Prayer and Discernment

Report from The Prayer and Discernment Team

August 2022

The Prayer and Discernment Team has been on a journey to discern God's will for us as a church family in mission and ministry to our neighbors and beyond. As a congregation, one of the first steps on this journey is to know who we are as well as our identity and values. It is important to remember that without knowing who we are we may try to be all things to all people. Knowing who we are will guide us to know how and what and who we can serve best.

Dear Church Family,

I have been a part of a prayer and discernment process for the last two years along with other members of FCUMC. I found this time of prayerful reflection to be extremely challenging and immensely rewarding at the same time. Our prayer throughout our time together has been, Lord help our church be a part of what you are blessing. This report provides a path into the future which we believe God is blessing. As one prayer and discernment member said: “This report is a call to action!” I am truly thankful for the dedicated and hard work of each team member who is listed in the attached report. We prayed, discussed, questioned, listened and agreed to follow God into the future God is blessing. Seeking intentionally to be a neighbor to our neighbor. The Church Council wholeheartedly agreed to join in this call to action and I am inviting you to do the same. The QR code will take you to our website where you will find the Prayer and Discernment document. Please do a couple of things for me:
  • Pray that we will follow where God is leading with boldness.
  • Pray for God to lead you to some path of engagement.
  • If you would like for me or a member of the prayer and discernment team to speak to your Sunday School class please let me know.

Margaret Nelson, Church Council Chairperson

Who Are We?

We are a congregation that has not been afraid to engage in difficult situations. Even amid disagreements, we continue to love each other and worship together. We respond generously to needs from Chattanooga to Romania. We are a faithful church family that continues to support old and new ministries in spite of COVID and the uncertainty that lies ahead for the United Methodist Church.
Who we are reveals how we look at the world. It helps us to see more clearly the people around us and know how to be their neighbor. Who we are encompasses age, race, education, income, location, our history and what we really believe. All of these enable us to know why we do what we do. We discovered and identified through prayer, conversations, input from those in and outside of our congregation, participants in the Home Gatherings and our demographics, who we are as a church.

What we have discovered and identified:

  • We are an important force in our community which is forward thinking and willing to take a step of faith to satisfy a need. We are a multi-generational congregation that is diverse in many ways and not diverse in other ways. We are a thoughtful, loving, caring, affluent, financially blessed and generous people.
  • In the Home Gatherings in late 2019 and early 2020, we gathered together asking the "Traveling Question":  "Since we believe that God loves all people, how do we as the body of Christ share His unconditional love and intentionally develop relationships with our neighbors?"
  • First-Centenary is a downtown church with a regional footprint. Almost two decades ago the church made the intentional decision to remain downtown, invest in and grow our current campus, and lean into ministry in the downtown area. Our 40,000+ sq. ft facility was built between the late 1960s and the late 2000s. While our campus might stretch two city blocks, our ministry impact spans across the Chattanooga Valley, Hamilton County, North Georgia and around the world. Two of the greatest assets that we as a congregation have to God's disposal are that we are debt free and can therefore utilize tithes and offerings for mission purposes. Previous generations have given generously to our Permanent Endowment Fund which empowers our clergy and lay leaders to respond to needs in the congregation and around the world.
  • Though we have seen a decrease of about 25-30% in the community that worships in person because of the pandemic, we continue to have a strong community that worships online and is continuing to stay engaged through classes, giving and service opportunities. We continue to be a thriving congregation!
  • The number of children and youth in our student ministries (approximately 455) is larger than the number of adults above the age of 71. This shows a healthy balance in our congregation! Our other age ranges reflect a similar balance: 60's: 18%, 50's: 16%, 40's: 15%, 30's: 14% and 20's: 7%.
  • MissionInsite, a ministry data analytic tool, mapped out where our congregation lives. The majority of our membership is located downtown, Northshore, Stewart Heights, Hixson, Lookout Mountain, Signal Mountain, Brainerd and East Brainerd.
  • Knowing who we are and what we stand for enables us to define our Core Values and develop our “Why Statement” which is the standard by which all our activities are filtered. These three filters help us know who we are in regards to future missions.

