Developing new ways to form disciples for Jesus Christ and take the Gospel to those who don’t know Him lies at the core of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 1001 Worshiping Communities initiative, which has the goal of establishing 1,001 such communities in the next 10 years.
The development of such communities was at the forefront of an Evangelism and Church Growth plenary session that took place at the Kentucky International Convention Center during the PCUSA’s third annual Big Tent held Aug. 1-3 in Louisville, Ky.
Speaking during an Aug. 2 session, 1001 Worship Communities Associate Vera White acknowledged the ways the endeavor has sought to share the Word of God with people in a variety of ways.
“I believe new worshiping communities are the best way to reach the unchurched and tell them about about Jesus Christ, which is the goal of all churches,” she said. “If people have not visited in the last 250 years, they are not going to come. These communities make an impact and work through the transformation of the whole work of Jesus Christ. The existing church needs new worshiping communities more than they need us. That innovation and creativity (new worshiping communities) bring to the existing church filters to the whole Body of Christ.”
A video showed what’s happening at the Fellowship Place, under the direction of the Rev. Michael Robinson, in Charlotte, N.C. People involved in that worship community were shown interacting with people in and around the city, working on mission projects like handing out food and school supplies. The Fellowship Place was involving the community in worship as it reached out to those in the surrounding area.
“We’re giving back and showing the love of Christ,” Robinson said in the video. “We’ve seen God bless and improve the quality of life for people. We’re having a great time building relationships with people, expressing the love of Christ and sharing that God is there. We’re just presenting Christ in new and different ways.”
Steve Yamaguchi, executive presbyter for Los Ranchos Presbytery in California, discussed the Fresh Expressions concept from the United Kingdom as an example of such a ministry that joined the new style of ministry with the traditional form.
“It’s important that we not bifurcate between new ministries and older ministries,” he said. “Christ’s church is one. We are to work together as one body to reach people. It’s not a competition. It’s just different expressions of the same church. These (new worshiping) communities have become a huge blessing to the inherited (traditional) church.”
Yamaguchi continued, “These new worshiping communities remind us of the joy and passion of sharing Jesus with people who need Him. They are meeting the needs of people in non-traditional ways. It’s definitely a gift to us all.”
One person who became part of such a community is Dylan Rooke, an elder at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community in Pittsburgh, Pa. Rooke explained how he saw hypocrisy and failure in the church and wanted nothing to do with it at a younger age, choosing to join a punk rock band.
But he soon sought reconciliation and found it through offerings at Hot Metal Bridge after he and his band mates had been having Bible study sessions in the basement of a tattoo shop.
“We were still kind of holding on to this guy Jesus even though the church had let us down and told us we didn’t fit its model,” Rooke said. “We started to realize we needed some connection to the inherited church.”
Rooke said he and his band mates were welcomed and loved right away at Hot Metal and made to feel at home there, a welcomed change for him after a negative experience with the inherited church.
“I saw that God was doing something different. The unconventional church was the beginning of reconciliation for me,” he said.
The church met in the cafeteria of a local Goodwill until it was booted out and labeled a “cult.” But another church gave the new community space to meet, and it took off from there.
“Despite our best intentions our church actually became Presbyterian, formed committees and started having meetings,” he shared with a laugh. “But we have seen the church become the body of Christ it should be, with the freedom to be who we are.”
“Church can be hard, with some splits and struggles, but we still have to be people holding on to a vision of God. Even though we may disagree, we still can be church together.”
White maintained that new worshiping communities tend to thrive in environments where there is a high level of permission giving and high level of accountability on the part of the presbytery overseeing them.
“I think our presbyteries err on one side or the other. They can squash the life out of a fragile new worshiping community or go to the other extreme and say there are no rules, the sky is the limit,” White said. “It’s absolutely essential they be given permission and held accountable.”
She also said it is vital that the presbytery know what is going on in these communities and show an interest in them without just throwing unlimited resources their way.
“Do we believe everything goes? Absolutely not,” White said. “But they need to have the freedom to try new things, even when they are not sure if they will work.”
Yamaguchi also emphasized that as he responded to a question regarding fears of establishing a new worshiping community.
“Presbyteries do have a responsibility to be stewards, not only of finances, but of the essentials of our faith and theological roots,” Yamaguchi said. “There are concerns of false teaching, mismanagement of funds and sacraments not being carried out properly. But those same things can happen in an established church.
“When you experiment things can go wrong. The most tragic failure would be if we lost our nerve and our sense of adventure, and did not experiment and try new things.”
Rooke added,” It’s new ways of living, new ways of being church when people start to let go of their comfort. He calls us to places that are hard and difficult, but he also calls us to the Kingdom of God.”