Creating Space for Something to Happen

By Rosy Robson, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Throughout the summer, I have been witnessing people and ministries doing ordinary, traditional things in ways or settings that are different, creative, and innovative. These people are not necessarily re-inventing the wheel, but are turning the wheel differently. Habitat Tavern and Commons, set to open in the coming days, is one of those turning-wheels-differently places.

With much imagination and innovation, Jonathan Myers and Matt Addis are creating a space for both community and beer in downtown Asheville, NC. The idea for Habitat comes from recognition of the centrality of the table in bringing people together. “Divine events are happening around tables with pints of drinks in hand more often than not,” Addis said. Myers and Addis are crafting a space for such events to occur with delicious microbrews.

safe_image.phpReclaiming a hundred year old building, they’ve been working on restoring and renewing what will be Habitat’s home in the Five Points Neighborhood of Asheville. The space has two distinct parts: the Tavern side, where the beer is brewed and served, and the Commons side, a multifunctional space that breathes possibility for larger scale conversation and collaboration.

What will they use such a space for? “It’s about creating space for something to happen,” said Myers. An ordained priest with experience in community organizing, Myers hopes that Habitat will be “a space where waiting and celebration can happen, mourning and grief…a place where the full experience of human life can be explored.” Myers and Addis have been building relationships with their neighbors and community, and the possibilities for what will happen at Habitat are endless. Yoga classes? Movie nights? Meeting space? All of the above and more? What exactly will happen within Habitat’s walls is unfolding. “We’re still learning how to be in that space. We’re meeting lots of people. We’ve been welcomed with open arms,” said Addis. I left my meeting with Addis and Myers inspired by their attitude of openness and responsiveness towards how Habitat will be a part of the community.

13438922_1737210789825163_6993299961820407580_nSocial scientist Robert Putnam (author of Bowling Alone) argues that over the last hundred years, there has been a decline in the number of connections between individuals in society resulting in a lack of social capital and disorientation between and among institutions and individuals. Social capital is built in what social scientist Ray Oldenburg terms “third places,” environments that are distinct from home and work and that root community life. Habitat Tavern and Commons is indeed one of those third places, an incubator for social capital through conversation and gathering with beer in hand.

Journeying together,

Rosy

This is Where We Gather

Note from Rosy: This week you’re in for a special treat! Russ Kerr, my dear friend and fellow UPSEM student, visited Land of the Sky UCC with me last week in Asheville, NC. He agreed to share his gift of writing and story telling with us on the blog this week. Enjoy!

By Russ Kerr, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.13646704_1266962366684801_932663132_o

I step quickly into a new sacred space anxious about being ten minutes late and only seeing two cars visible to me as I drive up. I think, “uh oh. We’ll be one of five people here and the minister will ask us to stand up and introduce ourselves to the three church members present.” It’s an old cliché and sadly a true reality for some churches. However, not all. We rush inside and immediately my anxiety levels decrease from about 10 to 1 in a matter of seconds. Around me the church is full. The church is vibrant. The church is intergenerational. The collaborative banner hanging behind the pulpit, the rainbow stained glass above the altar, the rock gardens that line the side of the sanctuary, and the hanging white fabric immediately invoke a sense of safety and a sense of trust. And the hour I spent at Land of the Sky felt as I had stepped into the holiest space of my Beloved.

Despite the old narrative that the church is dying, Land of the Sky is thriving. How congregation members respond to this is by showing up and showing out. I saw before me a deep connectional church full of care, love, and support. The image Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss (one of the fabulous co-pastors) used in her sermon was a congregation member saying, “I have always known we were open, but I didn’t understand affirming until last week.” This brings me to the powerful image used at the church from the previous weekend which I shall forever remember in any ministry context from this time forward. To step into a predominately LGBTQIA church/space after the Orlando shooting is to step into holy ground in prayer that you aren’t colonizing another’s need for comfort. To step into a place that doesn’t just talk/pray/confess about what happened in Orlando but instead invites LGBTQIA members to step into the center aisle of the church as other congregation members laid hands on and prayed for those needing comfort is transcendent.

