As history’s greatest writers and philosophers have told us for centuries, nothing endures but change. Life is change. Change is the nature of the universe. That congregations are changing should therefore come as little surprise. But how they are changing is infinitely intriguing. In the midst of a bewildering array of congregational “types” being touted as the way-showers for future congregations are thousands of congregations who are finding their own paths, identities, missions, and visions. In an effort to learn more about these individual examples of change, the Alban Institute recently surveyed the readers of its online newsletter, Alban Weekly, asking for stories of innovative congregations. Of the responses received, the following examples were particularly interesting. While these congregations may not be the only ones to have tried the approaches described here, that they have had the courage to step outside their comfort zones, abandon old ways, and attempt the unfamiliar is of value in and of itself. Their stories serve as a reminder to all congregations—especially those contemplating uncomfortable change—that the discomfort may well be worth it.
Modular Worship Down Under
Our survey begins in Australia, where experiments with a modular worship approach are proving promising. With this type of system, not only is worship offered in different styles at different times on Sunday mornings, but a connecting module offers activities both worship groups can share, such as announcements, intercessory prayers, and baptisms. In many congregations, this modular approach has been helpful in satisfying the disparate worship tastes of the various generations within a congregation and thus has resulted in increased church membership and participation. It’s also been helpful in easing tensions in some congregations, where “worship wars” were previously rampant. At the same time, the system addresses one of the primary concerns voiced by congregations considering offering separate worship services—that they will become separate congregations because they will no longer be worshiping together. Because of the central, connecting event in the modular system, this is no longer such a great concern.
For instance, at Gungahlin Uniting Church, a suburban new church plant in Canberra, Australia, where Rev. Mark Greenlees serves as pastor, three modules are used. The first 45-minute module offers a traditional, contemplative-style worship service featuring prayers, hymns, Bible readings, and a sermon. At the end of this service, participants may either leave or stay for module 2, where they are often joined by families just arriving. At Gungahlin, module 2 is a 30-minute time intended to be common for those attending module 1 and those attending module 3. Module 2 is a time of all-age worship which features contemporary music, announcements, intercessory prayers, celebrations (such as baptisms, dedications, and confirmations), and time for a cup of tea, which is a further expression of worship that people are encouraged to see as “prayer in action.” Following this, a third module offers Christian education in a variety of forms, including intergenerational small-group activities. There are those who attend only this third module, but congregants who arrive at the beginning of the second module tend to stay for the third. In all of these modules, the use of multimedia is a significant aspect of encouraging people of all ages to connect with the message in a multisensory way.
“The modular worship system is being used as a creative way to assist people with different spiritualities to engage with the faith in a comfortable manner while keeping the whole group in contact with each other. It can also help establish a new, separate worship service as attendance grows over time,” says Wendy Snook, an ordained minister and UCA Canberra Region Presbytery mission development worker, whose job is to assist ministers, lay leaders, and their congregations in fulfilling their missions. Part of that job is to set up training programs where the presbytery can share effective systems other congregations have employed. Snook is keeping a close eye on experiments with modular worship to see how this system works in rural and suburban settings. “We’ve found that it works in the city and are now trying to see how it will work in the country,” she says.
Another church using the modular worship system is Kippax Uniting Church, located in the outer suburbs of Canberra. Under the leadership of Rev. Gordon Ramsay, Kippax has employed a modular approach to its Sunday morning services for the last eight years. In addition, it concentrates heavily on accommodating the various intelligences (logical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, visual/spatial, auditory, etc.) throughout the modules. “In many ways I’d say the most novel and exciting part of the worship is the way people who learn and process things in any of the various intelligences will be able to engage well on any one Sunday,” says Ramsay.
