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A Call to Arms
The Full Story of how New Hampton Presbyterian Church
uses demographics in ministry. . .

"You don't need a penny just to hang around,
But if you've got a nickel, won't you lay your money down?
Over on the corner there's a happy noise.
People come from all around to watch the magic boy"

Credence Clearwater Revival

"It's a quarter to three and there's no one in the place except
you and me."

After all, this is church . . .who expects anyone to hang around? No doubt, even "you and me" would be long gone by a quarter to three. Not so with the 300+ members of New Hampton Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Unlike most churchgoers on a Sunday morning, these exuberant worshippers don't automatically exit en masse when the clock strikes twelve—they find plenty of good reasons to hold off on the noon repast. First of all, there's the music: "Joyful, Joyful" describes 70-year old Rose Gillespie who was born into the church. "Best music in Charlotte," says a 20-year old local college student from New York. Then there are those hugs—warm, engulfing envelopments given in ample abundance by members who have almost made reaching out and touching someone a doctrine. Call it their own brand of Reformed Theology; here, reforming non-committal "We go where the wind blows" baby boomers is a way of life. While some pastors severely chide those with C.V.S (Chronic Visitors Syndrome) as being "potted plants on wheels" who need to put down roots, New Hampton's Rev. L. Bryant Parker takes a different tact. After all, if even plants need a little TLC before they can take root and grow, why should human beings be any different?

Please Squeeze

According to "hug experts" a human being needs two hugs a day just to survive, four for maintenance and a whopping six to grow and thrive.* New Hampton members guarantee at least that many—and more—in just one hour. "Hug two people you like, then two people you don't like", bellows preacher Parker on any given Sunday morning. Arms are instantly extended as each recipient of an embrace counts off his or her four hugs. The genuineness of the gesture is never questioned—unless, of course, one happens to be someone's third or fourth hug.

What begins with a call to arms soon becomes an invitation. Not necessarily an invitation to join the church—there's never any pressure
there—but to get involved. "Reverend Parker hugs everybody and then says, 'Come on, we'll give you something to do,'" says Estelle Davis, who at 70+ has yet to slow down. She is involved in at least six official ministries—more, if you count all the children who call her "Mom." Like her pastor, Estelle is not bashful about recruiting workers. Without quite knowing what hit them, a first-time visitor often finds that they've signed up to sing in the choir. By the next week he or she may have been recruited to help teach a bible study to third graders. Or asked to become an acolyte. And this often happens before they've even joined the church.

How does all this willing and eager involvement happen? It could be compared to going to grandma's house—or a family reunion. You walk in the door, smell the freshly baked cookies, sit on the comfortable chintz sofa, get plenty of hugs from lots of relatives but shortly after that
somebody—maybe a first cousin—hands you a dishtowel and asks you to pitch in and "do your chores." You don't mind because it's family. Pastor Parker uses a more utilitarian phrase for such engagement. "Worship plus two" — a concept where churchgoers are asked to be involved in two ministries besides worship—ideally, one in the area of mission and the other within the church. It's an idea that Parker acknowledges is a melding of Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Church and William Easum's Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Hamburgers.

"The Purpose-Driven Church gave us ideas about evangelizing and about establishing ministries—particularly missions—in certain ways," says Parker. "From Sacred Cows we developed the idea that everything shouldn't be top driven—in other words, we don't want "trickle down" church. . . we have leaders of people, not leaders of committees. They are people who care about other people and who then empower them. And then you tell the people in your church that you're going to give them positions of responsibility, but at the same time, you make them accountable. And so our motto is 'We are purpose driven and permission giving.'"

The results? "'Worship plus two' did it," says long-time member "Major" King. "We've gone from cold and stoic to warm, inviting and involved."

It wasn't always this way. In fact, just little under four years ago, New Hampton was ready to be chopped up and added to the funeral pyre of obsolete religious relics. According to Estelle Davis, New Hampton had
long ago lost that lovin' feelin'. "We had pastors who just did their sermons and didn't do anything else and didn't encourage us to do nothin'," says Estelle. "It was dying, but it's very alive now!" "Major" King agrees. He waited ten years before joining, because it wasn't very fulfilling. "When Rev. Parker came into town he brought with him a whole different spirit and attitude," says King. "Church went from boring to very uplifting and spirit-filled," says King. "And, he adds, it keeps on getting better!"

Hampton's Hero

While describing Parker as "the hero who rode into town on a white horse to save the day" might be a bit of a stretch, it's not too far off the mark. Often it has been Caucasian churches in inner city areas that get reclaimed by minority groups—generally African American. Those minority groups then turn around and build a thriving, inner-city church. But in this case it was an African American church that was facing decline—the neighborhood was becoming not only more European American, but economically diverse as well. Although some of those changes were obvious even to the casual observer, (new businesses, a thriving university and some corporate headquarter relocations like Wachovia and Bank of America), both Parker and Charlotte Presbytery Redevelopment Director Owen Carriker decided to dig beneath the surface to get more detailed demographics. This kind of information was necessary before Pastor Parker could formulate a vision—one that was already beginning to stir deep within in his heart. It was also a requirement if they were going to receive any redevelopment help from the General Assembly. To that end, Carriker conducted a workshop where he used Percept's Ministry Area Profile and their other demographic tools to get a detailed assessment of the community.

"What we learned was the area had grown around the church leaving this little African American community with just three streets kind of
enclosed," says Parker. Suddenly they found themselves being the last of the black community in the University City area—sort of like the Last of the Mohicans! So we had to figure out, how do we begin to redevelop, how do we begin to catch up with where they are? Why are we sitting here in poverty and everything around us is so plush? It said to us a couple of things: one, we want to be who we are, but, at the same time, we have to diversify if we are going to grow. And so we began to look at diversification, and in doing so, we made some very intentional moves."

