Wreck this church
What kimchi, a presbytery revival, and something called Wreck This Journal have to teach a changing church
By Theresa Cho
I can only go a few days without kimchi—at most a week. Then my body begins to crave it. Just saying the word kimchi tickles my salivary glands and makes my mouth water. Kimchi is a staple Korean dish. No matter how delectable the spread of food, without kimchi, the meal is incomplete. There are all kinds of kimchi, but the most popular is spicy fermented cabbage. Growing up, I watched my mother and women from the church gather around large round bins as their hands massaged the napa cabbage, pulling back each leaf and rubbing it with the spicy pepper mixture. The kimchi is then put in jars to ferment and ripen.
When trying kimchi for the first time, novices may want to eat it at the beginning of the fermentation process, when it is more like a refreshing salad. Every Korean has a preference for how fermented kimchi should be before eating. Personally, I like mine on the sour side.
Similar to other fermented foods, the longer the kimchi is allowed to ripen, the stronger the aroma. Just when you think the kimchi must be going bad, that’s when it’s becoming most delicious. There is no such thing as bad kimchi. When the kimchi is too sour to eat, there are many ways to transform it. Most turn it into kimchi jjigae, a spicy kimchi stew.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) also has been fermenting. Exactly how fermented the church has become is up for debate. Some believe the stench is overwhelming to the point that it may be going bad—when, in truth, it is just time to make kimchi jjigae.
Times are changing
At St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, we are in the process of changing our pews. These pews have faithfully served our congregation for more than 100 years—people come and go, but these pews have remained. The pews perfectly complement the 147-year-old aesthetics of the sanctuary, never overstating their presence. These pews are sturdy and comfortable, and they are the centerpiece of worship. Everyone has an opinion about them—from long-time members to passing visitors to complete strangers. When surveyed about the prospect of changing the pews, one member said: “I’m terrified! I fear the new pews might very well prevent me from attending services.”
“But they’re just pews!” you might say. Well, not to the members of St. John’s.
This change tugs at a hundred years of nostalgic memories. As the pews are replaced, members fear that what they cherish—not just the pews but the experiences, traditions, and lives ingrained in them—may be lost forever.
Nostalgia is more than dwelling in a happy past. It is about loss. It is about pain and ache. In fact, it comes from the Greek words nostos and algos, essentially meaning “painful homecoming.”
For the members of St. John’s, this change is clearly about far more than the pews. It’s about the worship services, the weddings, the funerals, the children who have played in those pews—and the theology heard and discussed upon their wooden planks. To many, those pews may be the one thing standing between them and a completely unrecognizable church.
And they are not alone. We are a fermented church, and fermentation can be a painful process.
Leave a little room
When storing kimchi in jars, my mom would always leave a space between the kimchi and the lid in order to let air get in so that fermentation could take place. The last thing you want to find in your refrigerator is kimchi juice everywhere because the kimchi had no room to expand.
My mom probably didn’t know it, but she was teaching me something about ministry every time she loosened the lid.
Leave a little room so that what’s inside can expand and change. Leave a little room so that air can get in. Make space for the Holy Spirit. That’s really all that is required of the church.
Many people I encounter in the church know that change is needed but are paralyzed, not knowing what to change or how to change and unsure of what the change will bring. So they limit the space and secure the boundaries with “It’s never been done that way before” or “Our policy doesn’t allow it.” But what would happen if we opened the lid a little, creating free space to experiment and explore?
Though the pews in St. John’s are old and falling apart, that’s not why we are changing them. That’s just the reality that allows us to explore creative options. We are changing them because of the possibilities offered by flexible seating. Our sanctuary is a worship space for children, seniors, and all those in between. It’s a historic landmark for weddings and concerts. It’s a grocery store on Saturday mornings, serving 400 clients. It’s a playground for the many summer camps that use our space. That’s just what it is now. How much more could it be if our space was more accommodating to a variety of uses?
Fermentation, even when pungent and suspicious, can lead not just to tastier kimchi but to a church more effective in its discipleship.
At least, that was the recent experience of the Presbytery of San Francisco.
