By Melissa Wuske
Woodlawn Park Church of Christ is an a cappella congregation located a few miles from the center of Baltimore. Many people would consider the church to be “real urban, but to us, we are urban-suburban,” said minister Elmer V. Sembly III.
The community doesn’t deal with intense poverty and other typical inner-city issues. So, “it blew me away,” Sembly said, when he learned the top two Google search topics in his area were depression and anxiety. It made him pause to seriously consider the events and series the church was promoting.
But God has been preparing the church for years to meet the needs of its community. “And that’s something that the church of Christ in this area really hasn’t done,” he said.
Sembly’s methodical, bold shepherding approach is poised to help the congregation live out its saying: “We are real with real problems and real solutions in Christ.”
Letting Go of Tradition—to Reach Today
The church comes from a very conservative base of the church of Christ. “It was just a few years ago that I even said myself, if someone doesn’t have a suit or a suit jacket and a tie on, they cannot serve in Sunday service roles,” Sembly said. “Growing up, you didn’t clap during service.”
“Where we are now at Woodlawn Park is light-years away from that. To some of the Christian churches, we probably look like dinosaurs,” he said, but “we are growing.” Using Google Analytics is just one example of the shift.
Sembly is convinced that much of the church at large needs to change its culture to achieve its mission. “Some of the traditions, while they may have been OK for their time and space, are not conducive for the church to grow [and] build the kingdom [now].”
“The church . . . needs to refocus to be able to understand what’s important. Part of my frustration with the church is its inability to teach, encourage, motivate, and inspire the next generations to continue in the church,” he said.
“It’s a frustration of love,” Sembly emphasized.
He sees his role as a leader—in his congregation and beyond—as someone who helps move people forward and advance the gospel, even when it’s uncomfortable and even when people don’t understand where he’s leading them. That’s a leader’s role in culture change: “We’ve got to stand up, we’ve got to talk about it, we’ve got to be willing to bear the burden of telling the truth.”
Connecting with People
A needed cultural shift is how the church relates to people outside the church, Sembly said.
He’s been working at that for many years. “I’m a lifelong child of God. I was raised in the church, raised by a preacher. That has pros and cons at times when it comes to being able to relate with those who were unchurched for most of their lives. I’ve learned to develop that skill.”
When the church began in 1999 in Westminster, Maryland, about 30 miles from downtown Baltimore, there were five people—including Sembly and his wife and their two children. Starting so small, he said, “we had to be able to identify with people.”
His professional life prepared him to connect with people and train others to do the same. He was then a communications and outreach director for the National Institutes of Health—work that “focused on caring about people,” he said. He studied applied behavioral science at Johns Hopkins University, where he gained expertise in adult learning models and organizational development.
“I’ve seen how ugly the church can be at times. And I’ve seen how leaders can treat people and cause members to go astray,” Sembly said. “I’m really passionate about how people treat one another and how leaders lead.”
As the church grew, he trained others to lead with humility and stand on God’s Word as they relate to people. He surrounded himself with “capable, smart, intellectual people” and taught them to lead with their own individual gifts and style.
Unity in the Body
Unity among churches is another necessary culture shift, Sembly said.
After growing to about 50 people, the church bought land in Windsor City, only a few miles from Baltimore, and built a building. Perhaps even more significantly, in 2010, the congregation merged with a church Sembly’s father, Elmer V. Sembly Jr., had led.
It took several years to combine the cultures of the two churches and “again get on the track of the real work of the church,” said the younger Sembly.
When the church grew to average about 200 weekly, it reached capacity in its building. Parking was the biggest problem. “People would actually come to worship, couldn’t find a parking spot, and leave and go someplace else,” Sembly said.
The church struggled for several years, unable to find a financial partner to help them alleviate their crowded conditions.
In 2017, Sembly met Russell Johnson of The Solomon Foundation at a conference in Washington, DC. Two weeks later, Doug Crozier of TSF came to Baltimore. Crozier asked Sembly if the church had ever considered purchasing a building in the area. There was a former government office, Sembly told him, “but we know we can’t afford it.”
Crozier and Sembly drove to the building,
“Do you know the owner?” Crozier asked.
Sembly did. “I called him on the phone, and Doug basically was able to get a deal on the building while sitting right there in the parking lot that day. I could not believe it.”
Sembly was excited about the building, but he was even more encouraged to see TSF “trying to help as many congregations as possible, no matter their race, ethnicity, or whatever it is.” Rather than focusing on differences, Sembly said, “they’re trying to grow the kingdom.”
Unity like that is what the church needs to be effective, he said.
“We need to come together, the body of Christ, in a more positive way to reach people today who are looking for answers and looking for the Word of God,” Sembly said. “We tend to . . . not even be on the same page ourselves on the things we have in common. . . . Our common interest is to spread God’s Word and save the lost.”
That’s not always easy for people steeped in long-held traditions, but Sembly tells people, “We have no say over whether or not these people are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They have obeyed the gospel of Christ. They are our brothers and sisters. You can’t choose your family, but you can understand where your family is and try to support them.”
While “there have been glimpses of this unity in the past,” Sembly said, “this is something relatively new to us in this generation.”
Looking Ahead, Looking Out
The first service in Woodlawn Park’s new, fully renovated building was July 1, 2018. “Our ministry is now able to breathe,” Sembly said. “It’s basically unlimited space for us at this point.”
While the deal on the building came quickly, transition is a long, challenging process. Sembly and the leaders formed transition teams and rolled out “a whole slew of auxiliary services”—communications, welcome stations, signage—to make the space their own and learn to connect with visitors. “While people were excited, we were not efficient,” he said, but everyone learned along the way.
It’s been yet another shift in culture for the church. “We’ve got screens everywhere; we don’t have to use the songbooks anymore,” he said. The space and updated technology allow the church to connect with newcomers more easily and expand the kinds of preaching they can do.
“All along we’ve been baptizing people,” Sembly said.
Equipped with the deep faith history of the church, a sense of God’s call for the church, and a conviction about his role as a leader, the church hit the one-year mark in its new building.
“We’re right at the cusp of being able to address the needs of our community,” Sembly said, referring again to the Google search that indicated depression and anxiety are major issues.
Some people say the church at large is dwindling. But Sembly believes “this is a great time. God is showing us a way and a method to grow. We need to be unified.”
Melissa Wuske is a freelance editor and writer. She and her husband, Shawn, and their son, Caleb, live and minister in Cincinnati. Find her work online at melissaannewuske.com.