Part of moving intentionally means, first, know your audience. During the workshop, Parker got a picture of what the changing community surrounding New Hampton looked like. It included Gen-X (Survivor) college students, a strong corporate contingent and young families who were moving into the new subdivisions from all different parts of the country. Parker took the information and ran with it, adopting the Nike School of Theology's maxim— "Just Do It." New Hampton's presence was soon felt. For example, New Hampton (a largely African American church), was the only Presbyterian church asked to participate in an incoming freshman mixer of over 500 students who themselves were about 90-95% non-African American. And New Hampton's New Life Center, located on 10 acres of land that was donated by a developer, has now become a recreational hub for families moving into the community. The center also houses an ongoing homeless ministry that was on the verge of closing its doors until the newly invigorated congregation revived it. In total there are now 24 active ministries with high member (and non-member) involvement housed at New Hampton. Before, there were only about five ministries with very little member involvement or effectiveness.

"Percept's Ministry Area Profile and other demographics helped to provide the vision for New Hampton," says Carriker. "Quite frankly,
New Hampton was staring at either continuing to supply preachers or closing—their future was very limited. It was about this time that L.Bryant Parker came on board; he provided both the vision and the strong leadership they needed . . . he became permission giving by saying, 'Here, if you have an interest in this, take it and go and be blessed!' So, while the materials pointed them in a direction, it was the people themselves who took ownership of that vision and made it happen."

Thawing Out God's "Frozen Chosen"

But perhaps the single most unifying factor—one that is proving to be the most successful in transcending ethnicity, race and economic status—is a gospel choir that is rocking the rafters of this historic 132-year old Presbyterian church.

"We looked at Percept's demographics and discovered who the people were who were coming into this area—mostly they were coming from California, Illinois, New York and places like that," says Parker. "So we asked ourselves: 'What is the Chicago Mass Choir singing, what is West Angeles singing, what is the Brooklyn Tabernacle doing?'
And particularly when we talk about the Brooklyn Tabernacle—well, they are probably one of the most diversified praise and worship choirs around: Reggae, Latin, Jewish, Gospel, Christian contemporary, folk music—there's everything in the world there. And you have Puerto Ricans, Africans, Caucasians and Asians all merged together. So I can see this church becoming a Brooklyn Tabernacle in the Presbyterian Church, because we have intentionally reached out to this particular, very diverse community. And really, I thank God, because much of that awareness, that sensitivity, that deliberateness on our part came because we looked at the Percept resources and we said, 'Okay, this is who we are and this is where we want to go. . . so then, what strategy do we need to get there? Because we need to be intentional about the growth of this church and about taking this message of good news—that Christ still has a word for people of today.'"

And the word on the streets of Charlotte is getting out. The New Hampton choir is well on its way to becoming the hottest "free" concert ticket south of New York. Students from Appalachian State University now come to worship with New Hamptoners, injecting their own blend of folk guitar music. Even a Christian motorcycle gang—leather jackets and all—popped in one Sunday. This kind of convergence is all the more amazing when you consider that the Charlotte Presbytery was, by all accounts, the last Presbytery to integrate after the post-Civil War merger of the Northern and Southern churches. Today, they hold the distinction of being the only African American church that "just happens to be Presbyterian" in the University City area—an area that's been identified as the newly emerging place of economic and social power in Charlotte.

Moving up to Zion

Producing growth in a dying church is no easy task—it's usually easier to tear down and start over. New Hampton has definitely been the exception. From a dwindling membership of little less than 100 members three years ago, to over 300 (54 joined just in the first year alone), New Hampton is a hopping, happening church. And in about a year, after they move up to the very visible adjacent corner property that was bought by the congregation, those numbers are expected to soar.

Not that L. Bryant Parker is looking to become yet another mega celebrity-church. He makes it clear that he doesn't want to become so big that he can no longer minister to each member. "We are trying to be a community of people who are warm and inviting, and who accept all who want a real relationship with Jesus," says Parker. "I want to be with the people—not just take their social security money and then send them a letter saying, 'Thank you, send some more; but I can't come because I don't even know your name or what you look like when you contract leukemia.'"

That seems unlikely to happen. It's doubtful that members like Estelle, Rose and "Major" will let it. For them, interdependency and true biblical
commitment—one to another—throbs too deeply in their veins to be so easily displaced by a formulaic "Ten Best Steps to Church Growth" strategy. A strategy that sometimes programs out the deeper expressions of the spirit—be they divine or human. For all the excitement about God doing a "new thing," they aren't going to forsake the old just to produce a "Brave New Church." A.K. Chesterson said, "Any man who is cut off from the past, is a man most unjustly disinherited." Pastor L. Bryant Parker would agree with that.

"New Hampton is a growing, excited, contagious church doing wonderful things. Yes, we are Presbyterians and we stand on that foundation— especially the legacy of freedom of conscience—but we're not going to be hung up on a 400+-year old tradition," says Parker. "In that sense we are not typical—we don't just do hymns and follow a set liturgy and then we're out by noon. At the same time, we aren't exclusively an African American church either—or a hip-hop church or a Gen-X church or whatever—because the kingdom of God is inclusive. There is male and female; there is young and old; and there is black and there is white. There are all kinds ethnicities and every kind of thing that is good in the Kingdom." - Jenni Keast

* "For human beings, you need two hugs a day to survive, four hugs for maintenance, six hugs to grow." Virginia Satir, Marriage and Family Therapist.
Read Rev. L. Bryant Parker's article for the Presbyterian Church (USA) Racial Ethnic Ministries. Click here to open the article...
For a more printable version of this page, click here.
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