I was grateful that it was Communion Sunday. Earlier this week my CPE supervisor asked me about what I hold sacred. And later that week, it hit me. The table is what’s center to my theology. For me, the table is that moment we’re gathered around the patient. Me. The nurses. The doctor. The scribe. And this is where we gather. At that table of the patients vulnerability. And like that moment when I dipped my bread into the cup at Land of the Sky remembering Jesus’ death and resurrection, I look up and I say, “thanks be to God.”

So in some places the church is dying. But in others, it’s thriving. And how we will we ever be open and affirming if we’re not learning it in the church? It was a brief moment in time but I’ll always remember Land of the Sky when I think about that Greek word found often in the New Testament, “evangelos.” Good news.

 

 

Innovation in Mission and Balance

By Rosy Robson, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

There are two questions that I often come back to when I think about the Church:

  • How are churches involved in mission, beyond writing checks and giving money to worthy causes?
  • In the Church’s next chapter, where and what is the balance between traditional, mainline congregations and new, innovative church developments?

I started to find some answers to these questions in last week’s visits to Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware.

The Common Place, Philadelphia
The Common Place, Philadelphia

First, I met up with Rev. Aisha Brooks-Lytle in southwest Philadelphia at the Common Place. Aisha is both the Associate Pastor for Mission at Wayne Presbyterian Church and the Organizing Pastor at the Common Place. Wayne Presbyterian Church (located 15 miles outside of Philly) is one of those churches that goes beyond check writing in their mission efforts. They have a rich history filled with relationships and partnerships with non-profit ministries and other churches. One such partnership is with New Spirit Community Church, a congregation in southwest Philly that was struggling to keep their doors open and who decided to start a new chapter in their own story by agreeing to become a “nesting congregation” in what became the Common Place. Fast forward a few years, and the Common Place exists as a sort of co-work space, only the organizations within it are faith-based ministries. New Spirit Community Church is still housed there, along with additional space for Cornerstone Christian Academy, which is located next door. In addition, the Common Place houses CityLights Network. It is indeed a “sacred place to do life together,” that serves the community through “faith, education, and support.” Wayne Presbyterian Church supports the Common Place, not only through financial support, but through sharing one of their pastors with the Common Place. While Wayne Presbyterian Church is not interested in re-locating to southwest Philly, they are interested in supporting and serving their neighbors who are there.

 

61l9fWsB0JL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Later on in the week, I continued to see this embodied mission and traditional-new balance as I sat down with Rev. Nate Phillips and Rev. Edwin Estevez. Nate recently published a book called “Do Something Else: The Road Ahead for the Mainline Church,” and in his introduction he writes, “…the church cannot do everything. But it can do something. For a long time, it’s done the same thing. Perhaps it’s time for it to do something else.” Nate and Edwin’s stories illustrate the ways the church is doing something else. Nate serves as one of the co-pastors at Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE, a large, historic church with a wealth of resources. Perhaps at first glance, Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church looks like a typical, traditional mainline church. However, they’re doing something else that is far from typical and traditional. Using their resources, Nate and Red Clay Creek Presbyterian are supporting others, like Edwin, who are stepping out and telling God’s story in new, innovative and creative ways. Edwin is the organizing pastor for Riverfront Church, a new worshipping community in a bustling neighborhood of Wilmington. Riverfront Church, a community of “fun, faith, and service,” is developing and growing through dinner church services in a wine shop, outdoor worship services in public parks, and fun fellowship and service opportunities. The relationship between both Nate and Edwin, and their church communities, has allowed ideas and inspiration to come to life as they minister to the larger Wilmington community.

 

In an article from Faith and Leadership earlier this year, Gretchen E. Ziegenhals writes, “Innovative ideas- and innovative colleagues- can present challenges when budgets are tight, staff is shrinking, time is short and traditions run deep. But wise senior leaders cultivate a mindset of experimentation, identify and develop emerging, creative leaders, and seed an institutional culture in which innovative ideas are welcomed and explored.” My trip to Philadelphia and Wilmington was full of innovative ideas and creative colleagues. Senior leaders and congregations support these innovative efforts and the leaders behind them, and together the old and the new are daring to experiment and do something else as they live out and tell God’s story in their communities.

