First steps: Lawton church moving out on digital pathways
By HOLLY McCRAY
Worship services on every Sunday began Oct. 11 with 72 people at the new United Methodist church planted in Lawton.
Participants smelled fresh popcorn as they entered Community UMC and received bags of the warm treat. Wall screens displayed welcome messages and more.
Parents paused at digital stations to sign in youngsters eager to explore a virtual indoor playground called an EyePlay. Certified childcare staff met them all.
In the experiential worship space, an environmental projection system painted three walls. A digital tablet held Pastor Phil Hodson’s sermon notes; he uses three versions of the Bible when preaching. (He reads from seven as he prepares his messages.)
"It’s still the greatest story ever told. But how do we tell it? Embracing technology in worship is critical if you want to connect with generations that have that everywhere in their life," he said in a September interview at Community’s location, 1001 SW "F" Ave.
A drill buzzed in the background as safety installations went up in the kids’ zone.
Community aims to connect with young families in this city where the median age is 30. Fort Sill drives that youthful demographic; Lawton’s population is about 100,000.
The United Methodist churches in Lawton "are worshipping less than 700 people a week," said Rev. Hodson. "This is Kingdom work; a lot of people are praying."
Money from the Wichitas District—especially its Kingdom Builders fund—the Oklahoma Conference, and the Oklahoma United Methodist Foundation is seeding the new ministry.
Programming for mothers with very young children proves Community’s desire to serve God’s littlest ones. This ministry began informally in the Hodsons’ home. Phil and Joelle are the parents of Xander, 4, and Xane, 2.
Now the church hosts Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) multiple times each month, and Joelle leads them. Some 52 moms and 49 kids participate. The church’s technology enables moms in their meetings to see kids in the play area.
"MOPS has curriculum based on fun-think-talk-do, with video and questions to facilitate discussion," Joelle said.
She showed the creative setting for the next MOPS meeting and numerous kid-friendly aspects deployed throughout Community’s rented space. A whiteboard "to-do" list includes cereal.
"We fire through Cheerios like nobody’s business at MOPS," said Phil.
The church employs 13 part-time staff, most in child care, and a full-time assistant, Rebecca Braun-Harrison.
Also, Community and the Oklahoma UM Circle of Care for Children & Youth partnered to hire Ayrika Watson as children’s ministry leader/COC foster care family recruiter.
"Our hope is that will dovetail as that church grows and attracts young families," said COC official Mike Slack.
Volunteers—Phil prefers the term "servants"—handle all the church’s technology tasks. Those helpers are as young as 12.
Community will use digital tools to engage small groups. Sunday School and weekly studies don’t work for its demographic, Phil explained.
"My people—this generation—are way too busy. So how do we foster community with hyper-scheduled people?"
Small-group members will interact through their personal digital devices, then meet in person eight times a year. And the church plans to begin live streaming its worship in November.
"This is the age when people want a fully functioning church," said Phil, "or they think you’re just a crazy preacher passing out tracts."
The phone call to plant a new congregation in Lawton came when the Hodsons were traveling. With lots of time to talk, "we couldn’t talk ourselves out of it," Joelle said.
"What an amazing opportunity! Phil and I always get along well with ‘Dream big.’ My family comes from a long line of entrepreneurs."
In childhood, Joelle said, she always got the Girl Scout pin for selling 400 or more boxes of those famous cookies.
The first MOPS event hosted at the church attracted far more moms and children than expected. Then the exhausted pastor went into his office, put up his feet, and spent two hours talking with God.
"Peace came back," Phil said. "I clearly heard: ‘Get it together.’ I realized this is the tip of the iceberg, baby. We’re here to grow the Kingdom of God; that’s it. We do that by whatever resources He’s giving us. A ministry is as strong as the team that supports it, and we have a great support network."
As Xane dances in a virtual playground, each step adds color to the scene projected onto the floor at Community UMC in Lawton.
When Phil Hodson was 16, his grandfather gave him this sailboat with a note, “Follow your bliss.” The verse imprinted on the craft is Jeremiah 29:11. “It’s sat on every desk in every office I’ve been in, from college to CEO to the pulpit,” said Rev. Hodson. His grandfather pastored United Methodist churches for 41 years in Indiana.
Photos by Holly McCray