The Why Statement, which helps define for us our purpose and why we do what we do, is:

“So that all may experience Christ’s love.” 

The Vision Statement of First-Centenary UMC is:

“Serving people of the greater Chattanooga area in order to build a healthy and diverse community of disciples of Jesus Christ.” 

Core Values of First-Centenary UMC

As a multigenerational community of believers in Jesus Christ, we strive to boldly model His example in order to advocate transformation and to serve as beacons of His love and hope.

These core values bring clarity to the things that define First-Centenary: 

  • We believe all people matter to God and, therefore, to the church. 
  • We believe that passionate worship and exceptional gospel preaching and teaching bring about transformation in individuals lives. 
  • We believe that engaged church leadership empowers our ministries. 
  • We believe the fellowship experienced in our supportive Sunday School and Small Groups promotes authenticity, and spiritual and personal growth. 
  • We believe compassionate Congregational Care brings comfort and support in times of need.
  • We believe that generous support of missions, service and outreach to our neighbors locally, regionally and globally allows us to serve the marginalized and provides opportunities to be in relationship with people who are different from ourselves. 
  • We believe that a vibrant, diverse, welcoming and inclusive community of faith equips us to present the light of Christ to all who seek His love and peace. 
  • We believe that, building on our long legacy of bridging differences and working together in unity, we can serve as agents for change and justice in our community and in the world. 


Who is our neighbor?

One of the primary concerns of First-Centenary’s Prayer & Discernment Committee during its meetings over the last three years, and in considering the future of the church, has been “Who Is Our Neighbor?”

We know from the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments, that our neighbor is anyone God places in our path. From Leviticus 19:18, we’re told to love your neighbor as yourself. From Luke 10:25-37, we know the story of the Good Samaritan and its theme that of three passersby to an injured man, the one who was a neighbor to him was the one who had mercy on him and that we are to do likewise.

So, in a sense, the world is our neighbor and we must keep the biblical admonitions with us wherever we go. But, specifically to First-Centenary, who is our neighbor in Chattanooga in 2022, and how — if at all — will that change as we move into the future?

Who, specifically, are our neighbors?

Generally, in Chattanooga we know we were 8.8% larger in 2020 than we were in 2010 and 3% more diverse. While our African American population declined 5.2% over those 10 years, our Hispanic population increased 80.6%. The white population was up 3.2% and those who identified as being in two or more races also was significantly higher. We also can infer from national figures that the current population growth rate has slowed to the lowest levels since the Great Depression nearly 100 years ago and that the average size of families has shrunk.

Focusing closer to the Church building itself, census figures tell us we sit in the densest census tract in Hamilton County. It contains the student dormitories at the University of Tennessee- Chattanooga, renovated student housing outside of campus, pricey condominiums, a variety of gentrified dwellings and homes where residents barely get by.

Fifty years ago, our 1.1 square-mile tract was largely African American, but today its population is 73.6% white, 13.4% African American and 7.5% Hispanic. Its 2020 population was 5,415, or approximately 5,013 people per square mile. Moving out from that census tract to the northeast in East Chattanooga are two census tracts with the highest concentration of African American residents in Hamilton County. To the south and southeast of the census tract in which the Church lies, in the shadow of Missionary Ridge and on either side of Rossville Boulevard, are the five densely populated census tracts in Hamilton County in which most members of the local Hispanic population live. Most of the minority tracts, the aforementioned ones with large concentrations of African American and Hispanic residents, are among the highest in the county for households receiving help from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). 

Are our neighbors likely to change?

From a report by MissionInsight, which surveys an area with a radius of 1.5 miles of First-Centenary (slightly largely than the census tract), we learn the population there is expected to grow by 8.6% in the next five years. Faster than the state average, part of that growth will be spurred by additional children (especially school-age children). The age trend, the average age was 36 in 2020, is expected to vary little over that time, though it will skew younger than that of the state, which will trend older over the period. However, the percentage of adults 55 years of age or older in the sampled area is expected to decline. The percentage of married couple families will increase slightly, only 0.6%, and the percentage of single parent families will decline by a similar 0.6%.