We who are involved in the presbytery learned quickly that our emotional space can be just as limiting as the physical space of sanctuaries. In San Francisco, 22 Presbyterian congregations serve a 49-square-mile area. Of these, 11 are racial-ethnic, 6 are multicultural, and 12 have fewer than 100 members. With so many congregations in such a small geographic area, we instinctively viewed one another as competition. We were afraid of closure and suspicious of others’ intentions. Each congregation was a portent of change for the other, and change meant decline.
So we debated. We parsed the nuances of what it meant to be a “dying” congregation. Was it lack of membership? Of money? Of international mission? Of community ministry?
For instance, what if a congregation has more than 200 members but, because of the population it serves, doesn’t have the financial resources to survive? Is that congregation dying? What about a 20-member congregation that has $600,000 in its endowment but no pastor and no mission? Is it dying?
These questions, like so many efforts to tighten the lid and hold off fermentation, paralyzed any ability to think creatively on a solution.
Then one day, we flipped the question: How do you know if a congregation is living? What if 22 Presbyterian congregations are not enough? What would it look like if we began to live into our connectional identity as Presbyterians and considered ourselves one church with 22 locations? These questions opened up the emotional space we needed to begin to explore and imagine what could be.
A fermented church needs a little room—space to dream, create, and risk failure.
What’s that smell?
In order to create that space, the Presbytery of San Francisco organized a time for teaching elders and ruling elders to put aside typical mid-council business for a moment and build relationships and imagine options.
We laughed over parking woes, commiserated over the high cost of living, and bonded over the challenges of living in a city where, according to a 2014 Barna Group study, only 16 percent of the population regularly attends church. Our conclusion: as 22 individual congregations we were quite inadequate, but as one church we had a lot of assets.
We started a citywide youth group that rotated between different congregations and invited everyone to share in finances, staff, and materials. Our individual youth groups had been small, but together they were quite formidable. Our youth suddenly had an opportunity to connect across diverse experiences and cultures and to see how people of faith, when they come together, can create real change in their communities.
Congregations and presbyteries sometimes ask me what they can do to replicate this model. I wish I could offer a cookie-cutter approach that would magically increase membership, revitalize a church, and attract millennials and “nones,” but if it is out there, I haven’t found it. What worked in San Francisco may not work in another context. All I can say is that this so-called new normal requires a willingness to make mistakes, grieve what has been lost, be open to change, and pool resources.
And it may require destroying some pews.
Recently, my son and I began journaling, not a “dear diary” type of journal but a journal that requires you to poke holes in the pages, spill coffee, add photos then deface them, and—my personal favorite—tie a string and take your journal for a walk. Kerri Smith, creator of Wreck This Journal, hopes that by engaging in these destructive acts we will begin to tap into the creative process.
My son loved it. Within a matter of hours, half his journal looked like an art store had thrown up all over it. Weeks later, mine still looked . . . well, like new. With my son pestering me to start, I made up the excuse that I just didn’t have the time, but the truth was that I was struggling—struggling to find a way to perfectly wreck my journal.
And that is the point—there is no perfect way to do it. No perfect way to change a church. No perfect committee with the right formula or strategic plan. Sometimes, we just have to start “wrecking.” Wreck those pews. Wreck the false memory of the way we used to be or the way others perceive us. Wreck any programming where we struggle to find volunteers or no one shows up. Wreck our leadership models—the way we choose leaders, the way we meet, the way we make decisions.
Before beginning the journal, Smith gives a warning: “During the process of this book you will get dirty. You may find yourself covered in paint or any other number of foreign substances. You will get wet. You may be asked to do things you question. You may grieve for the perfect state that you found the book in. You may begin to see creative destruction everywhere. You may begin to live more recklessly.”
Isn’t that what Christ calls us to do: to live more recklessly? Isn’t that that what Christ was calling Simon and Andrew to do when he told them to drop their fishing nets, abandon their livelihoods and families, and follow him?
So, where are you—and where is your church—in the fermentation process? Maybe it’s time to make kimchi jjigae, or perhaps we just need to gather around the table, get to know one another, build relationships and trust, and let in a little more air, a little more of the Holy Spirit.
Can you smell it? It’s time.
Theresa Cho is copastor of St. John's Presbyterian Church in San Francisco.