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A ‘merry band’ of Presbyterian believers in Rochester solve their ‘edifice complex’

South Presbyterian Church grows after members leave their building

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

“Ladies and gentlemen: Elvis has left the building!” announced the Rev. Sara Hayden, the host of the New Way podcast, invoking the famous phrase used to encourage adoring hangers-on to stop waiting to get a glimpse of “the King” inside.

“’Nothing to see here!’ That famous phrase about Elvis has been adapted in recent years by religious congregations eager to mark their church’s departure from its so-called ‘edifice complex,’” Hayden told her audience. “For Jesus people, gathering in places where so few step inside, what might it be like when the church leaves the building?”

In the final two-part series of New Way’s 2023 season, Hayden interviewed the Rev. Deb Swift, pastor of South Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, which sold its building in 2014, a process that reinvigorated the ministry of the church and the faith of its members.

Swift was called to serve the church part-time after decades of the congregation contracting with supply preachers. When she arrived, the treasurer said, “You know we’re going to run out of money in seven years.” Swift led the congregation through a process of better understanding who they were as Presbyterians and how to live out their faith beyond the church walls.

They started with a “Bagels and Bible” study on Saturdays at a Rochester bagel shop and a book group on Fridays at a local diner. “By getting outside the building, people could see us laughing and having fun talking about God … and being excited by that, and one thing led to another,” Swift said.

The Rev. Deb Swift

Swift encouraged people to align their circles of family, friends, work and community so that they could spread good news. “Aligning-Circles-Together” became South’s ACTs of faith model, a way of doing ministry out in the open that invites others to witness and experience joy and connection when two or three are gathered intentionally and faithfully.

“We developed this whole model of ministry that’s really based on the first century church, I think, and it’s ‘Go where the people are. Don’t expect them to come to you,’” said Swift, who covers some of the difficult dynamics and decisions churches with under 50 members have to face as well as the new fruits of the spirit growing in their community in the last decade since they became peripatetic Presbyterians.

“There were 33, I think, voting members. One just had said to me, ‘I will never vote to sell my church,’” recalled Swift. “But the other 32, it was unanimous among them, and one of them made it a point to sign her ballot. She said it was ‘because I want everyone to know that it may be hard for me, but I support what we’re doing. This is where God is calling us.’”

The podcast and a book written by the congregation called “The Church Has Left the Building: A Case Study of One Church’s Story of Transformation, Redefinition and New Life” describe in greater detail the ACTs of Faith model. While the official membership of South Presbyterian Church is still under 50, the annual report shows the expanse of its reach.

“I can tell you that last year we had 32 official members, 15 acts of faith that reached 341 different people in the course of the year, and combined, it gave us over 6,000 contacts in the course of the year,” said Swift, reporting only on the ministry that happened outside of Sunday worship. “Then you add on to that our YouTube worship and videos, we had another 2,433 views with 79 subscribers, so that’s 8,500 opportunities for people to, as we say, ‘bump up against Jesus through us.’”

For this Rochester congregation, an ACT of faith is “defined as an organic grassroots ministry growing out of the needs or interest of the people,” said Swift, who explained the basic rubric that the ministry be community-based, not meet in a church building, and not be pastor-dependent.

“You can do the ACTs of faith model without selling your building. It’s a mindset for ministry,” said Swift.


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