The same report shows the current household income in the area is $85,525 — though about two-thirds less for African American households and less than many other parts of Chattanooga — and that it will rise 13.2% over the next five years. Those figures point to the financial diversity in the 1.5-mile radius from the church.

It also shows the education attainment of adults in the area is greater than the state and is expected to rise slightly over the next five years. Likewise, the percentage of white-collar employees is higher than the state average and the percentage of blue-collar employees lower.

Over a 10-year period, according to the study, the biggest increase will be in families and empty nesters ages 35-54 (up 4.6%), and the biggest decline will be in singles and young families ages 25-34 (down 9%). Considering racial and ethnic diversity, the change in the area over five years will be remarkably little, with the African American population increasing .2%, the white population declining .4% and Hispanic population increasing .1%. 

What do others say about us?

When asked at home gatherings in 2019, First-Centenary members seemed to agree with the above biblical admonition that the world is our neighbor. Their list of church neighbor descriptions ranged from “a” to almost “z,” from African Americans and young professionals, and from alcoholics to young adults, with numerous neighbors such as college students, the divorced, members of the LGBTQ community, people living downtown, prisoners, tourists, the unchurched and many more in between.

Community leaders, in focus groups with some Prayer & Discernment Committee members, did not speak as much to who the church’s neighbors were.  Rather, they spoke to  the characteristics of those neighbors— the poor, the Westside residents (whose neighborhood has begun its transition), those who need affordable housing, Hispanics, the homeless, the unchurched and downtown professionals.

More than 50 years ago, First-Centenary United Methodist Church began a ministry — now called The Centenary — to a group of children who were truly — physically — its neighbors. In the ensuing years, the church has become involved with neighbors such as the homeless (Mustard Tree), those who need affordable housing (Habitat for Humanity), and those who need food and shelter (Chattanooga Community Kitchen and Family Promise of Chattanooga), just to name a few.

With a much more diverse community today, with some of the same needs and many new ones, the church has an even wider opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ to our neighbors in Chattanooga. 

What are we called to do?

Once we examined "Who We Are" and determined "Who Is Our Neighbor?", we sought to identify what God is calling us to do. The first question revealed the desire of members and the ability of our church as a body to reach beyond our walls and be a positive presence in the faith community. The second question revealed the population of our immediate neighborhood and beyond, and the diverse and dire needs of those around us.

Both questions lead to a call to action. That call to action will involve our church and its members but also the church outside our walls and our neighbors. It will involve those who look like us and those who don’t, those whose faith is similar to ours and those who may not have faith, those who live like we do and those who don’t. Based on the why statement identified by this group, and through prayerful consideration of “Who We Are” and “Who Is Our Neighbor”, our church exists so that all may experience Christ’s love. The seven callings below reflect a call to action fulfilling our “why”, our vision and values and the mission of the United Methodist Church. 

Our committee believes First-Centenary is:

Called to be in relationship with our neighbors and the community around us.

The demographics of downtown Chattanooga have shifted dramatically in recent years and the church must continue to shift our efforts accordingly. To do this, we must not only invite community members to our table, but go to theirs (when welcome). This means developing a real and lasting relationship with our neighbors in order to be in community with them notably with college students (creating a strong collegiate ministry), UTC faculty and administration, Brown Academy, African American churches, the Hispanic population, new-to-town young professionals and the urban homeless population.

Called to reach out and grow.

