewell UMC, Hopewell Presbyterian Church, Grace United Church of Christ, Calvary Baptist Church and Second Calvary Baptist Church.
Each church left their building and regular Sunday morning worship schedules to complete eight service projects in the community. These projects included making six blankets for soldiers overseas, collecting a truckload of non-perishables that people donated by leaving on their doorsteps, visiting a local nursing home, bagging 95 lunches for the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK), assembling 70 Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes, making 64 pairs of shoes for Sole Hope in Africa, filling 45 soup mix jars for Fisherman’s Mark Food Pantry in Lambertville, and renovating the local home of a low-income family in the Borough. Each church partnered with local community organizations and non-profits to collect donations and receive assistance for the various projects.
At 5 p.m., all churches gathered at Hopewell UMC for a shared meal, followed by an evening of worship led by Rev. Hillis and the local pastors, as well as musicians from three of the participating churches. “It was amazing to see all of the churches come together and worship. This is what it means to be the church. We need to do this more often!” said one worshiper Sunday evening.
Worshipers were also given the opportunity to see a slideshow of pictures that were taken throughout the day at the various service project locations, and offer a testimony about their own experiences. One local community member, whose home was renovated during the day said, “I have no words to express how much what you all did today means to me. If any of you need anything, just call me.”
Diane Baratta, a member of Hopewell UMC, said, “I am so thankful my family was given the opportunity to serve alongside each other today. We were able to talk with our kids about how eye-opening it was for them to pack shoeboxes with soap and a washcloth and know that some kid will open that on Christmas morning.”
Worshipers took communion together and lit candles in celebration of All Saints Sunday, a day when United Methodists remember the saints of the Church, whose commitment to Christ’s love and works of service helped to transform the world and the lives of future generations.
In just one afternoon, nearly 400 people in Hopewell were reached by the love of Jesus Christ all because five small churches were brave enough to unite together, get creative, and embrace the mission that God gives to all of Christ’s followers — to defend the foreigner, care for the orphans and widows, rescue the poor, and stand for the oppressed.
Whether big or small, the churches in Hopewell believe that by sharing the love of Jesus Christ with the world around them, God will transform lives. As one local resident with tears in her eyes put it that night, “There is a new energy in Hopewell tonight. The Spirit is moving and it is awesome.”