by Rev. Joshua Owens, Associate Minister for Children, Youth, & Families
First Baptist Church, Monroe
As I looked across the church’s courtyard, I saw a man approaching from the street with his hair pulled back tight on top of his head (in what some might call today a “man-bun”), wearing popular athleisure clothing, pushing a stroller down the cement walkway connecting our two buildings. He was casually looking at the crowd that had gathered there, so I decided to approach him and engage him in conversation. Before we could make the casual introductions he asked, “What is it you all are doing here?” For me, there are fewer questions that can bring more excitement than this one when thinking about how to help lead your church to encounter those with whom they share in community.
That “what” to which the gentleman (who I would later come to know as Tom*) was referring to was the second in a series of Family Movie Nights our fellowship held over the summer in our church’s courtyard. The event consisted of a large blow-up screen and sound equipment we rented from a nearby vendor, all the popcorn and drinks one could stomach, and plenty of thick, well-manicured grass for families to spread out on and enjoy a movie together under the stars, at no charge. The idea for such an event started after many conversations about how our church could create opportunities to meet those people living within the five-block radius of our church.
FBC Monroe is a quintessential historic downtown church. Our sanctuary sits at one end of Main Street with the county courthouse sitting at the other end. Like many other towns its size (roughly 32,000 residents), Monroe has experienced the challenges of maintaining a vibrant downtown with many of the residents who used to call it home leaving for newer developments out in the county. Taking their place now are individuals and families, who, quite honestly, don’t look like or have the resources of many of the people who typically would darken the doors of First Baptist. Though our congregation may not fully reflect the change in our community, many in our fellowship have welcomed the task of shifting from a traditional county-seat Baptist church, to one that seeks to be a generator of support and commonality amongst its local area’s residents, businesses, schools, and churches. In our “five-block radius,” there is government housing, a middle and elementary school whose student populations are 90% minority ethnicities, a block with known gang activity, at least 6 churches of differing denominational and racial backgrounds, a community shelter serving those without a home, and a downtown primed for economic and social growth.
So, in an effort to bring that “five-block radius” together came the desire for a family-friendly function that was safe to participate in at little to no charge. We thought that everyone loved movies, so why not make use of the grounds we had to serve as the “theater” with our historic downtown neighborhood as a scenic backdrop. We planned for two nights, one in June and one in July, without much knowledge of what the turnout would be. The cost was minimal to the church, with spending only a couple hundred dollars to rent the movie equipment and purchasing a couple advertising banners and a Facebook ad, with the popcorn and drinks being donated by members, and willing volunteers to serve and be present with a smile. At both nights, we had over 50 people come out, with a mix of church members and non-members of all ages attending. We paired the second movie night with our church’s annual summer Vacation Bible School, and even saw a few families return for a Sunday worship service.
We had so much fun with the summer series that just a few days after our July movie, I had a senior adult church member and my children’s ministry lay leader approach me with the desire to plan something around Christmas, which of course we did. On December 1st, we brought the North Pole to our church’s Family Life Center showing the film The Polar Express. The gym was adorned with lights and decorations, and families were able to enjoy snacks and make ornaments inspired by the movie. This time, we had over 130 people turn out, with the majority of them having no prior connection to our church. After the event ended, we had many of the guests share their appreciation for such an enjoyable event, with requests that we do it again next year.
Now, I can say that after these movie nights, we have yet to have a participant to join our church. But our goal wasn’t to see how many people we could have joined our church. Now, because of the movie night, I know Tom, a young father of two who is following his passion for opening a yoga studio downtown two blocks up from our church. I now know Cindy, a single mother of two who I see walking from time to time near our church, and have had the humbling honor of serving a meal to at the community shelter with our church’s youth ministry. I know these people with whom we share this community, who otherwise, I likely never would have gotten the chance to know, and in turn, they know a little something more about us too. They know the spirit of the people in our church, and they hopefully have been able to see a representation of the grace-filled love and affirmation found through Jesus Christ.
I am thankful for the community I have here at First Baptist, and for the community of neighbors in Monroe where I live and work. This kind of community is not something that is built easily, but I have learned it can be built by something as simple as one movie at a time.
*The names of people mentioned in this writing have been changed.