The first module is a 45-minute traditional/contemplative service—“a peaceful way to begin the day,” says Ramsay. This is followed by a 30-minute morning tea. The congregation then participates in a 45-minute interactive/intergenerational module of worship, which often involves making things together or working on activities drawn from the same Biblical theme as the first two modules. “It aims to bring people together (literally) from several generations,” says Ramsay, and to give them opportunities to learn in ways other than simply listening. Next are two simultaneous modules—“Sunday Café,” which Ramsay says is “deliberately more focused as a café than as a church set in a café,” and a 45-minute contemporary service, which features a multimedia approach. Each of the services is planned in close coordination with the congregation’s discipleship and formation coordinator, John Emmett.
The novel use of media is a strength of Kippax, and this is of particular interest to Snook. “Gen X-ers—the 35-and-under people—are not used to people just standing and talking,” she explains. “The younger generation is visual, so we have to do worship accordingly; we have to speak their language. I have been trying to get the churches in my presbytery to be more visual, which doesn’t have to be multimedia, but it can be. Kippax is a hub for multimedia. Every room in the church is Internet-connected. Not only that, they create their own animations.” Especially popular is “Lego Jesus,” where a multi-generational group creates figures built from Legos to represent the characters in a Bible story that they enact using their own voices and videotape for presentation to the entire congregation later. “As with most things at Kippax, we deliberately try to have people from across the generations working together,” says Ramsay. “Unplanned things are always happening in these productions, which makes them funny, and what Kippax has found is that, because of the funny things, people really watch these homemade productions,” adds Snook.
Another church that creates its own animations is UCA Café Church in Glebe, Sydney, which recently hired digital artists with backgrounds in theatre, poetry, and music to create animated prayers, scripture passages, and themes. A CD of 160 of these animations is currently being sold on the church’s Web site (www.cafechurch.org.au).
A Merger of Vision
Across the globe, in Canada’s British Columbia province, a vibrant new congregation has emerged from the conscious merging of three previously existing congregations, all of which had been in decline. This transformation did not take place overnight, however, and not at the time of the churches’ initial merger—at least on paper.
Although the three United Church of Canada churches—Shiloh, Sixth Avenue, and Queens Avenue United Churches of New Westminster
—were officially amalgamated on January 1, 2002, they continued to operate as separate worship centers within their own spaces for another 34 months. “Ultimately we decided to do a visioning process,” says Rev. Bethan Theunissen, who leads the new church, Shiloh-Sixth Avenue United, “because it became clear that the three congregations did not have a common vision. They were really very different cultures.” After months of study and reflection, Shiloh and Sixth Avenue joined together to form Shiloh-Sixth Avenue United Church in July 2004, and some members of Queens Avenue transferred their membership to the new church as well. “We moved out of being the three old congregations and into a new one with a new vision,” says Theunissen. Perhaps the most explicit sentence in the congregation’s vision statement is its commitment to inclusivity, which reads,
Based in the hospitality of Jesus Christ, we practice an open door/table policy, where all are welcome to worship and explore Christian faith with us regardless of age, race or colour, family status, physical or mental dis/ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, class, income level, nationality, ancestry or place of origin, marital status, or religious point of view.
The congregation’s composition reflects its commitment to diversity. “We have a curious mix of people in our congregation,” says Theunissen. “Some have had very little religious training. Others are more steeped in church. We also have a large gay and lesbian contingency and a number of Taiwanese members.” In keeping with the congregation’s commitment to inclusivity, every service is translated into Taiwanese.
A promise to be open to new ideas shows up in such offerings as its “Yoga in a Christian Context” group. And the congregation’s promise to serve the community is evident in a number of initiatives. For instance, beyond just allowing the use of its facility to daily 12-step groups and a food bank, the church has provided the hundreds of people who pass through its doors to gain access to these services with a triage receptionist and community advocate who assist them with health, housing, literacy, and other issues.
