COLUMBIA, SC — When members of Midtown Fellowship gather in Finlay Park Sunday morning for Easter service, they will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus by doing what they believe the risen Christ would want them to do – welcoming the stranger in their midst.
That includes the city’s homeless, many of whom make Finlay Park a regular gathering place, as well as those new to Midtown and the stranger who drives by the downtown park and wanders into the service.
“That is something we teach about anybody in our church family,” said Kent Bateman, one of the church’s leaders. “We just say Jesus befriended us when we were strangers to him, so why would we not befriend those who are strangers to us?”
Sunday’s “epic” Easter celebration will include a gathering at 11 a.m., followed by a potluck meal and activities, from dyeing Easter eggs to face painting and outdoor games. The celebration is expected to draw between 1,000 and 1,400 people, said Bateman; 22 people are scheduled to be baptized and share their stories of coming to faith.
The selection of Finlay Park was a natural for an evangelical Christian church that views worshipping together as an entry point to community outreach and spiritual development.
That willingness to get engaged in the city, to meet people in gritty circumstances, has defined Midtown Fellowship since it was started in 2007 by four Clemson University graduates with mainly Southern Baptist backgrounds.
The four – Dustin Willis, Lee Cunningham, Adam Gibson and Allen Tipping – were active in college evangelical ministries and felt called to start a church in Columbia. Gibson and Tipping remain as lead elders; Willis is now with the North American Mission Board in Alpharetta, Ga., and Cunningham is a missionary in Brazil.
Midtown, which meets at 2925 Devine St., in Columbia’s Shandon neighborhood and recently started a second congregation on Two Notch Road, has been a magnet for young adults. Among those are college students involved in Young Life and other non-denominational Christian ministries and those who may have left congregations in which they were raised.
The morning and evening Sunday gatherings, which draw about 800 each week, are contemporary and informal and serve as a springboard to the Fellowship’s signature LifeGroups. The LifeGroups are the heart of Midtown, bringing members together once or twice a week for discussions about what’s going on in their lives and how their experiences relate to God and the Bible.
“It’s not structured like a Bible study,” said Midtown Fellowship member Jacob Carter, 24. “It’s structured in a place where people live life.”
People talk about their struggles and their joys, and how that relates to their Jesus-centered mission, he said. “We try to encourage biblical truth, but real, hard-to-swallow biblical truth.”
Faith and the millennial generation
That search for spiritual meaning is a characteristic of the millennial generation, young Americans born between 1984 and 2002 who have left the institutional church in droves and carved out their own meaning of spirituality and worship.
The Barna Group, a California-based research organization that studies faith and culture in America, has spent a decade studying this generation and their attitudes toward church-going, faith and spirituality. One Barna study found that 59 percent, or nearly 6 in 10 of these young people who grow up in Christian churches “end up walking away from either their faith or from the institutional church at some point in their first decade of adult life.” The number of millennials who have never attended church also has increased, from 44 percent to 52 percent, a cultural trend that exists across all segments of the American population.
The millennials, according to Barna research, are impatient with the hierarchical church.
“They think the church has become too institutionalized, that it is no different than a Rotary Club or a country club, so what they want from church is what only the church is equipped to offer – mission and ministry,” said Ginger Barfield, associate dean of the school of theology at Lenoir-Rhyne University, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. “They don’t want to go to church to be seen and make connections. They want to go to church to experience the gospel and be Christ’s followers in the world.”
Barfield is only nominally familiar with Midtown Fellowship, but she said their congregational focus mirrors that of other young Christians who “want to live in a way that displays one’s faith and offers service to others.”
“One thing I would associate with young people – those under 39, by most pollsters – is the need to act on faith,” Barfield said. “Faith is not just something that is believed in a private way. It is communal and acted out in the broader community.”
She said that’s the kind of leadership the seminary is trying to teach its students, as it moves from a chaplaincy model to a missional model.
Motivated by Jesus
In Midtown’s gatherings and in LifeGroups, Midtown Fellowship makes it clear that being a Christian means more than being a moral person, Bateman said.
“Specifically, we would say that Jesus came as a human and died on the cross for us. In light of him doing that for us, that certainly affects the way we do things. Since Jesus did that, then we need to live incarnationally, too.”
Bateman added, “Everything we do is motivated by Jesus and that we are a family. We don’t wait for the world to come to our door.”
Midtown member Carter has taken that biblical lesson to heart. Two mornings a week, he goes to a U-Haul storage facility at the corner of Elmwood and Assembly streets, where he volunteers for a Columbia charity, Keepin’ It Real Ministries, that provides clothing, shoes, blankets and other necessities to homeless men and women.
In the two weeks leading up to Easter, he passed out fliers for “Easter at Finlay” to those who came looking for shoes and clothing. The church’s website, www.midtowncolumbia.com, also advertised the event, providing a clever list of “Exactly 19 reasons we’re excited about #Easterat Finlay.” (No. 1: Jesus is alive.)
Carter, who works as a video editor, learned to know many of the city’s homeless when he made a documentary in 2012 during his senior year at USC. His preconceived notions, that some people just didn’t try hard enough to get off the streets, was altered by that experience, and he felt called to provide assistance.
“Now that I kind of know some stories, I think they are in a bad place,” Carter said. “I’d like to see their hearts change as much as their actions.” As he participated in his service work and met people, “I saw that a real spiritual change can come to people.”
Jimmy Montgomery, another Midtown member and storage facility volunteer, said he was on the streets, standing in an intersection on Forest Drive soliciting money, when a member of Shandon Baptist Church stopped, got him some food and introduced him to church.
Eventually, Montgomery received help for drug addiction and found his way to Midtown Fellowship, where he learned to know Carter.
“He’s my rock,” Montgomery said. “I lean on him, and I lean on God.”
“It’s hard to believe a 41-year-old man can learn from a 23-year-old man,” he said of his friendship with Carter, “but on top of that, I developed a walk with Christ, the Father and the Holy Ghost.
“It’s a wonderful church, the way that they (Midtown leaders) have got it set up, even for someone like me,” said Montgomery, who said he didn’t grow up in a church and never had been exposed to the Bible.
Now, Montgomery said, he will be joining a LifeGroup this month.