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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Congregation thrives — without a building


‘Acts of Faith’ model of ministry is unencumbered by walls

August 24, 2017

After 170 years on Mount Hope Avenue in Rochester, New York, South Presbyterian Church voted to sell its historic building on Easter Sunday 2014, a day chosen by the congregation for its symbolism of resurrection.

Bold re-visioning of church in Rochester.

The idea for a re-visioning of church began to catch fire in Rochester with the sale of the South Presbyterian Church building on Mount Hope Avenue in 2014. (Photo by Deb Swift)

“To commemorate the sale of the property, we held a combined service in August 2014,” said the Rev. Deborah Fae Swift, South Presbyterian’s pastor. “We presented the new owners, a Free Methodist congregation, with the trowel used to lay the building’s cornerstone in 1894, and used again for an expansion of the church in the 1920s.”

“None of us regrets selling the building,” she said. “In fact, fairly often people from other churches will approach one of us with an ‘I’m sorry for you’ tone of voice, which catches all of us off guard.” She added that South Presbyterian’s evangelism coordinator recently replied to one person’s well-meaning sympathy by saying, “Don’t be sorry. We’re not. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us. We have energy and are unencumbered now.

“We can just be about God’s work without spending time, energy and money on a building.”

Food for Thought

Food for Thought, an Acts of Faith study and sharing group, serves dinner at an emergency homeless shelter in Rochester several times a year and gathers each Friday at Mount Hope Family Diner to discuss a variety of topics, religious and not. (Photo by Carol Santos)

The 40 or so members of South Presbyterian touched nearly 500 lives last year in Rochester through 16 active, member-led Acts of Faith (A0F) community groups.

This kind of “church” is about a rekindling or revitalization of the Spirit’s fire. It’s a model that measures success by the energy and excitement of the Holy Spirit’s presence more than by Sunday attendance, endowments or budgets. And it’s an idea that has its origins in the first-century church as recorded in the book of Acts, where believers were called to live in the world and share their faith in everything they did each day.

South Presbyterian piloted the AoF model with three member-led community groups in 2010–11. These groups brought people together for Bible study at a bagel shop, Christian teaching at a senior living community and a book discussion at a diner. Its 16 AoF groups focus on three areas: worshiping communities, study and sharing, and social activities with specific emphases. Some groups are noticeably religious (Prayer on the Lawn), while others focus on community building and have no mention of God, Jesus or church (Mount Hope World Singers). Almost all are member-led and all are equally significant in the life of the church.

Mt. Hope World Singers

Mount Hope World Singers, an Acts of Faith group, performs songs of peace in indigenous languages from around the world at schools and public concerts. (Photo by Deb Swift)

“The essence of the Acts of Faith model is simple: ‘Go where we are needed’ and ‘Share the loving presence of the Risen Christ,’’’ Swift said. “Our world is filled with broken and hurting people, just as it was in Jesus’ day.”

Participating in an AoF group does not mean people have “joined the church,” Swift said. “You don’t even have to be Christian to participate. We welcome all sojourners.”

From time to time South Presbyterian is invited to create an AoF group to meet a community need, as was the case with Brickstone by St. John’s, a senior living community one mile from the original church building.

St. John’s had been searching for two years to find a church to provide weekly worship onsite for residents and the greater Rochester community. South Presbyterian was able to meet this need for casual but traditional Sunday worship through its Fellowship of Faith AoF group, which received a seed grant in June as an official 1001 New Worshiping Community of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Since the greatest portion of mainline Christian churches in the U.S. today have fewer than 100 members, South Presbyterian anticipates that the AoF model will be replicated in churches nationwide as the Holy Spirit leads, Swift said. In fact, South Presbyterian has established a new AoF group, Firebird Spirit, to coordinate, archive and provide information about the AoF model with other congregations that express an interest in learning more.

Tammy Warren, Communications Associate, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus:  South Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY

Let us join in prayer for:

South Presbyterian Church

Deborah Fae Swift, pastor
Jane Sarjeant Watt, parish associate
Allison Thorp-Coughlin, music director
Katrina Hebb, mission assistant

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Brad Masters, FDN
John Matekovic, BOP

Let us pray:

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the example of your Son, Jesus, and his desire to reach out to help those in need. Help us recognize our own opportunities to spread the love of Christ as your ambassadors. Amen.

Daily Readings

Morning Psalms 36; 147:12-20
First Reading 2 Samuel 19:1-23
Second Reading Acts 24:1-23
Gospel Reading Mark 12:28-34
Evening Psalms 80; 27