Journeying together,

Rosy

Uprisings in Love

By Rosy Robson, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Last week, a small group of us traveled on roads less traveled to the Wild Goose Christian Community, located in Indian Valley, VA. Indian Valley is an area of Floyd county, and is perhaps the very definition of rural. Roads wind through wide swaths of land that blanket the Blue Ridge Mountains. We left behind the sounds of Richmond (as well as traffic lights!), and enjoyed a few hours soaking in the peaceful vistas, blanketed by a blue sky and warm sunshine. Indeed it was true what Pastor Edwin Lacy later shared with us:“worship here often starts on the drive out.”

The view from the front porch of the Wild Goose.
The view from the front porch of the Wild Goose.

The Wild Goose Christian Community is part of the 1001 New Worshipping Communities initiative and is about 4 years old. The Wild Goose takes seriously its context- rural, Appalachian, Christian- and this is reflected in all that this community does.

The Wild Goose worships together on Tuesday nights, coming together for what they call “Uprisings.” Uprisings begin with a potluck in the back yard. Not only do goose-goers share a meal together, but this is where elements of community are fostered that lead goose-goers into worship a little bit later. Pastor Lacy describes the potluck as “a community-forming event” that enables goose-goers to “move into worship as a community.”

As I sat in the backyard pavilion, my tablemate, John, shared with me that he also attends a different church on Sunday mornings (which is typical for about 40% of goose-goers, while the other 60% come from un-churched backgrounds). I asked him why he comes to the Wild Goose, too. John responded, “The food is good.” He then went on to say, “It’s the people, the community…It’s more participatory than what we do on Sundays.” John’s sentiments were evident as he pointed to the chocolate cake I was eating and said, “That cake there? That’s my birthday cake. The lady over there made it for me.” John then advised me to make sure I “rocked a lot during worship.” John is certainly a fan of the relationships and rocking chairs at the Wild Goose.

The sanctuary at the Wild Goose.
The sanctuary at the Wild Goose.

We moved from the pavilion to the sanctuary, greeted with strums of a guitar and banjo, a circle of 30 or so rocking chairs, and a simple table in the center. When this 75-year-old church building became the Wild Goose, the carpet and the pews were taken out. When the carpet was stripped away, a beautiful hardwood floor remained. However, if one looks closely, one can see in the wood where the pews used to be. The pews were replaced with rocking chairs. Each chair varies in size, shape, and style, and was donated by a different church in the presbytery. The former pew’s shadows on the floor and the circle of rocking chairs serve as a beautiful visual reminder of the interconnectedness of the body of Christ.

 

Worship begins with communion each week, thus tying together the potluck and worship service. The tables in the backyard serve as extensions of the Table in the sanctuary’s center.

Greeted by guitar and banjo
Greeted by guitar and banjo

The remainder of the worship service is divided into four parts- “We Gather Together,” “A Time of Prayer,” “A Discussion for Thinking Christians,” “A Celebration in Song,” and “We Go Forth.” While this order of worship initially looked quite different than what one would expect on a Sunday morning in a Presbyterian church, I found the Uprising felt quite familiar. The Uprising reaches back to times a far, with tinges of house church meetings, monastic meditation, Appalachian song, and Celtic spirituality. For example, we gathered together singing “I Love to Tell the Story,” we prayed a prayer from Iona, and we spent a few moments in silence. Following the scripture reading, there was no sermon. Instead, everyone in the circle was invited to discuss. On this particular evening, we read the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and as one can imagine, there were a vast array of opinions. Yet, what was so beautiful was the way in which each person was free to express his or her opinion, regardless of differing interpretations or viewpoints.

