Manhattan new worshiping community offers a home for the spiritually abused
by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Full of angst, Chris Romine walked into a new church in Hoboken, New Jersey, which sits directly across the river from Manhattan, New York.
In his mid-20s with a well-paying job at a startup logistics firm in Manhattan, he was wondering if this was all there was. Exploring all kinds of faith expressions, including Christianity, he kept coming back to the simple message of Christ’s life.
At the church, which billed itself as nondenominational, he was the token “prodigal son.” Within two years he was hired by the church to plant a neighboring church in Jersey City. But his newfound faith was shattered six months later.
“Once on the church staff, I got behind the curtain,” Romine said. “The culture was built on pastor worship. There was a lot of smoke and mirrors — and willful deceit.”
If anyone on staff challenged the pastor, Romine said, they would get railroaded for being disagreeable, insubordinate and disobedient. Male and female friendships were considered a dangerous combo that would likely lead to indiscretion — and a two-drink alcohol policy was formal and explicit.
Romine and other staff members spoke up about their concerns. The church eventually told him that any disagreement and dissent was “poisonous” to the organization. Both Romine and the pastor who helped start the Jersey City location were let go.
More than anything, Romine wanted to leave the abusive pastor and church behind. He enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary to see if his calling to church planting still felt God-ordained. But once there, the confusion and pain caught up with him. He had more questions than ever.
“I’m a skeptic and cynic. I kind of grind through faith,” he said. “As I worked with a counselor and spiritual director at Fuller I learned that I still believed in the local church.”
But Romine needed to heal from what he’d experienced. He took a course on pastoral care and abuse at Fuller, writing a report on what had happened at the Hoboken church. As he had conversations with classmates about “spiritual abuse and the way churches hurt people” he was able to let go of the burdens he was carrying.
At Fuller, Romine learned of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 1001 New Worshiping Community initiative. He already appreciated the missional nature of starting new churches but was intrigued by how Presbyterians spoke about what they were doing.
“They were careful to say that these new communities needed to be about the whole church,” Romine said. “I was drawn to the PC(USA) connectional, ecumenical nature.”
It was a stark contrast to what he’d seen at the church in Hoboken, which denied its own denomination, saw churches as competition and acted autonomously with no oversight.
Romine began to feel a call to start a church for people who might not fit in at other churches — particularly like the one in Hoboken. He hoped to form a community that would welcome the wounded, the vulnerable, the cynical and those who like him had suffered spiritual abuse in the church.
As God would have it, Romine was called back home. He is now located across the river from Hoboken, in Manhattan working with Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church to start a new worshiping community.
In 2009, after seeing the impact of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) church plant Redeemer Presbyterian, Fifth Avenue formed a Mustard Seed project to begin talking about a new PC(USA) church plant in New York City. Those involved in the project began to meet regularly to talk and pray for the right person to lead the effort — someone who had vision and passion. And they set aside money every year.
When Romine was hired as their staff evangelist they had three years of salary saved up for him.
“That was our mustard seed, if you will,” said Fifth Avenue’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston. “Because of our divided culture we strongly believed more churches were needed where people get to talk about God and what matters, about who is our neighbor and how we love them.
“Chris is a great steward of conversations like that.”
In January, Romine and his wife, Jill, began working on the west side of Manhattan. They’ve met 10 to 12 people who are starting to dream what a new spiritual community might look like. He’s introduced them to what the PC(USA) does for justice both globally and domestically, even educating those who have no interest per se in Christianity about Reformed theological traditions.
“They’re post-evangelicals, suspicious of established churches and tired of faith communities trying to be attractional,” he said. “They want to talk about poverty, race, politics. They’re community activists. If they have interest it is in seeing churches doing like-minded work.”
Romine sees a hunger in people and a sense that, like him, they aren’t sure what it is. Because of his journey into a version of Christianity that created pain, he believes their hunger is for the triune God.
“Imagine a community where we can ask questions,” he said. “To explore faith, including the places where we’ve been hurt or wounded spiritually, in a super safe place.
“Fifth Avenue believes churches like this should be planted,” he said. “They’ve been incredibly selfless in this. They’re not trying to control it or make it like a version of themselves.”
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