Vibrant, multicultural congregation growing

Originally designed as a Hispanic/Latino ministry, Urban Poiema has innovatively nurtured a fluid congregation to do multicultural ministry in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Within the past three years, Urban Poiema has increased by 61 in membership through their ministries and has an average attendance of 100 people in Sunday service. That growth is bucking a trend of declining membership that is challenging many United Methodist congregations in the U.S.

The United Methodist Church, which still is 90 percent white in the United States, also saw a slight increase in its ethnic diversity in 2016, according to the General Council on Finance and Administration. The denomination added 282 more Hispanic/Latino and 32 more Pacific Islander members. It also saw an increase of 1,148 more multiracial members.

Urban Poiema is a prime example of one of those bright spots in the church. The Rev. Juan Garay leads this church in ministry and talked about their journey with United Methodist News Service.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your church, the demographics of the area and any historical or important features that shape the community.

A: Urban Poiema Church is in the north west side of Milwaukee. Milwaukee is one of the top five most segregated cities in America. Where our church lies there are hard boundaries between Anglo and African-Americans. It is a challenge because most people of different races on Sunday morning stick to their own people groups. This creates a challenge for our ministry that we are trying to meet head-on and making some headway, but definitely not there yet.

Q: Tell me, what’s UPChurch? Why was it important to choose that name?

A: Urban Poiema’s name comes from Ephesians 2:10, where the writer says that we are God’s masterpiece. The word “masterpiece,” in the original Greek, is Poiema. I thought that this word gives meaning to who we are in God’s eyes, and the fact that it is God who gives us meaning, purpose, and identity — and not our culture nor society, especially in the urban context where people aren’t accustomed to know how special and valuable they are, regardless of their current situation.

Q: By following you on social media, I see you have a building for your congregation after a long journey. Can you share your journey of finding “home”? How did you start and what has led you to be in this new building?

A: Urban Poiema is three years old. We had an original plan to be located in the south side of Milwaukee, where there are a high volume of Hispanic/Latino residents. We started at a nightclub because the owner let us use the space for free. When you are planting a church, free is very compelling.

So, we went ahead, understanding that one of our values is to be audacious with our faith. We stayed at the nightclub for about a year, we saw people who would not ever step foot in a conventional church building come to church and get baptized right in front of the nightclub and liquor store. We did our baptisms outside as a witness to the world that God was doing something inside a night club/bar. However, the crime rate went pretty high in that area and also in the nightclub and people were staying away on Sunday, though Sunday mornings were very quiet and safe. This led us to go into a warehouse space that we did some remodeling to fit as a church. We loved the space, it was unconventional and almost felt like an underground church. We grew so fast there that the small gathering became too big for the space and the city ended up closing up the space for usage.

Then we ended up borrowing an existing United Methodist church in the downtown area of Milwaukee. There was a lot of heartsearching going on during yet another period of change. Not knowing if this was going to be permanent spot or if we needed to look for another location created a season of uncertainty in our ministry.

It was in this moment that the conference director of congregational development called us and told us to consider moving to the north west side of the city where a [United Methodist] church was going to close doors due to not being able to maintain the building. We would have never picked this option for ourselves due to the drastic change in demographics and target group we were trying to reach.

After much prayer and consideration, we decided to take the leap of faith and cross the segregated lines in our city, and bring our mostly Hispanic/Latino ministry into an area where we were going to be an even a greater minority. Due to this leap of faith, today we are way more multicultural than we have ever been in our small history. We are moving towards a church that is multicultural, multigenerational, and multilingual.

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 Urban Poiema Church is a multicultural, multigenerational and multilingual church that have develop its ministry among the Urban context in Milwaukee. Photo courtesy of the Urban Polema Communications Team.
Urban Poiema Church is a multicultural, multigenerational and multilingual church.

Video interview with the Rev. Juan Garay

To learn more about Urban Poiema Church visit their webpage or social networks:

Q: According to the structure of The United Methodist Church, annual conferences decide what new ministries are needed. How has the National Plan of Hispanic/Latino Ministries played a role in the development of UP church?

A: Every conference has its challenges and our conference is no different. The Wisconsin Conference has a wonderful vision to plant many churches. However, the vision is greater than the provision. That gap between vision and provision has to be met somewhere and I believe God used the NHLP to breach that gap for us. If it weren’t for the mission of the NHLP to help churches that are trying to do some groundbreaking work in the area of church planting in The United Methodist Church, I don’t know how we would have been able to withstand three abrupt and adverse moves.

