For a number of years, Veritas — a Sunday evening contemporary worship service of Irvine Presbyterian Church (IPC) — had met with some growth, but it was nothing to write home about.
“We existed as one of those third worship services that so many churches have experimented with,” said the Rev. Kirk Winslow, who was the associate pastor at IPC and charged with leading Veritas.
But the church — and Winslow — didn’t exactly know what to do with Veritas.
“We tried to integrate Veritas and moved it to a second worship service on Sunday morning. It didn’t work very well,” he said.
The more traditional Sunday morning seemed to have more traction in the suburban Orange County community, at least among those who were already involved at IPC.
“How many other churches find themselves in that position?” wondered Winslow. It became a question that the church’s leadership began to ponder.
It wasn’t until a budget conversation that drastic action was taken.
Around the same time, Winslow was invited by the Rev. Steve Yamaguchi, presbytery pastor of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, to attend a Fresh Expressions conference.
Fresh Expressions is an initiative begun in the Church of England and with the Methodist Church in England to generate new expressions of Christian community for those who are not yet members of any church.
It had never occurred to Winslow that he might be called to be a church planter.
“I really had that old model deeply ingrained: Set up worship in a school, go door to door inviting people with the main goal to get a bunch of people to arrive on a Sunday morning so that eventually you can raise enough money to buy land and build a building,” he said.
His was a very “Sunday morning” view of what it means to be the church.
“To even suggest an associate pastor taking an existing thing out into the world, that didn’t even occur to me,” said Winslow.
Until, that is, his encounter with Fresh Expressions.
“That conference was life-changing for me because it was permission giving,” he said.
And the permission was being given by respected, responsible authorities like the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury. This wasn’t just a southern California fad.
“In the Church of England, they are wrestling through issues that we also need to wrestle with — a long-established tradition that is no longer matching the contemporary culture very well,” Winslow said.
For example, an older model might start a Bible study with surfers with the ultimate goal of getting them into a cathedral on Sunday morning.
But this new way of thinking encourages non-traditional experiments without expecting certain ‘churchy’ outcomes for them.
“It was a breath of fresh air for me to feel the permission — from our presbytery no less — to be excited about trashing the playbook,” Winslow said. “But also to get the sense that the presbytery is also excited about ditching the old playbook — that suddenly ignited my creativity.”
Instead of worrying that trying new approaches would land him in trouble, Winslow was able to work with a sense of excitement.
Winslow returned to the community’s parent church with these new ideas. The session’s vote was unanimous ― to set them free, set them loose, with permission and some funding, and see how the Spirit might be at work in this ‘new thing’ that was coming to be.
“We say we want creativity, but often we just want it within the tried and true patterns we established 50 years ago,” he said. “That feels a bit like saying, ‘You can have all the creativity in the world as long as you paint us something that looks a lot like the Mona Lisa.’”
For Winslow, this paradigm shift was akin to the Impressionist revolution, a radically different kind of ‘painting’ than had gone before, with new colors and vivid brush strokes.
“I have been concerned for a long time about the overall decline in the mainline church and am not one who wants to give up on denominationalism,” Winslow said. “I think it is important to hold on to our traditions that contain a lot of wisdom, but it is also clear that the current model of church for us is not working very effectively in engaging those outside the church.”
Winslow hopes to nurture this new model into being as he and the other leaders seek to launch a fresh expression in Southern California.
ERIN DUNIGAN is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.