Editor’s note: Light & Life Magazine’s February print edition directs readers to this page for a video interview with Peter Hough. That video is still in the production process. It will be added to this page as soon as possible. LLM apologizes for the delay.
Free Methodism has borne fruit in Alton, Ill., since 1909. A tent meeting that year resulted in the establishment of an FM congregation in this small city along the Mississippi River, 25 miles north of St. Louis.
Alton’s Free Methodist Church met for six years in the rented upstairs of the city’s Ben Franklin building. Then the church built its own building in the city’s Upper Alton neighborhood and later moved to another building in the same neighborhood.
After Mark Scandrett arrived as pastor in 1985, the Alton congregation became one of the most fruitful churches in the Gateway Conference. In 1999, the church outgrew its urban space and moved to a new building among the farm fields near Alton’s edge. Attendance has doubled for the growing congregation — now known as Emmanuel FMC — since the move.
Back to the City
Four years ago, Peter Hough traded Southern California for Southern Illinois to become Emmanuel FMC’s associate pastor. At a staff retreat that year, church employees prayed for God’s direction.
“We felt very clearly God tell us: Go shine a light into dark places,” Hough said.
Emmanuel FMC had become a commuter church attracting hundreds of people from multiple communities, but it reached few Alton residents from the neighborhoods it originally served. Church leaders sensed the need to restore fruitfulness where the congregation previously thrived.
“God called us to go back down into the heart of the city and be a missionary presence there,” Hough said.
As Hough walked the city’s streets, he encountered large church buildings that were closed or in the process of closing. New congregations sometimes moved into the vacated church buildings, but they often encountered the same fate as their predecessors.
“Coming to church on Sunday morning was no longer good news in Alton,” Hough said.
Hough is now the pastor of the Alton Mission. The effort began with a missional community of Emmanuel attendees who started meeting in the city in September 2011. Within five months, three separate missional communities met in the city. Within a year, the communities began meeting together for weekly worship at a community center in downtown Alton.
Alton is not the bustling city that it once was, but it has not shed its long history of racial and economic division. “You know which streets divide the rich from the poor, the black from the white,” Hough said. “You know which area of town you belong in or don’t belong in.”
Free Methodists have a longstanding record of uniting Alton residents of different races and social groups. The Alton Mission is reviving fruitful ministry where it flourished a century ago.
“The city of Alton is a depressed town full of a lot of depressed people who need true hope,” Hough said. “If we can be an encouragement, if we can provide community, if we can befriend our neighbors, then we feel that’s one of the primary parts of our calling.”0