That Sunday I finally felt we were ready for something new and maybe even a little bit radical in worship. Very slowly over the course of our time together, the congregation of Calvary Baptist Church and I had been piecing together worship that was intentional and reflected our calling as a community. We introduced variations and new efforts very gradually; we worked on subtle changes like tuning the piano, dusting the sanctuary, proofreading the bulletin…you know, things like that.
This urban congregation, over 140 years old and inhabiting a much-too large and increasingly needy facility, had once been a grand Baptist church of Washington, D.C., a place everyone who was anyone went to worship, an important part of the social and political fabric of this important town.
As the urban landscape changed and people moved out to the suburbs and Sunday brunch with the New York Times became the preferred activity of most on Sunday mornings, the faithful people who sat in the pews on the corner of H and 8th Streets, NW, were determined—if it was the last thing they did—to concentrate on the task of getting things back to the way they used to be when everything was going so well at Calvary. Remember those days?
I learned soon after my arrival that my primary job as a young, inexperienced, overly enthusiastic pastoral leader was to help the congregation come to terms with the idea that change could be good. At least, that’s the only thing I could think to do, as it seemed blatantly obvious to even me that there really was no other option for keeping the doors open. So, I set out to try to help redefine success, and convincing the congregation to consider an alternative perspective took most of my energy. I likened it to taking a drink of water from a fire hose…or turning an aircraft carrier. Slow, plodding, incremental…change.
That Sunday I had planned to hold a healing service, with music and liturgy supporting a sermon on the Gospel text followed by an interactive anointing ritual, where worshipers could come forward to have the minister make the sign of the cross on their hands with oil.
Not very traditional.
I couldn’t wait.
All went well through the first part of the service. Worshipers seemed engaged, liturgy flowed smoothly, music sounded beautiful; it was one of those Sundays where you could just feel the energy. I remember that I was talking about one of the Gospel healing stories of Jesus, and that the very last word in my sermon, right before I’d planned to introduce the healing ritual, was, in fact, “Jesus.”
Just as I said “Jesus,” however, the fire alarm went off.
We all got out of the building eventually. Sadly, my brilliant homiletical point was lost somewhere in the process of screaming, “Please leave the building as calmly as you can,” at the top of my lungs into the microphone and helping to carrying a 90-year-old member of the choir down the front stairs. The worst thing was, since we worship in an aging urban building whose fire alarm goes off pretty consistently because of some glitch in the ancient boiler/electrical/plumbing/generator/air conditioner/sound system, there was no fire. I knew there was no fire.
In the eight years I have served as Senior Pastor at Calvary, I’ve had experiences like the fire alarm healing service over and over again. While it’s true that hardly any experience I’ve had as pastor conforms to the textbook explanations I learned in school or even the stories of many of my suburban colleagues, I’ve come to understand and celebrate the fact that pastoral leadership in an older, urban, mainline congregation can be uniquely trying and, at the same time, utterly wonderful.
Consider some of these challenges and opportunities of urban ministry:
Urban congregations have a unique opportunity to be flexible. From a theological standpoint, we follow an ever-creating God whose Spirit came to the first church and blew like a mighty wind through their little preconceived ideas, but the reality of how we do church in many established, urban congregations is rather, well, staid.
Witness: it’s over 2,000 years later, and our churches are full of little more than preconceived ideas. We have buildings—big ones. And constitutions (with by-laws). We have boxes and boxes of books from the church library that somebody’s father’s uncle donated because he was a minister that we can’t throw away or the world will end. We also have the way our pastor of 32 years (who retired in 1971 but we still talk about him every Church Council meeting) always did it; four generations of one family who are members in this church (though nobody still attends and some live in another country last time we checked …); and memories of how it used to be when the sanctuary was packed and everything at church was PERFECT! (Wistful sigh.)
So what happens to a church filled with tradition when we determine that we want to be faithful followers of this ever-creating God who blows in and turns everything on its head?
It’s unsettling, yes, but it’s also a fundamental exercise of discipleship to follow Jesus faithfully and to hold our traditions loosely. Urban congregations, with years of tradition, have the unique opportunity to practice the quality of responsive Christian living, to honor tradition and history while still making room for the rushing wind of God’s imagination.
Urban congregations also have the special gift of required intentionality. Because our congregations are so unique in facilities, setting, and history, we consistently face opportunities to redefine ideas, tweak typical approaches, modify the traditional prescribed, prepackaged program.