At the end of the Uprising, everyone stood up and held hands, while singing “We Are One in the Spirit.” The song ended with the line, “Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” As we left the Wild Goose, I could not help but think about how accurate that line encapsulates both the ministry of and the Spirit’s doing at the Wild Goose Christian Community. The love shared between those who are new to church and those who find an additional church home here. The love of Floyd County and Appalachia. The love that creates a space where all people are welcome and encouraged to participate. The love of sharing a sacred meal at table. The love of the old and of the new. The love of Christ’s light, guiding goose-goers to Uprisings and then back out into the world.

Journeying Together,

Rosy

PS. If you would like to learn more about the Wild Goose Christian Community, visit their webpage, where you’ll find an awesome video that tells part of their story.

UPSEM student Melissa Miller, Pastor Edwin Lacy, UPSEM student Rosy Robson, and UPSEM student T. Wes. Moore
UPSEM student Melissa Miller, Pastor Edwin Lacy, UPSEM student Rosy Robson, and UPSEM student T. Wes. Moore

A New Narrative

IMG_1663By Rosy Robson, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Lately it seems as if almost every statement made about the church in the news includes a statement of “the Church is dying.” Membership is low, budgets are being cut, churches are closing, the church is no longer relevant… The refrains are familiar, the pessimistic narrative prevails…Yet, I think there’s another side to this story. (I wouldn’t be in seminary if I thought otherwise, right?).

Over the past year, I have found myself increasingly interested in new church developments, and innovative, creative ministries. Take Beacon, for instance, a new worshipping community in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia whose faith identity centers on writing, painting, storytelling and being good neighbors in their community. Or what about the Gayton Kirk Presbyterian Church and their love for learning and building relationships through worship services and an active community center offering classes every day of the week? These are just two of the ministries that are offering a new counter-narrative, as they step out of the box and live out God’s call in different ways specific to their communities.

Refreshed and invigorated by these and other stories, I’m setting out on a summer-long journey to hear more stories. I’m meeting faith leaders and ministries up and down the east coast, asking questions such as:

  • How are churches/ministries meeting increased challenges in terms of decreased levels of religiosity, smaller budgets, and fewer people in attendance?
  • What are churches/ministries doing that is energizing and life-giving
  • How are churches/ministries in conversation with their community and specific contexts?
  • How do these people and places respond to “the Church is dying” narrative? How are they offering a counter-narrative?
  • How is the Church living into a new chapter of her history?
  • How is the Good News being shared with the world?

I’ll be blogging about these visits here throughout the summer. Hopefully, the stories I hear and share will be a glimmer of hope for the Church, for anxious seminarians, for anyone asking similar questions or sharing concerns for the future of the Church. So, I hope you’ll check back here a few times this summer. And if you have suggestions on who I should talk to, or where I should visit, send them my way.

Journeying Together,

Rosy

P.S. The first visit of the summer is to the Wild Goose Christian Community in Indian Valley, VA, a rural worshipping community nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. More on that visit coming soon…

This Is Why Evangelism Matters

By John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

loveYesterday morning I was teaching and preaching about evangelism for a couple of vibrant small churches in the Presbytery of the James. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t even check the news beforehand, because I had no idea what had happened in Orlando earlier in the morning. (Since no one else mentioned it, I wonder if this was true for all of us gathered for church yesterday.)

During the education hour before worship I launched into some of my standard evangelism talking points. A lot of what I was doing didn’t seem to be resonating with this particular group. I had the growing sense that they were perfectly happy with their congregations and ministries and weren’t really interested in growing larger (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) or developing new outreach strategies. So I changed my approach and asked a series of questions I have adapted from Martha Grace Reese’s Unbinding the Gospel. (In a recent blog post for NEXT Church I suggested that Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants need to ask better questions when it comes to cultivating a culture of evangelism.)

“What difference does following Jesus make in your life?”

This generated several good, though mostly individualistic, responses.

“Does it matter to you if other people follow Jesus?”

