New life, new energy, new expressions of faith
By M.E. Clary | Presbyterians Today
In 2012, by action of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the movement to establish 1001 new communities of faith all over the country was made official.
Vera White, who recently retired as the national coordinator for what became the 1001 New Worshiping Communities (NWC) initiative, described the movement’s birth in a recent NWC podcast:
“By virtue of their action at that General Assembly meeting, [leaders were saying] that if the Holy Spirit is up to something among us, we want to be part of that. And they made a way to support and encourage and welcome new worshiping communities, 1,001 of them, into our historic church denomination.”
In just 10 years, the goal is to reach both the unchurched and dechurched, while transforming how the denomination engages with local communities, embraces our changing culture and “does church.”
Church planters, described as creative and innovative, are charged with meeting people where they are, adapting to weekly — if not daily — roadblocks and setbacks, and are typically entrepreneurial at their core. The wider strategy, as described by the PC(USA), and the call these church planters are embracing, is to “reach new generations, new residents and new populations that established churches are not reaching.”
The charge was issued; the mission embraced. Now, in the seventh year of a 10-year plan, where has the Spirit carried the Presbyterian Church? What fruit has the 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement borne?
Halfway to the goal
According to the 2018 New Worshiping Communities Leaders Report, prepared by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Research Services, 534 new faith communities have formed since the initiative began in 2012. This number includes new worshiping communities, new church developments, recently organized congregations and immigrant fellowships. And while new worshiping communities are smaller than traditional congregations, to date they are reporting higher levels of regular attendance.
At Worship on Wednesdays, an NWC in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, a typical Wednesday evening welcomes 70 to 80 worshipers in a nondescript concrete building on Hemphill Street known as the Community Crossroads Outreach Center.
In addition to weekly worship, the center houses food and clothing ministries, formula and diaper ministries, and a dental clinic.
Worship on Wednesdays (WOW!) is defined as a “ministry of presence” by the Rev. Robyn Michalove, who serves as an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth, in addition to leading worship and a weekly Bible study at WOW!
“Most weeks it means, ‘WOW! The Holy Spirit is here!’ ” said Michalove, adding with a laugh, “Some weeks it also means, ‘WOW! I’m about to lose my mind.’ ”
WOW!’s journey to becoming a new worshiping community was anything but a direct path. Like many fledgling ministry initiatives, it took a few forms before becoming an official NWC in 2018. What started as an after-school program to address a need in the downtown area became a weekly dinner. Along the way, church leaders also considered adding classes for community members. According to Michalove, those initiatives dissolved in 2010 and WOW! was born in early 2012 at its current location at Community Crossroads.
While WOW! is a ministry of First Presbyterian Church and funded by the congregation, it is independent in terms of its attendees — who are not typically members of the larger church but are welcome to join.
“It can certainly be a doorway into the ‘bigger church,’ but that’s not necessarily the ultimate goal,” said Michalove. FPC members are involved with WOW!, helping serve dinner and participating as musicians in the worship band, but they do not consider themselves volunteers. They are worshipers. WOW! is church.
WOW! is a street ministry whose average worshiper does not have access to consistent, secure shelter and is looking for a safe place that offers fellowship and a warm meal. Eating a meal as part of worship makes WOW! one of the 42% of new worshiping communities that are considered “nontraditional” for offering meals, embracing nontraditional venues and worship times, and intentionally focusing on cultural, racial and economic diversity.
“We are diligent about welcoming both street folks and families,” said Michalove. “We are challenged to focus less on ‘us versus them’ and more on fellowship and hospitality.”
And while space is always a challenge, the most recent need for expansion is based on the growth of the Bible study that takes place after dinner each week.
“Attendance has increased dramatically, with more neighbors participating. The last two Wednesdays of February had an average of 19 participants,” said Michalove, who admits to arriving every Wednesday “exhausted from parenting, working, adulting.”
“And yet every Wednesday I leave energized because we are doing church differently, and that is a wonderful thing for our mainline tradition,” she said, adding, “If this place brings you to a deeper faith, then praise be. We’ve done what we are called to do.”
Disciples in the making
Research compiled in the 2018 report also shows that new worshiping communities serve people who are in various stages of their Christian formation. In fact, 78% of NWC participants were not attending a PC(USA) congregation prior to engaging in their new faith community. The unchurched and dechurched account for 32% of this group.