For example, our congregation, like any other, is filled with people recovering from surgery or welcoming new babies. Like all good church folk, we enjoy casserole dinners provided by caring members. But the reality of our urban situation is that our congregation is spread out over a 75-plus mile radius, and some of us get to church by car, but many walk, bike, or ride the Metro. Delivering full casserole dishes and returning empty ones is a logistics nightmare almost too difficult to comprehend in this city. Good thing our deacons have devised a process for some to deliver their contributions to a central location, where they are picked up for delivery by others who live near the person receiving food. And, everybody brings their food in disposable containers that do not require returning.
It’s the reality of being the church in a huge urban setting.
After years and years of facing situations for which traditional solutions have little relevance, I’ve begun to see this quality of our unique ministry setting as a gift. We think a lot more about why we do what we do because we have to. And because we know why we do things a certain way, we have the rare gift of clarity around our mission, vision, and identity.
An older, urban congregation faces ongoing challenges related to material stewardship. Many of us, for example, find ourselves responsible for large, historic facilities that, while well-suited to the needs of the congregation that worshiped here in 1898, are sometimes an overwhelming financial and practical burden for the congregation inhabiting them now. Ancient boilers, crumbling plaster, historic preservation boards, downtown developers…we urban pastors and congregations spend inordinate time struggling to make good decisions about how we manage life with the facilities we’ve inherited. But because of these unique challenges, we also are given the opportunity to learn and practice creative stewardship.
For example, someone in the church in 1920 thought it would be a good idea to build a full-sized stage, subsequently outfitted with a red velvet curtain and full spotlight system, in a large hall in the church building. Though the demand for such facilities is currently not that high in the worshiping congregation, the trustees are still required to keep the space clean, safe, and functional. Meanwhile, we all sit around wondering how on earth we can ever keep this up.
But what if we were listening to NPR one day and heard a story about a local nonprofit who helps kids learn to sing and perform but has suddenly found itself homeless, thanks to budget cuts in the school system? Could we explore a new way to think about our space, engage in relationships with partners who might be interested in sharing resources with us, expand our congregation’s mission and presence in the community by cooperative, creative stewardship?
Well, maybe we could!
When we apply creative stewardship to our urban congregational situations, we suddenly find things we used to think of as liabilities transformed into invaluable assets.
All of these gifts and so many others punctuate the life of an older, urban congregation, but we keep hearing messages that tell us the way we do church is not the way of the future, and that our best option is to conduct a beautiful funeral and get on with doing church in a more modern way.
But when perspective shifts, it becomes readily apparent that the gifts and potential of the urban ministry setting are numerous…bountiful…unique! Here we sit, with years and years of tradition undergirding us, ready to move and be and explore everything God has for us. We have been given tremendous, richly wonderful gifts for sure.
Amy Butler has served as Senior Pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC since 2003. Before entering parish ministry, Amy directed a shelter for homeless women in downtown New Orleans, Louisiana. Amy has a passion for urban engagement and blogs at www.talkwiththepreacher.com .
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog
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Drawing on their more than thirty years of pastoral and church consulting experience, the Shockleys illustrate the power of imagination using personal stories born of their own quest to be faithful in ministry. They also show readers that imagining church is a shared experience among God’s people. When we imagine the church–form a mental image of what we believe the church is and ought to be–we are co-creators with the Master Designer, Chief Architect, and Greatest Creator, and can help others imagine church. They remind leaders, “If you can’t see it, neither will anyone else.”
When Better Isn’t Enough: Evaluation Tools for the 21st Century
by Jill M. Hudson
Approaching the postmodern era as a tremendous opportunity, Hudson identifies 12 characteristics by which we can measure effective ministry for the early 21st century. Based on those 12 criteria, Hudson has created evaluation tools to help congregations improve their ministry, help members and staff grow in effectiveness, deepen a sense of partnership, and add new richness to the dialogue about a congregation’s future.
When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By
by Craig A. Satterlee
When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By is a collection of stories of congregational worship in which God’s ongoing presence, speech, and activity are apparent. These stories of proclaiming the gospel, teaching the faith, praying, singing, baptizing, blessing, and sharing bread and wine in Jesus’s name share the purpose of these activities in worship, yet still challenge the reader to explore the motives behind them.
Don’t miss this opportunity to get inside the heads of those young adults you wish were part of your congregation!
Join Alban author Landon Whitsitt (Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All, Alban, 2011) at beautiful Lake Junaluska for fall in the Smoky Mountains:
October 11-13, Living Traditionally in a New Age
Alban’s 2011 Event Calendar
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