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Thursday, April 8, 2004 01:13 am

The mission

By my count, there are more than 170 churches in Springfield. In the city we have downtown churches, neighborhood churches, mainline churches, independent churches, historic churches and recently formed churches. They're diverse in size -- and in theology, organization, and style of worship.

And yet all of these churches grapple with the same questions: How do we tell the story of our congregation? How do we make an impact on the larger community? How do we attract new members? How do we flesh out the meanings of "mission" and "evangelism"?

In recent weeks, I've talked to several church leaders to find some answers to these questions. What I've learned is that churches that are growing have committed themselves to some sort of social mission -- from feeding the poor to providing shelter to working actively for peace.

Here's a snapshot:

• Abundant Faith Christian Center started 10 years ago with six couples meeting in a home. Today, Abundant Faith holds three services every Sunday in a large building, overlooking a pond, at 2525 South Taylor Ave.

Worship at Abundant Faith is informal, charismatic, and emotional. There are no printed bulletins. Words to the hymnsare displayed on a screen on the front wall of the sanctuary. Music is provided by drum, guitar and keyboard players, plus singers.

Abundant Faith has developed several high-profile programs in its 10 years, including a food pantry, a computer-technology center, high-school equivalency classes, a sports complex, an apartment complex and a safe house for women.

The Rev. Jerry Doss is pastor; his wife, Gita Doss, serves as Abundant Faith's worship leader. One Sunday, when the theme is evangelism, Gita Doss presents a skit about witnessing to one's faith on the job. After the 11 a.m. service, she talks about the connection between mission and evangelism: "Springfield is our mission field. We see needs and try to meet them. That's how our programs get started. We use compassion to reach people. We are experiencing phenomenal growth."

• First Presbyterian Church, 321 S. Seventh St., is a perfect example of a "historic church." Founded in 1828, First Presbyterian celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2003. The members of "First Pres," as it's commonly known, believe strongly that evangelism falls under the umbrella of mission. This past February, seven members of the church made a mission trip to a Presbyterian church in Cuba.

The Rev. Gordon McLean, a native of Scotland, has been the senior pastor of First Presbyterian for six years. "We believe that our church must be involved in mission," he says. "We want to maintain an open-door attitude. From a survey, we learned that 1,000 people live in downtown Springfield. We invite those people to various events at our church, and we support a health clinic for the homeless."

First Pres has become well known for its organ recitals and public lectures. And the church enjoys certain bragging rights in Mr. Lincoln's hometown. A large sign on the east side of the building proclaims: "This was the church of Abraham Lincoln. The family pew is on display." Sanctuary tours are conducted during the summer months.

• St. John's Lutheran Church, 2477 W. Washington St., was founded by German immigrants in 1870. The Rev. Paul Olson is the pastor of St. John's, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. St. John's is in the process of building a $3.9 million addition east of the existing structure. Dubbed the Parish Life Center, the 300-seat building will be the site of a new contemporary-worship service.

St. John's has experienced significant growth, averaging 80 new members every year since 1999. Olson explains the reasons for the growth: "We make a real effort to connect with our Sunday-morning visitors. I write a personal note to all of our visitors. We try to practice hospitality. New-member classes are held four times a year, and, of course our preschool has attracted many young families to our church."

• Blessed Sacrament is a Roman Catholic church located at 1725 S. Walnut St. The parish school was established in 1925. The church itself was established in 1930. Blessed Sacrament holds one Mass on Saturdays and three on Sundays. On Holy Saturday, April 10, 13 persons will be received into membership at the church. Some will be baptized. Others will be confirmed. "The Easter vigil is the high point of the church year," says the Rev. Msgr. Kevin Vann, pastor of Blessed Sacrament.

Vann says parishioners are active in local mission activities: "Some work at St. John's Breadline. Others serve as caregivers at St. John's Hospital. Some folks help to administer our rent-assistance program. Others call on new visitors in their homes, and still others are working for peace through Pax Christi."

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