Our call to grow is not purely for the sake of growth but rather a call to grow deeper in discipleship and wider through diversity and inclusivity. We want to continue being the hands and feet of Jesus in existing and new communities and to reflect the Kingdom of God. As we seek to be an intentionally inclusive community, we are called to reach out and connect with our neighbors who have been marginalized due to race, economic condition, sexual orientation, cultural place in society, etc. Youth, college ministry and The Centenary will continue to be important areas for growth. This would include efforts to strengthen Sunday School and existing worship services, but also to examine opportunities for alternative worship experiences at new times or new locations. We have seen success in this sort of expansion with The Centenary launching at White Oak United Methodist Church and Mustard Tree Ministry making efforts to reach people at East Lake Courts, College Hill Courts, and other neighborhoods. In addition, we feel called to strengthen our global mission partnerships and to discern future global partnerships as God leads.

Called to tell the story of our church.

God has been moving through the communities that make up First-Centenary since the early days of Chattanooga. God continues to move through our church in transformative ways. Communication is vital if First-Centenary members are going to find their passion for service and discipleship and if the broader community is to hear how God is moving in this place. Ongoing successful ministries should be celebrated and communicated to the congregation and community.  First-Centenary is called to use available channels and create new avenues to reach members, potential members, and those in the larger community. 

Called to connect members with the church, community and service opportunities.

Relationships, community engagement and actions of service create pathways for deeper spiritual connection and growth. Our Sunday School classes and small groups have the potential to engage with and sustain relationships, community engagement, and actions of service. An example of this is the class that has taken on a refugee family through Bridge Refugee Services. First-Centenary is called to serve as the conduit for connecting members and community members with opportunities for service. Technology and social media should be considered as a significant opportunity for connecting volunteers with service projects. First-Centenary is also called to offer training and skills development opportunities to give members and community members the confidence to take the leap of faith sometimes required to serve. This will also involve caring for the elderly, the sick and the needy in our midst through a vibrant congregational care ministry and keeping up with members of our small groups or Sunday School classes. We became keenly aware during COVID that one of the greatest mission fields for connection and service might be those within the church family who have become disconnected. To ensure the ongoing mission of the church, one of our greatest priorities should be modeling community care and service for our children and youth.  

Called to care for the spiritual, physical, mental and financial well-being of the poor.

A basic tenant of Methodism and of following Christ is care for the poor. While the needs of the poor may be different than in the days of Jesus or John Wesley, our call to help them remains imperative. Be it housing, literacy, childcare, financial education, laundry facilities, crisis counseling or worship opportunities, First-Centenary is called to identify needs by being in community with and listening to impoverished people and then developing programs to serve those needs.

Called to lead and facilitate connections between local methodist churches, communities of faith and other like-minded organizations.

The needs of our community are great and while FCUMC has significant resources, we know those resources will go further and do more good if we use them wisely and in community. Some of those resources are our location, member network, financial position, reputation and programs like the Children’s Enrichment Center and The Centenary. We’ve seen the impact that partnership and community can make through the United Women of Faith partnering with CALEB, The Centenary expanding to White Oak UMC and clergy and lay participation in the Kingdom Partners program. First-Centenary is called to identify what we do well and what other churches and like-minded organizations do well. This allows us to build a network that supports each other to serve the community, so that, as John Wesley said, we might do all the good we can by all the means we can in all the ways we can.

Called to living out our faith through actions.

Matthew 25:40 states “The King will reply, Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” First-Centenary is and should continue to be a community that is always learning the ways of Jesus and creating disciples through study, worship, service and prayer. Our callings are not easy. This report lists many callings that will take significant effort from clergy, lay leaders, members and community members to accomplish. To be certain, there is joy to be found in this service, but it will require commitment, sacrifice, community and a big dose of the Holy Spirit. We trust that God is at work in the world, in Chattanooga and in First-Centenary. We commit to respond with faith in action as we seek to be a neighbor to our neighbors in the name of Christ.

Respectfully Submitted,

Dan Baker
Marie Baldree
Ben Baucom
Clint Cooper
Mark Gooden
Bill Haisten
Debbie Hembree
Sara Holley
Dave Houseman
David Hudson
Andy Johns
Will Lauderback
Margaret Nelson
Donna Palmer
Rickie Pierce
Mike Sayne