1001 New Worshiping Communities leaders report released

Leaders continue to find new ways to do church while negotiating challenges

by Melody K. Smith | Presbyterian News Service

Isaiah’s Table, a new worshiping community, lives into its mission “to provide grace, hope and food for all” by serving breakfast to its neighbors each Saturday, followed by worship. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE – Worship in new worshiping communities (NWCs) continues to be nontraditional. This includes making meals central to the worship experience; avoiding traditional worship elements like organs, bulletins and sermons; and even worshiping on Sunday and in church sanctuaries. In a way, this is much like traditional churches are doing now during the pandemic.

“These nontraditional approaches sometimes arise from necessity — like when NWCs have no or limited access to traditional spaces, times or props,” said Dr. Angie Andriot, research analyst with Research Services of the PC(USA). “Sometimes these approaches can also be calculated — like when NWCs are trying to create a safe space to heal from traumas, be they personal or church-related.”

Andriot was reflecting on findings from interview research undertaken in October 2019 at a PC(USA) conference in Kansas City, Missouri, that drew NWC leaders from around the country.

This research shows that some of the challenges that leaders face include shaping their space and decentralizing worship. Because it often takes place in nontraditional spaces — such as shared spaces or homes — the communities undertake efforts to sacralize the space.

Since NWC leaders often lack control over their space, they find creative ways to exert influence on the spaces they inhabit. From the geographic location to the nature of their physical surroundings, space can have a mighty influence on an NWC. Each setup has its own unique challenge. This lack of control over space can sometimes lead to a feeling of lacking control over the culture of an NWC. As one leader explains, “there’s this whole other backstory to the space.”

Many NWC leaders make conscious choices about their use of space — choices that influence the culture and worship of their NWC. For example, Stonewall Ministries meets in another church’s space, and — although they have access to the sanctuary — they make a conscious choice to worship in the church’s fellowship hall instead.

These communities are shaping their space to fit their worship. Instead of rows of pews facing a pulpit, many NWCs worship by gathering around a table or multiple tables if the community is large. “Leaders will often facilitate a culture in which there is less expectation that this is a place where the pastor disseminates information while the audience consumes their worship experience,” said the Rev. Nikki Collins, coordinator for 1001 New Worshiping Communities. “Instead, the experience can be shared collectively.”

The shaping of space is not limited to the worship area. Gather Tacoma has the “front yard gardens project” — a front yard garden with the intent of creating space to foster interaction with the neighbors. Another community, Isaiah’s Table, has planted a vegetable garden outside of their new space, which is now on a busy corner in an area of urban blight. They are working to make their space feel more accessible to the people they are trying to reach, passing by on the street. But in order to do that, these communities must negotiate the spaces that are available to them, to do what they can to make them their own — even if the space is borrowed.

Interestingly, while NWC leaders are struggling to gain control of their space, they are also learning to surrender control of worship. They are nurturing their participants into greater leadership and discipleship roles in varying ways. For example, one leader has a leadership team of about six; each is trained with special skills to carry out the business functions. At another NWC, elders and the pastor alternate preaching each week.

Getting participants in NWCs to take on more active roles in worship can be an additional challenge, as many are unchurched and are wary of traditional liturgy. One leader who was trying to involve her worshipers found that asking people to help lead worship in the abstract does not work. So, she left sheets of paper on each chair and the slips they got featured new roles to try — such as Call to Worship or Call to Confession. Participants needed some coaching, but they all tried it.

Leaders employ creative strategies to persuade other participants to help plan and lead worship. They work hard to include the voices of their participants in worship, to build leadership teams and to teach disciples to make disciples. “This is a way for leaders to help participants feel comfortable in worship leadership and feel more invested in their community,” said Dr. Perry Chang, research analyst with Research Services.

Another way of including participants in the worship experience is to structure worship around conversation and food. Some leaders were led to this approach after trying traditional sermons and finding that such an approach doesn’t fit their needs. Instead, there might be a short talk followed by discussion, or a shared spiritual practice. For example, at Gather Tacoma, they sometimes put out a fishbowl in which participants place their questions. Then the group spends the evening pulling questions out to answer.

The idea of breaking bread is also a strong recurring theme. Many NWCs have some type of meal together, whether it be breakfast, a potluck, serving open meals to the community or “breaking bread” as a ritual.

New normals are emerging in organic ways from the participants. Because of this, they can sometimes carry more meaning and give the participants a sense of ownership over worship. For example, one NWC leader talks about their communion practice of “breaking the bread,” in which the leaders talk about breaking the bread, and then he raises and breaks the bread. Early on, not knowing what to do, everyone else at the table mimicked him and broke their bread along with him. So now it’s become a beautiful tradition where they all literally break the bread together.

And in the end, the nontraditionals, the nonconformists, are schooling everyone on beautiful new traditions of worship, community and what it means to be Church. Read the entire report at presbyterianmission.org/resource/1001-leader-interviews-report.

Although the research for the report was conducted several months before the COVID-19 pandemic, survey research with NWC leaders conducted more recently suggests that these communities have been able to continue some of their innovative worship practices, albeit virtually instead of face-to-face.

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