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How a church shares faith where faith is suspect

First United Methodist Church in Portland had a problem, one other churches would envy.

So many families with children were regularly attending that the Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard began one sermon shortly after Easter with an urgent request for more volunteers to teach Sunday school.

"We have so many kids now we are going to have to split our Sunday school classes," the church's senior pastor said after a children's sermon that packed the front of the church with little ones.

The church, the largest United Methodist congregation in Oregon with about 800 members, is defying its community's religious trends.

Over the past three years, the church has welcomed an average of 30 new members a year and seen its average worship attendance grow from about 330 to 375. This summer, the church added a second service on Sunday mornings to accommodate its growth and make room for more.

The 167-year-old congregation has succeeded in the U.S. major metro area that a 2015 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found has the highest percentage of residents with no religious affiliation — some 42 percent of the population. Put another way, Portland is at the leading edge of the "None Zone" — where more people answer "none" when asked their religion than identify with any single faith group.

Emily Wright of Portland's First United Methodist Church gets her hands dirty in an "ivy pull" at Tryon Creek Park in Portland, Ore. The activity was part of the creation-care ministry Planet Church. Photo by Megan Jones, courtesy of First United Methodist Church.

"It is in some ways a challenging location. In other ways, it's really exciting," Pritchard said. "As United Methodists, bringing a Wesleyan message of faith, we have something different to offer."

Christian discipleship seems a natural fit for many Portland residents. People here are secular but not materialistic, said Pritchard, a Portland resident for 32 years. They are committed to care for their neighbors and the earth.

"Many of the values of religion are lived out in the culture, but it's the institution that people are suspicious of," she said.

So how does First United Methodist overcome that suspicion? Pritchard points to the church's longstanding focus on community involvement.

"We talk a lot about community here," she said. "We really emphasize that we are called here to do good."

The church is involved in all kinds of social outreach. "When people ask why, we tell them our faith compels us and they should check it out," the Rev. Jeremy Smith said by email. He is the church's minister of discipleship and a prolific blogger on United Methodist issues.

Pritchard said many visitors first encounter the church not as Sunday worshippers but as volunteers at the church's

Soon after her arrival four years ago, Pritchard, encouraged development of a strategic plan. The result of six months of deep conversations among parishioners, the plan focused on drawing young adults as well as families with children.

Now, she said the congregation has momentum and something just as important: critical mass.

While churches in the Pacific Northwest may face new challenges, Pritchard said their methods for nurturing disciples can be as old as John Wesley's.

"It really helps to go back to his emphases on the combination of works of piety and works of mercy," she said. "That appeals to people."

Heather Hahn, multimedia news reporter, United Methodist News Service

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