‘A traditional church has to move out of its comfort zone’

‘A traditional church has to move out of its comfort zone’

The Rev. Wendy Kiefer-O’Brien
One More Thing

The Rev. Wendy Kiefer-O’Brien has been the pastor at Greenville Baptist Church for 10 years. A lot has changed for churches in that decade, especially regarding membership. It is declining.

Greenville Baptist is still doing fairly well. Sunday attendance averages between 70 and 90 congregants, but as with many others there are disturbing trends.

“Churches are struggling to adapt to changing lifestyles. Families are busy running here and there. They have children involved in sports and other activities,” the minister observes.

According to the Pew Research Center in a report posted online and dated Oct. 17, “Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43 percent of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51 percent in 2009, and one-in-five adults (20 percent) are Catholic, down from 23 percent in 2009.”

That is part of the context within which churches must function today.

“We can no longer assume that people moving into town will want to be associated with a faith community. If we’re waiting for people to just show up, we’re waiting in futility,” says Kiefer-O’Brien.

She mentions one of the factors impeding the growth of membership. “We’re now into the fourth generation of many families who have not been raised in a church,” she says, adding, “If people haven’t been churched what’s going to attract them? A traditional church has to move out of its comfort zone.”

In a way, Kiefer-O’Brien, 64, moved out of her personal comfort zone when, at age 33, she felt the call to ministry and left her career as a fragrance evaluator to go to Andover Newton Theological School. Her college degrees had been in biology and environmental science. Also, she had been raised a Roman Catholic, but had begun seeking a different faith in her 20s. Her experiences in changing and adapting seem to have served her in good stead.

In the church she pastored in Sharon, Mass., for 15 and a half years before accepting the call at Greenville Baptist, she was the longest serving minister in its history.

“One thing that attracted me to Greenville was the intentional mission outreach I saw here,” she mentions. In the spirit of that awareness of mission the church has embarked on its latest effort, something they are calling “Scripture, Song, and a Simple Supper.” Wendy calls it “the dinner church.”

Every Thursday at 6 p.m. in the vestry, there is a free dinner for anyone who wishes to attend. The printed cards the church hands out to advertise the program say: “Have you ever felt you didn’t fit in at church? Do you wish church was not on a Sunday? Would you like a casual meal with some good company? Do you want more peace, joy, and love in your life?”

The idea was tested for five weeks this past summer. The vibe was good, and beginning this month the church has committed to offering the open dinners once each week for one year.
Soup and bread are provided. Other courses are potluck. “Whatever shows up, that’s what the food is,” the pastor chuckles. So far it has worked out well.

More than eating dinner is involved. Each meal includes communion for those who wish to partake, and there are songs, a brief meditation by Kiefer-O’Brien, and a scripture reading. The highlight of the event is a conversation among the participants in lieu of a sermon. Out of the shared experience hopefully comes a meaningful dialog about the role of spirituality in the lives of those who attend each week.

“We use round tables. It makes conversation easier. It’s enjoyable,” observes the pastor.

The turnout has been encouraging, averaging in the mid-teens. While so far it has consisted mostly of people from the congregation, rather than a lot of new faces, Wendy thinks it should be ideal for people who might be exploring religion and who might feel more comfortable in a less formal setting.

“For some families it is easier to come at night during the week,” notes the minister.

Kiefer-O’Brien, who is also the protestant chaplain to the Smithfield Police Department, points out that “to be the church, we have to go outside of these four walls. We can’t just be that big old building. Discipleship is here. Our mission is out there.”

She mentions that there is a sign at the exit of the church property which says, “You are now entering your mission field.”

In keeping with the emphasis on involvement in the local community and beyond, she explains that Greenville Baptist has a wide variety of such activities. They include numerous food ministries, such as participation in a Central Falls food kitchen and the breadline Ministry in Providence, as well as assisting Calvary Baptist Church in Providence and Allendale Baptist Church in North Providence with their food pantries.

There is also a habitation ministry which helps people in need with home repairs they can’t do themselves. Further afield there is the youth project in Honduras. Wendy has led 12 trips to the Central American country, where among other things teams of young people have built an entire church building. They even raised funds to complete it. The plan is to go again in the coming year.

“I don’t think young people want to come to a church and be talked to. They want to learn how to make a difference in the world. We hear about poverty, but they see it. These trips are life-changing,” Wendy comments.

Asked how she keeps up with the demands of her role, she smiles, and says succinctly, “I have a deep prayer life and a very supportive husband.”

(Contact me at smithpublarry@gmail.com)

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Pop Quiz: There will be a shout-out for the first reader who remembers what hobby or hobbies former Greenville Baptist Church pastor Stanley Pratt was known for.


He held classes on handwriting analysis, also known as Graphoanalysis...?