During these moves, the grants that we received from the NHLP helped us focus on what we know how to do best, and that is reach people. We funneled a lot of our resources to reach the community and be able to keep the ministry afloat. The grant also helped us in our move. The church that we moved into has not been touched since several decades. So, we were able to raise some funds for a renovation while using the NHLP grant to continue to do ministry during those renovations. It was a blessing!

Q: I noticed on your website you are considered a “United Methodist congregation.” Is that different than being called a church of The United Methodist Church?

A: Our name is Urban Poiema Church, which is how most people know us. However, we also want to let people know that we are part of a denomination. That was just a way to let people know that our church is part of a United Methodist body. . . Denominations in our city aren’t doing too well. So we wanted people to give us a chance before writing us off.

So this is the reason why we don’t promote ourselves as Urban Poiema United Methodist Church. First, it’s a really LONG name, and secondly, I don’t want people to not get to see our expression of United Methodism. This is what I love about our denomination that we can be ourselves and create wonderful new expression of who we are as a church. I want as many people as possible to experience what it means to be a United Methodist at Urban Poiema Church.

Q: What sort of ministries do you have?

A: We practice simple church. We mostly have millennials in our church and we know that millennials are very busy. Making them commit to something long term, or repeatedly, is not a good idea if you want to grow as a church. So, we have the usual children’s and youth ministry, but we funnel everything in the context of three major ministries: Life Groups (or covenant groups), and I Love My City projects (missional ministry), Hope Dealers (evangelism).

We have seven life groups running throughout the city. We have one for youth, one for young adults, one for men, and one for women. The rest are coed. These are very organic in nature and it creates a culture in our church. We often say that Life Groups convert a crowd into a community! I love that my city project is missional in scope. We go and try to show the love of Jesus and serve people and organizations that are doing great work in our community. We feed, clothe and provide for the homeless. We clean up the streets of our city, and so much more. And finally, we have an evangelism team that goes to the streets and prays for people, give out lunches to the homeless, and tells others about Jesus. We call them the Hope Dealers!

Q: Tell me of a success that your congregation shares as a church.

A: One of our greatest success was being able to collect a truckload of goods to bring relief to Texas and Puerto Rico during the hurricane relief efforts. We have also baptized over 71 people in our three years of ministry and it has been so exciting to see people making a lead to follow Jesus! And finally, on Easter we had over 35 people making public declaration to following Jesus! It was an exciting time.

Q: A lot of churches are struggling to continue ministry. This can be for different reasons and has a tremendously negative affect, but simply put: churches do not seem attractive to current populations. Urban Poeima is a new and thriving congregation within The United Methodist Church, what do you think makes UP church attractive?

A: I think that what makes UP church attractive is that we are focused on what Jesus was focused on when he walked this earth: People! People are our hearts. We don’t want to forget that, we don’t want to put process, polity and old customs in the way of people. When we do so, the compassionate heart of the church becomes stale, and the drive and passion to reach people for Jesus begins to die down. We tell people all the time that we are willing to go where no one is going in order to reach people no one is reaching. We can make church about so many things, but at UP Church we are going to make church about the loving, gracious, invitational gospel of Jesus. We believe that is what changes people, and then we are going to empower them to go and change the world. Many times, we want to change the world with unchanged people, and I don’t know if any cause can change people better than the love of Jesus.

Q: One of the things I have noticed is the fluidity of ministry. What advice can you give other pastors who are trying to keep up with the fast-changing times of 2018?

A: Make it super simple, unpretentious, and super relational. Change things around, don’t assume that because it worked in the 90s it’s going to work in 2018. Understand a bit of pop culture around you. You aren’t of this world, but you are reaching people of this world. Drop the church lingo and just talk to people with an openness to learn something from them. The more unconventional you can make church, the more the ministry will feel new and fresh.

It doesn’t have to be big or costly, just different. For example, I used to have a 15-minute coffee break in the middle of the service. That worked in the beginning because we were small, but growth made us change that. So, flexibility is important. Don’t run something to the ground if it doesn’t work because it worked once. Let things have an expiration date. Learn to use technology! Honor the process and God will honor the promise. And finally, healthy things grow. Find where something is not healthy in you, your church or leadership, and tackle it.

Q: What are the future plans for UP?

A: Our future plans are to start a second service this fall. We tried it during Easter and we had two full services bringing 230 people to church. We are hoping that this will make a big difference in our attendance since we are having full services almost every week. After that, we are hoping that we can open up a new site in a city nearby. We want to be a multi-site church by the end of 2019, beginning of 2020.

* Aileen Jemenez is a National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministries communicator and collaborator with the United Methodist News Service. You can also reach her by e-mail.

News contact: The Rev. Gustavo Vasquez is the director of Hispanic/Latino Communications at United Methodist News Service. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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