A Free Methodist congregation in Louisiana has nearly quadrupled in size after establishing the Blessing Boutique last year to show love to people and help meet their material needs.
Martha’s Chapel is a country church near Deville, Louisiana (population 1,007). Along with a small population from which to draw people, the church’s location poses a challenge to growth.
“The church is in a hidden area back in the country where a lot of people don’t just pass in front of it,” Pastor Gladys Miller said. “Our challenge is getting people to come to the church, because nobody is going to pass by here and say, ‘Oh, ther5e’s a Methodist church. I think I’ll stop.’”
Before arriving at Martha’s Chapel a year and a half ago, Miller was a retired United Methodist pastor but still preaching almost every Sunday for different pastors who were away from their pulpits, but she was not pastoring one congregation. Then she was asked to fill the vacant pulpit at Martha’s Chapel — an hour’s drive from her home — for a couple of Sundays. She soon heard from then-Superintendent Darrel Riley: “The people at Martha’s Chapel love your preaching and want you as pastor.”
When Miller became the pastor at Martha’s Chapel, the church had nine people attending. Now a typical service has attendance in the “high 30s/low 40s,” Miller said, and a recent homecoming service drew 82 people. The congregation has switched from discussion of possible closure to consideration of how to handle rapid growth.
“I get emotional a little bit when I think about how God is moving. People are coming in, and that’s what we want,” Miller said. “It’s not just the numbers in the church. It’s the number of souls that we can win for the Lord.”
One of the reasons for the growth is the Blessing Boutique, which is held once a month — typically on the second Saturday.
Miller learned of the concept from Sunrise Church, an independent church near her home. With Sunrise’s blessing, she presented the idea for a boutique at Martha’s Chapel to her receptive congregation that began hosting the Blessing Boutique last March. Miller printed a banner that said, “Shop free at the Blessing Boutique at Martha’s Chapel,” and word began to spread in the surrounding area.
“I had no idea when we started it that it would blossom as much as it has,” Miller said. “I was amazed at the amount of donations we had — that people were bringing quality items.”
Martha’s Chapel started the boutique in a small portable building but soon expanded it into part of the church’s parsonage.
The Blessing Boutique has caused the hidden church to become well-known in the area.
“We started doing this, and now they’re coming far and wide to see the church,” Miller said.
After visiting the boutique, some people take an interest in what the church has to offer spiritually.
“Slowly but surely, these people are beginning to come to church,” Miller said. “We will be taking in four new members that have come just because of the Blessing Boutique.”
Martha’s Chapel previously had no children attending, but the boutique has helped change that.
“It’s the best outreach I have ever done to bring people into the church,” Miller said. “We don’t have to beg them to come or anything like that.”
Miller said she is 73 years old, “but I’m a young 73,” and health challenges haven’t stopped her ministry. “I do have Parkinson’s [disease], but the Lord has blessed me. I take medication that controls it most of the time.”
Some boutique shoppers ask Miller if she is Martha because of the church’s name, which was inspired by a founding member named Martha. She tells them, “No, I’m not the original Martha. I’m Gladys.”
Praying + Partnering
Free products may have been most people’s initial attraction to the Blessing Boutique, but the boutique also attracts people seeking prayer.
“People are coming in, and we’re praying with them,” Miller said. “I just walk around all day and have a conversation with these people who have come to shop, and then they will start sharing with me.”
The shoppers often share that they don’t go to church but know that they should. In addition to praying with Miller at the boutique, people now call the church with their prayer requests. Some boutique shoppers now call Martha’s Chapel their church even if they don’t attend regularly, and that is leading their friends to visit church services.
“It’s just spreading, and, of course, that is what we want to do. We want to increase the kingdom of the Lord,” Miller said. “I’m just a simple woman. I preach a simple message, but God is using it.”
The Blessing Boutique introduces people to Christ while also connecting Martha’s Chapel members to other Christians in the area.
“We’re getting people from other churches who are coming to help us,” Miller said.
Variety and Value
Boutique shoppers appreciate the variety of items that are available, and some express shock when they learn the items are available at no cost.
“We have everything. We have shoes. We have clothing. We have toys. We have bedroom articles — sheets. You name it, we have it,” Miller said. “When people come in, they start shopping, and they say, ‘What does this cost?’ We say, ‘It’s free. Freely we have received, and freely we give,’ and that amazes people.”
Miller said that some people offer financial donations after receiving the boutique items, and Martha’s Chapel members use the donations to purchase toiletry items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste and deodorant that are then added to the boutique.
“Every month that we’ve had it, it has picked up in number, and the last time we had it, we had over 100 people that showed up,” Miller said.
Blessing Boutique volunteer Katy Price said that number is a big deal to Martha’s Chapel, which she has attended for 48 years.
“We’re in a very rural area,” Price said. “A hundred may not seem like many to people who live in town and have people going by their church all the time, but for people to come to our location, it’s three or four miles from the nearest store.”
The isolated church is now an important destination for people seeking help along with people wanting to donate items.
“It has just expanded almost beyond having enough room. It’s unbelievable,” Price said.
Although the boutique is held one day a month, volunteers work throughout the month to sort donations left in front of the church building or parsonage.
“It’s hard work though,” Miller said. “People bring us a lot of things, and we have to go through every stack and weed out things.”
Price agreed. “It doesn’t come easy,” she said. “It’s an ongoing process. Someone has to go through the bags and boxes and totes.”
The faithful volunteer said that Martha’s Chapel members want to ensure boutique items are in good condition, and she and other volunteers sort “mountains of clothes” to remove unsuitable clothing.
“We go through it and try to weed out the things that are not good. We don’t want to put anything out there that is dirty,” Price said. “No matter how needy you are, you want nice things.”
Volunteers inspect every donated item, and only items determined to be clean and in perfect condition are put in the Blessing Boutique to give away.
“We have many articles that are brand-new and still have the tags hanging on them,” Miller said. “We had a $150 men’s shirt that was donated. It still had the tag on it. We had several jackets that were $400 or $500 apiece donated.”
One area store is instructed by its corporate headquarters to throw items away when they don’t sell, but the store sets them outside and lets the boutique volunteers know.
“When people come, they know they’re going to get quality things, and we know that God is in this because of the huge amount of donations we have,” Miller said. “It’s been amazing. People say, ‘These things are new.’”
The December boutique especially drew people seeking winter clothes amid falling temperatures.
“We saw real needs met,” Price said. “There were people who really needed warm clothes, and we were so glad to be able to have those things available to them.”
News of the boutique is spreading far beyond Deville.
“Because of our church putting it on the Internet, I’ve had churches as far away as Arkansas call me and talk to me about it,” Miller said. “They’re doing it in other areas now.”
The Blessing Boutique concept has spread to the NOLA FMC church plant in the New Orleans area, and Miller hopes free boutiques will open in many other locations.
As Martha’s Chapel members bless others, they find their congregation receives blessings.
“You never know where you’re planting the seed,” said Price who expressed hope that “in the future more will come and join us and become part of the church family.”
Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He also serves as a delegate for John Wesley Free Methodist Church in Indianapolis. He joined LIGHT + LIFE in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media.
Photos courtesy of Pastor Gladys Miller and Julie Paul Bolin2