There was less enthusiasm about this question, and many common mainline Protestant reservations about evangelism surfaced. Some believed that other people’s faith is their own business. Many people didn’t want to come across as pushy, judgmental, intrusive, arrogant, or offensive. Some felt that all religions are valid. Only one person really expressed a strong desire for others to follow Jesus.

I ask questions like this because I don’t think mainline Protestants always have a good sense or clear articulation of why the gospel matters. Back in my Southern Baptist days it was crystal clear what was at stake in sharing the gospel: if people didn’t come to faith in Jesus Christ they would suffer for eternity in hell. Most mainline Protestants don’t take this approach—myself included—but it’s rarely clear to me what, if anything, is at stake in mainline understandings of the gospel.

Yesterday’s massacre in Orlando is why the gospel matters. It’s why evangelism—not just living the gospel but also talking about it—matters. This horrific tragedy is a stark reminder of what’s at stake in our world.

Regardless of what you think about guns; regardless of what you think about Islam; regardless of what you think about human sexuality and LGBTQI rights in church and society; regardless of your political orientation and your perspective on the polarizing rhetoric of the current presidential election—surely we can all agree that what happened yesterday is a manifestation of evil and the exact opposite of what God wants for the world. In his vision of the divine realm emerging in our world, Jesus taught, lived, and died for a very different way of being. Jesus’ way—loving God with our entire beings and loving our neighbors as ourselves—leads to a very different world than the senseless violence we witnessed yesterday.

This is why evangelism matters.

Do I think that believing in or following Jesus is a magic cure for the problems of the world? No.

Do I think that only followers of Jesus can help bring about the new creation he envisioned? No.

Do I wish that more people would follow the way of Jesus? Yes.

I follow Jesus’ way because I believe it to be true and good and just. I believe that Jesus’ way leads to a world of peace and wholeness. And because of this, I believe that if more people followed this way the world would be a better place, that divine light would in fact overcome the darkness of evil.

Following Jesus has made a big difference in my life. I believe that it can make a difference in the lives of others as well. I believe it can change the world.

Beyond the Congregation: Koinonia in a Networked World

beyond the screenBy John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Andrew Zirschky’s excellent book, Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation, was a perfect follow-up to our study of Keith Anderson’s The Digital Cathedral in our Post-Congregational Evangelism class at UPSem. Though he ultimately ends up in a similar place as Anderson—technology and social media are important ways in which to nurture Christian community—he maintains a more critical stance toward digital culture than Anderson does—or I do, for that matter. (It’s worth reading Anderson’s review of Zirschky’s book here.) As such, this book provides some counterbalance to the thesis I have been advocating in this class: in a networked world and a culture in which fewer and fewer people are participating in traditional forms of congregational life, the church must find ways of existing in the social and cultural spaces in which people actually live. While I tend to run headlong into this new mission frontier, Zirschky takes a more cautious and critical approach.

First, especially as someone passionate about youth ministry, let me say that Beyond the Screen is a must read book for those who still think that the use of technology and social media among youth is always superficial and comes at the expense of more substantive in-person interactions. Zirschky deftly demonstrates that social media and mobile technologies enable teens to experience what they truly want and need in our fragmented world: authentic and meaningful relationships.

Zirschky and I differ a bit when it comes to our understandings of networked culture. Building on the work of Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman in Networked, Zirschky notes that “networked individualism” is the “new social operating system” of the 21st century. Though Rainie and Wellman mostly champion the positive aspects of this new way of relating to others, Zirschky offers a moral critique of this way of being in the world and argues that it is at odds with the biblical and theological concept of koinonia—a Greek word meaning “communion” or “fellowship”, understood as God’s ideal vision of human community. While he notes that it doesn’t make sense to abandon technology and digital culture in ministry, Zirschky is nonetheless wary of the dangers of networked individualism.

I think Zirschky’s points are all valid, but I see networked individualism differently. Instead of approaching it in terms of value judgements, I think of networked individualism in more structural terms. Neither right nor wrong, this is simply the way social connectivity has evolved in our present cultural context. In one form or another, the negative elements Zirschky describes existed in previous social operating systems as well. Some of them may be amplified in our networked culture, but they’ve always been there.

