Church: From the Cornfields to the City – How a Small Church Reinvented Itself

Two Friday evenings each month members of Abundant Grace Church gather in their building in the Charlotte Community of Rochester, New York, to live and share the gospel of Jesus with their community neighbors in a special way. Mary Elwell, ministry leader of the church food cupboard, leads the team in prayer before turning them loose to fill sacks with canned food and other staples. At the same time, Pastor Leonard Banks makes final preparation for the worship service that will occur before the food distribution.

Some of the 80 to 85 community families served monthly are already lining up outside.

At 5:55 p.m. ushers open the doors and invite people to be seated for the 6:00 service. They aren’t required to attend the service to receive food, but most recognize their spiritual need and come. Leonard can remember a time when people milled around noisily during the worship service. Now the Friday night gathering of 45 to 50 men, women and children sit quietly, listen, and worship. The church is seeing the result of years of hard work and prayer.

Moving from the suburbs to the city

Ten years ago, this congregation met on the outskirts of Henrietta, a suburb of Rochester. The meeting hall was surrounded by a cornfield and located on an industrial road. It was isolated from the community and almost invisible.

Leonard Banks believed in his denomination’s motto: “living and sharing the gospel.” He could see that the congregation was living the gospel, but they weren’t sharing it. They wanted to, but their plans were bogged down in the discussion stage. So to get things moving, Leonard began to preach about evangelism.

He now realizes that was a mistake. He assumed the congregation was where he was on evangelism. It took two years of work with the church leaders, who then helped him work with the rest of the congregation, to prepare the church for living and sharing the gospel beyond their church walls.

The church came to see that they needed to be a community-based church. But which community? They realized that as a congregation, they had a heart and a gift for service. But there was already a church on nearly every corner in their community doing everything they could do. They decided that they were in the wrong community. They needed to move. But where?

They prayed for direction and formed a search committee. Eventually they found Charlotte Community, where there were few churches. Two resident church pastors told Leonard that the majority of the Charlotte residents were unchurched. Leonard inquired about renting space in a church that was up for sale and received a positive response. He took 16 church leaders with him to see the church property and the community. The consensus was that this was the right place to transplant their congregation. It had taken two years of praying, studying demographics, and searching, but the congregation found their home in Charlotte Community.

Finding their place

During the spring of 2002 the members knocked on doors of 1100 houses surrounding their new church home, inviting people to come to the Easter service. They also invited prayer requests and left door hangers containing church information and the Gospel of John. Only one person came two Sundays in a row, so the initial results were disappointing. But the members had shown that they were willing to meet their neighbors in their new community. Relationship building would take time, but it was a start.

As they prayed for ways to live and share the gospel, Leonard met with local civic leaders and asked what the community needs were. They told him that some people were in need of food subsidies, and there were a number of single mothers needing help. Leonard discussed this with the congregation and the members decided to provide a food pantry, and trusted God to make it possible.

It so happened that some Charlotte Community residents were looking for a way to care for those in need but didn’t have a venue to donate to. Abundant Grace Church provided that venue.

So they had the desire, and they had the right place. But the church had no experience in running a food pantry. It took another couple of years to understand the need, develop a strategy and inform the community. One of the church leaders, Mary Elwell, contacted others who were running a food cupboard in a neighboring community. Mary brought the information back to Abundant Grace, cast the vision, gathered a team and started preparing.

Leonard went to the town leaders, who connected the church with their networks of donors, and food donations began to pour in. The library provided a donation box on site. The Post Office also collected food. The church purchased ad space in Charlotte Community News, the Veterans Post provided donations, the Charlotte Men’s Club gave non-perishable items and cash donations, a local bakery began providing donations weekly, and a retail store also began donating items.

The food cupboard was launched in July 2003, with six community families receiving food. Today the Abundant Grace Church provides for 85 community families each month. The average weekly attendance on Sunday is 52. Fifteen of these members live in the community and had their initial contact with the church through the food cupboard ministry. Another 50 people attend on the food distribution Friday nights and are beginning to see this service as their church. Some 14 to 16 members manage the cupboard and seven of them are community residents.

What have they learned?

The folks at Abundant Grace have learned some valuable lessons as they successfully transplanted their congregation from the cornfields to the inner city. Leonard Banks believes it’s too easy for a person with a vision to assume others see it, too. He said patience and delegation are vital to the process. He assumed the church was in agreement with him just because he gave two sermons on evangelism. He needed to be patient and take time to understand the members’ perspectives.

The congregation became willing to participate once they understood the vision. That took time. But as more people began to see it, Leonard delegated some of the work and leadership to them. The larger the team grew, the more others began to catch the vision.

What next?

The congregation would like to see their sanctuary filled to capacity for their Sunday service, so they are developing more leaders and workers in preparation for any growth that comes. But they are also thinking about yet another transplant, this time moving part of the congregation to the southern end of Rochester. Leonard explains: “It makes sense to know something about the community you want to serve. I live on the southern end of Rochester, where there aren’t many churches. My community needs another good church.”

Author: Ken Williams

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