“We are both very discipleship-oriented and also very progressive in our theology,” Theunissen says, but in the congregation’s early days, many of its members were what she calls “Christians by default,” people who knew little about scripture or discipleship. Theunissen and the church council set about changing that when she assumed the leadership of the new Shiloh-Sixth Avenue congregation. “No one was grandfathered in,” she says. During the first two years of the church’s existence, everyone (except seniors) was asked to participate in an eight-week program Theunissen designed to enable members to build community in a deep way and to be trained in a variety of spiritual disciplines, such as Bible study, contemplative prayer, and meditation. “These spiritual disciplines were very new for many people. It was the first time many had had a devotional life. These are processes in which people are rediscovering faith for themselves.”
Creating the Faith Journey
In the United Kingdom, a country where only two to three percent of the population are in church on Sundays, doing church in a way that supported people’s faith journeys was a key goal of Rev. Chris Dowd’s when he set about establishing his own church, Journey Metropolitan Community Church in Birmingham. In particular, Dowd saw that there was a disconnect between the church and younger generations. “The reality of Christianity for most people is weddings and funerals. We’re just missing a whole generation. I was really clear I wanted to set up something that was different from the churches I had experienced.”
One of Dowd’s inspirations came from Celtic Christianity, which he describes as being less hierarchical than other Christian church models and more focused on individual responsibility and doing things in harmony with the local environment—both the land and its people. “They were real communities—serving themselves and others at the same time.”
In his own church, Dowd wants people to have the experience of being part of a community of people who are searching for belief and spirituality. “We are inviting people to journey with us.” The question Dowd says he perpetually contemplates is: What is the spirit of our age and how do we capture that?
Members of the congregation are highly varied in background and belief, ranging from evangelical Christians to New Agers, which has spawned an agreement among congregants—“that we might not necessarily agree, but we will respect each others’ opinions and learn from each other, myself included,” Dowd says. The church is also a lot less formal than many of the churches formed decades ago. “This is based on the idea that people come to God as they are,” Dowd explains.
Dowd views himself as more of a facilitator and guide to the congregation than as an authority figure, and he turns a lot of planning and decision-making over to the congregation. The church offers an evening worship event that is planned exclusively by a worship team. The group’s planning begins with a Gospel reading from the Common Lectionary, from which a theme and activities for the evening service are developed. The events change from week to week and range from simple events involving meditation and the lighting of a single candle to multimedia events calling for active participation. For instance, at one worship service a Star Trek video was used to launch a discussion of the afterlife. At another, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a film based on the book by Douglas Adams, inspired a service that gave congregants an opportunity to examine various aspects of their lives. The transformational effect of this event, which featured an art exhibit and church members dressed as aliens, is still being talked about.
A morning service is also held, but not in the traditional fashion. Rather than delivering a sermon at services, Dowd hosts a discussion of a scriptural passage, followed by prayer and communion. Because he doesn’t deliver sermons, Dowd writes a homily that he distributes each Monday to the church e-list, a list that continues to evolve as people log onto the church’s Web site (www.journeybirmingham.org.uk). The list currently consists of about 150 people—several times the church’s membership.
Journey MCC’s collection plate isn’t run of the mill, either. Instead of collecting money for the church, “any money that goes into the plate goes to charity,” Dowd says. A requirement of membership is support of three charities selected for focus this year—Crisis, a national charity for the homeless; Trans-Shropshire, a local transgendered support organization that runs a nightly hotline; and Salt, a small international organization that provides food and training to the needy in India. Each year, the congregation will vote to select the charities it will support that year. “It’s all about the act of giving, not what amount you give,” Dowd explains. “It’s an action people take to have a stake in the church.”
One innovative initiative that is an integral part of Journey MCC’s life is that every member has a guide—someone in the congregation who has been trained in active listening who will meet one-on-one with five people once every two months. “It’s a bit like proactive pastoral care,” Dowd says. “The guide is there to hear what’s going on for you in your life and in your spiritual life.” The agenda for each session is up to the individual. “It’s different for each person,” says Dowd. “It could be a Q&A session about something they’ve read, an informal chat, or a spiritual discussion.” Aside from being a way to provide support (and possibly outside intervention), the guide sessions
provide congregants with the knowledge that there is someone to turn to in times of need. The sessions have also proven to be a good way to keep conflicts from growing and festering.