In the same way, koinonia can exist in networked culture as much as in any other social operating system. This, I would argue, is the goal of evangelism and ministry in today’s world—embodying koinonia in our personal and shared social networks. This can happen in traditional congregations, but it will increasingly happen in culture spaces beyond the congregation.

This is what I think. Follow the links below to read what my students had to say. As you will see, they are developing faithful and nuanced approaches to ministry in our rapidly changing world.

Spiritual Leadership “In Cathedral”

the digital cathedralBy John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

As we explore what it means to be spiritual leaders in a post-Christendom culture in my Post-Congregational Evangelism class, we read Keith Anderson’s fantastic book, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World.

People say this all the time, but this is the book I have wanted to write for the past few years. I would have approached it differently, of course, but I love how he stretches our notions of traditional church from a congregational model into a more expansive “cathedral” model that recognizes the necessity of ministry outside of our church walls. As a pastor in a brick-and-mortar church who very intentionally ventures out into public and digital spaces, Anderson himself demonstrates that this doesn’t need to be an either/or proposition—a both/and approach is possible for existing and new congregations.

My only real criticism of the book is its title. “The Digital Cathedral” (and its subtitle) makes this sound like a book primarily about using digital social media technology for ministry, which I fear will limit the audience for a book that needs to be read by everyone interested in what church can (and increasingly does) look like in today’s world. Digital culture is only one piece of the bigger picture Anderson paints. He regularly emphasizes the need for both local and digital ministry and understands that the network paradigm is not just about social media platforms but is increasingly the organizing principle of our entire social lives.

Building on the witty and evocative phrase coined by Elizabeth Drescher, which he employs throughout the book, I wish Anderson had called it In Cathedral. This generative metaphor for relational and incarnational ministry in a networked world opens up many possibilities for reimagining and reshaping church in the cultural spaces in which people actually live. Instead of setting apart certain spaces as sacred, living in cathedral recognizes God’s presence in everyday life. Spiritual leadership is helping people see this and live in the world accordingly.

Once again, I invite you to read the thoughtful reflections—and critiques—of the students in this class. They accept Anderson’s challenge to think differently and run with it.

Post-Christendom Reflections on Seth Godin’s Tribes

tribesBy John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

One of the assignments in my Post-Congregational Evangelism class this week was to read Seth Godin’s Tribes and then answer the following question: What does spiritual leadership look like in a post-Christendom environment of fewer congregations, shrinking memberships, and limited jobs in established churches?

Godin argues that in today’s world credentials and titles are less important than they used to be. Leadership is not given, it is asserted. Everyone has the potential to gather and lead a tribe. I think this is an important insight for future (and current) faith leaders who can no longer expect a traditional church job when they earn their degree and are ready to receive a call. Post-Christendom ministry requires the kind of visionary, entrepreneurial, and heretical leadership described by Godin.

My students have written fantastic essays in response to this prompt. I encourage you to read them all.

 

Post-Congregational Evangelism

Grouped-Social Network (with Caption)By John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

This week I began a new course at UPSem called “Post-Congregational Evangelism.” It brings together much of the theory and practice I first explored as a youth pastor and have subsequently presented in a variety of workshops around the country. Here is the course description:

Are congregations based on anachronistic social capital models? Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman suggest that “networked individualism” is the “new social operating system” of the 21st century. Instead of focusing exclusively on attractional or program-based approaches to ministry that will have limited results in a post-Christendom cultural matrix that we cannot realistically hope to change, the church must also invest in the religious and spiritual lives that people are actively cultivating beyond congregations. This course will explore this new cultural reality and the practical implications of thinking about church as a social network. If people are no longer interested in going to church, the church must find ways of going to the people.

Here are the books we’re reading together, in the order we’re reading them:

Students will be writing reviews and reflections on these books throughout the course and I will be posting them on this blog. I hope to also make additional posts myself to provide some sense of the trajectory we are following. I am very excited about teaching this class.

If you would like to see the full syllabus, you can download it here.