In the Pasadena/Altadena area of southern California, about 15 miles north of Los Angeles, Beloved Everybody Church is on a slow roll, growing mainly by word of mouth and a little publicity. This new worshiping community got its start in October 2017 and currently meets once a month, usually welcoming 10 to 15 worshipers. Self-defined as “a Jesus-centered community where people with and without intellectual disabilities lead and participate together,” Beloved Everybody Church is equipping disciples through a hands-on approach to worship. This means that all worshipers join in and help lead services that are described as highly interactive, relational, participatory and multi-sensory.
Dr. Bethany McKinney Fox is a bi-vocational minister who is employed full-time and part-time, in addition to her role with the NWC, which means she actually has three jobs. With a background in special education teaching, McKinney Fox has felt called to this type of ministry for years. She currently serves as director of student success and access services for Fuller Theological Seminary in addition to her role as director of spiritual formation for Cyclical LA (an organization that supports church planters), joking that the part-time hours associated with Beloved Everybody make her a “bi-bi-vocational pastor.”
This makes McKinney Fox part of the 60% of church planters who have a paid job in addition to leading their new worshiping community. Overall, 43% of men and women are also compensated for their NWC work. And while McKinney Fox is the “leader” at Beloved Everybody, she’s very purposeful about reminding all that titles can be complicated, especially in nontraditional worship settings.
“Am I a pastor? Yes. But I’m not a verbal, focal-point, lead-while-people-watch pastor. We do very little of this type of worship, because for a lot of our participants that’s just not practical,” McKinney Fox said.
Worshipers gather for two hours on the second Sunday of each month to enjoy fellowship, share a meal, and take part in community-building activities like art, games and music. Their last half-hour together is dedicated to interactive prayer, worship and Scripture.
“For example, we’re likely to embody a Scripture text either by assigning roles for characters to dramatize a narrative or to create movements that correspond to what’s happening in a non-narrative text,” said McKinney Fox. “And I’m willing to bet our art supply budget is much higher than most churches.”
At a recent service, worshipers acted out text from John 11 as Jesus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Together they observed the various ways people demonstrate care and friendship toward one another. Monthly worship themes are centered on things like forgiveness and “participation over perfection.”
“If we really want to be fully inclusive, the traditional model won’t work. To embrace the perspectives, gifts and voices of everyone, we rely on the Spirit to explore new territory. It’s the creativity of the Spirit that offers us the freedom we need — the freedom required when trying something this new,” said McKinney Fox.
It’s a freedom that comes with help. Seventy-five percent of new worshiping communities have at least one partner congregation. Beloved Everybody received its seed funding from the PC(USA) and gets financial support from the local church, but it can be complicated because sometimes the larger church still isn’t quite sure where new worshiping communities fit.
“We all have certain ideas about ‘what church should look like,’ ” said McKinney Fox. “It’s some part education, some part conversation, and all about living into community. All of us have been formed, and continue to be formed, as we get to know each other more deeply and keep engaging across differences of ability — and other differences, too. As Jean Vanier, the late Catholic theologian and philosopher, says, instead of dividing us, our differences can enrich us all. That’s definitely been our experience.”
Walking the walk
The Rev. Nikki Collins, who is the national coordinator for the 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative, says the latest statistical reports are encouraging, revealing that NWC participants are younger and more racially diverse.
“What the 2018 Leaders Report points to is the growing trend of reaching new people. This marks a significant shift in the traditional growth of the church,” she said. “The story of what God is doing is about much more than institutional survival.”
“In 2012, the General Assembly set an ambitious goal to do the work of the church in a new way, and they provided the key resources to help make it happen: funding for staff support, assessment tools to help leaders discern new faith communities, and the creation of coaching networks and training events.”
Sixty-three percent of these new worshiping communities report that missional, outreach or justice ministry is a primary focus for them, and the vast majority are working alongside local agencies and organizations in their communities. This most often includes ecumenical activities, food and shelter initiatives, children’s activities and the arts.
For Beloved Everybody Church near Los Angeles, it’s emphasizing and embracing the gifts of a community not historically included in leading or participating in worship and discipleship.
In the case of WOW! in Fort Worth, it’s their clothing and food pantries and the new dental clinic.
“As a new worshiping community, our true purpose is outreach,” said Michalove. “It’s not about membership. It’s really about discipleship.”
M.E. Clary is the communications director for Grace Presbytery in Irving, Texas.
To learn more about 1001 New Worshiping Communities, go to presbyterianmission.org/1001
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