Building from the Outside In
At Palisades United Methodist Church in Capistrano Beach, California, pastor Jeff Conklin-Miller and his congregation are exploring a variety of ways to offer what is most needed, both to each other and to the local community.
The location of the church presents unique challenges. Palisades is a stone’s throw from a number of megachurches, including Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, but Conklin-Miller sees this proximity in positive terms: “It presents a real opportunity for us to create an expression of church that is truly an alternative to the megachurch and at the same time a church that connects people to God and one another.”
Palisades is a church with a high percentage of members who are 65 or older. Recently, though, more youth and young families have begun to enter the congregation, which Conklin-Miller believes is due to the presence of two new planned communities in the area, Ladera and Talega. The United Methodist Church has no presence within either of these communities and, because of limited land availability, will be unable to establish a physical presence there. Palisades therefore has had to be creative in finding ways to reach out to and serve these communities. A recent effort along these lines—the brainstorm of Geoff Peters, Palisades’ former outreach and evangelism coordinator and a marketing professional—was to establish a Web presence for Palisades and two other United Methodist churches in the area, which together form a triangle around the two new commuter communities. Now there are links to all three churches at www.laderachurch.com, and 200 signs have been handed out to members of the three participating congregations, many of whom have posted them in their yards to advertise the Web site. So far, this attempt at outreach hasn’t generated significant results, but Conklin-Miller believes it sends an important message. “I can’t point to this as a ‘strategy that works,’” he says. “Still, I do see it as a step beyond the walls of this church into the community. It’s a way to communicate that we care about the community. And if the congregation sees that they can take that one step, then we can pray for the strength for other steps to follow.”
To further its outreach, the church is considering the establishment of a preschool in one of the new communities. The preschool in the Palisades building filled to capacity in record time this year. “That was a clear sign that the demand is up, and that presents a real opportunity for us,” says Conklin-Miller. “We could open a preschool in Talega that would allow us a presence and visibility there, and the space could be used in the school’s off hours for other programs.”
Earlier this year, the church launched Holy Joe’s, a book group that meets in a coffee shop for its discussions. The group was initially started at Easter for new members, but there are plans to expand it. “There’s a Starbucks every 40 feet in California, so we could advertise the event as ‘meeting in a Starbucks in your area’ and we could schedule it at a different Starbucks each time as a way of saying ‘we’re willing to meet you where you are,’” Conklin-Miller says.
A program begun last year to offer people an additional opportunity to connect to God is the church’s open-sanctuary candlelight prayer time. “It started with a conversation about what we could do to help us grow, which led us to a recognition of the theological lack in that question. That took us to a different conversation, one in which we asked what it is that makes us a church. And from that emerged the feeling that there isn’t enough space on Sunday morning alone for us to develop a relationship with God.” To create additional “space,” several members of the congregation took it upon themselves to create a candlelight prayer time, a simple yet profound practice of lighting 100 candles in the sanctuary on Friday evening and opening this silent space to those wishing to enter it. “The moment you walk into the stillness you realize how hungry you are for it,” says Conklin-Miller. “People come there to practice the presence of God.”
Despite the new things being tried at Palisades, Conklin-Miller expresses an uncertainty about whether or not his congregation belongs in this story since theirs is not a story of innovation that has resulted in escalating membership, at the same time wanting to celebrate “the amazing people who make up this church, the commitment they have to the way of Christ, and the ways God works through them.” As he explains, “We haven’t done anything here to serve as a radical story of success and growth, but for us the deeper issue is theology, ecclesiology—what it means for us to be church in this community, with these people, in this time. The success isn’t in astronomical growth but that sense that we, as a congregation, see worship, spiritual formation, and the practice of faith as closer to our center than before. In some parts of the mainline church, seeing those practices move closer to the center may not be signs of innovation but reclamation, and thanks be to God for that.”