PC(USA) church relies on Dolly Parton and prayer stations to encourage active and vibrant worship

The pastors at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco are the most recent guests on A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Sam Lundquist

LOUISVILLE — At St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, where the Rev. Dr. Theresa Cho and the Rev. Sam Lundquist serve as pastors, even Dolly Parton — or at least her look-alike — might well show up for worship during a Sunday celebrating Pride Month.

Lundquist and Cho were the guests last week on A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast, hosted by the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong. Listen to their conversation here. Cho and Lundquist come in during the 24th minute.

Speaking to the hosts about creative worship and the “Dolly Church” experience specifically, Lundquist, the church’s associate pastor, said he sees the worship space as story-telling space. “For one hour on Sunday or whatever the time might be, that’s the space where we get to tell the story of God,” Lundquist said. “Everything is up for grabs to tell that story in this world, because God is working and moving through all of that.”

Indeed, God’s first act — fashioning the heavens and the Earth — was a creative endeavor, Lundquist noted. “Our God is a creative God, and we have that spirit in us too, that spark of imagination,” Lundquist said. “That spark of creativity and artistic expression is something we see God do from the beginning of the story of God.”

Dolly Church “wasn’t about Dolly Parton,” Cho said. “It was about it being Pride Month and how do we go about honoring not only being an open and affirming church but creating a service where we can celebrate that.”

“I look at creativity as a tool to make our faith more pliable and flexible,” she said. Especially since the Covid pandemic began, “a lot of us have had to experience change or loss or a transition, a loved one or job security, that can really test our faith. There’s nothing like entering into a creative space that opens up our mind and our curiosity … to open us up to see things maybe in a different way and make us spiritually stronger so we can handle things out there in the world better.”

Doong noted St. John’s has also incorporated prayer stations to encourage congregants to move around during worship. That practice not only recognizes the congregation’s diversity, it “honors the fact that some of us are visual learners,” Cho said. “Some of us love the word, and some of us are more lyrical. … There’s the sermon, but there are ways to play with things that the sermon brings up. To do that through prayer stations allows people to engage with each other and for families to engage with each other. It’s more than doing something cool and niche; it’s about providing many different opportunities and honoring all the ways we experience God.”

“We have a good five minutes during worship when people wander around and light candles. Sometimes there’s a different interactive station there. Some people just sit,” Lundquist said. “Structure gives us a framework, but sometimes we can hold too tightly to that.” The fine balance involves “letting people on their own terms engage with the space how they need to,” he said. “We try to do a great job of being invitational, and the structure itself is that invitation.”

Lundquist called his own faith background “deliciously all over the place,” and he has a background in entertainment. “From that work, I do know that human beings love being immersed in a story,” he said. “Rewinding our faith back as far as it can go, this is all storytelling. It’s campfire storytelling” designed to “enliven people and move them in certain directions.” When Jesus told stories, “He used everything around him to connect people with the things of life to tell that story in a new way. That’s what creativity really is: using things people are familiar with and then telling the story of God.”

While some might compare church with theater, “for me it’s theater where the congregation is also with the show,” Lundquist said. “You are asked to be part of the story, not a passive observer of that story … You’re touching things and drinking things, tasting things and smelling things.”

“When we talk about a living, active, alive faith, it has movement to it,” Lundquist said. “It’s not just an intellectual exercise, although that is part of the story too.”

The Rev. Dr. Theresa Cho

When visitors show up to worship at St. John’s, “you can see it on their faces: What am I allowed to do and what am I not allowed to do here?” Cho said. Presbyterians “need to claim and own that a lot of what we name as holy is from our white upbringing, in a sense.” Creative worship allows people “to enter the space as you are. Are you happy? Grieving? Celebrating? Do you come from a different faith background? I may not understand your story, but our stories can intersect in this holy place.”

Five years ago, St. John’s voted to become a sanctuary church. During the discernment process that preceded the vote, congregants heard biblical accounts about migration “and criminalization about who you are versus what you do,” Cho said. Rather than “Do you believe in this?” the question became, “Can we hold space for those who wat to advocate for immigrant rights and stand with people?” according to Cho. “Creativity gave us the ability to not only accept people for who they are but also to hear each other’s stories in a way that was openminded and openhearted.”

Dolly Church was in fact “a very traditional service,” Lundquist said, with easily recognized worship elements and an offering that supported a local LGBT asylum center. “If you came to it, you would understand the framework and see how it was bent and moved to create more space for more types of people,” he said. “We were trying to show this space is a familiar space and right now it’s being stretched. To me, that’s an act of justice, of creating a wide circle in a space that often feels a little tight and imposing for some.”

Parents appreciated the service because they could bring their children. “We have kids who are going through the transition process and are having conversations with their friends about gender and sexual identity,” Cho said. They’re empowered to be able to say, “Oh my gosh! At my church we’re having this conversation. Our congregation will always know there’s going to be this opportunity for them to let each other know, ‘How have you been in touch with God through worship?’”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

“On Dolly Church day, I charged the congregation to say that the most inclusive place I’ve ever been in is a drag show,” Lundquist said. “It’s a wonderful, beautiful expression of who you are as a person. What does it mean for me, a pastor of a church, to say I have felt that more at a drag show more often than in many church spaces? God is doing something in other places that maybe we’ve forgotten how to do.”

“There’s something about entering into a space and fully accepting the beauty in the way God created you and feeling like people accept that in you,” Cho said. “Can you love your neighbor as yourself? It turns out that’s not very easy. But when you experience it, I think you feel incredible joy and incredible fun in that.”

“At the center of this space we’re holding is faith, hope and love,” Lundquist said. “What a gift it is in the difficulties of this world to have that for an hour in the week. I think that’s one of most important things a church space can do that people can’t find in other places: It’s that reminder over and over again that you’re OK, you’re loved, you belong, and no one is going to take that from you. That’s a wonderful gift to have.”

Listen to other editions of A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast here. A Matter of Faith is offered each week by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice.


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