Churchwide, creative visions abound of ‘new worshipping communities’

Listen in on Presbyterian conversations, and there’s a thread running through many of them having to do with something new. New worshipping communities. New ways of connecting.

There is an energy around the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), among both conservatives and progressives, for the possibility of finding the flexibility to start new communities of faith, for letting loose the ideas for evangelism and outreach bubbling up from the grassroots.

At the Fellowship of Presbyterians Covenanting Conference in Orlando, John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, shared his vision of a movement in which “churches are being planted right and left.”

At the Next Church gathering in Dallas, one man spoke of wanting “to plant the seeds of the next church in the soil of the legacy church,” using the strength of the Presbyterian tradition to give birth to something new.

It’s not just youth,” said a woman at the Next Conference, describing what her small group had talked about. “It’s not just unserved communities as we usually describe them, but 60-year-old people in your congregations who are ready to be liberated and are ready to serve in new ways.”

One example: New Vision Church in Conover, N.C., which was planted three years ago after an existing congregation couldn’t meet its bills and turned over its property (and its mortgage) to the presbytery. The new church, led by co-organizing pastors Ann and Frank Aichinger, decided to minister to people who weren’t connected to a church — starting with person-to-person invitations, and by getting involved in a program at a local school to send backpacks filled with food home each weekend with about 80 students who otherwise might not have enough to eat.

In January, New Vision merged with a Spanish-speaking fellowship, making it a multi-ethnic congregation. A congregation which once had about 30 in worship, with most over age 65, now draws more than 100, “and our average age has dropped 30 years,” Frank Aichinger said.

That’s the kind of energy PC(USA) leaders had in mind when they announced a campaign for the denomination to start 1,001 new worshipping communities over the next 10 years. What is still emerging as the conversation continues are the specifics — exactly what constitutes a “new worshipping community” and how to keep an accurate and fair accounting of the new initiatives.

Definitions. “We’re still wrestling with that — what is a worshipping community, what counts?” said Chip Hardwick, the PC(USA)’s new director of theology, worship and education.

Roger Dermody, the PC(USA)’s deputy executive director for mission, said roughly 150 new fellowships or communities have been started over the last two years — although the denomination may wait to start formally counting until the General Assembly acts this summer on a recommendation from the General Assembly Mission Council that the assembly “declare a churchwide commitment to ignite a movement” to create 1,001 new worshipping communities.

The exact definition of a “worshipping community” is still emerging — “it’s still a bit of a work in progress,” Dermody said. But the thinking so far is that it would include:

– An upward focus — including a regular practice of proclaiming Scripture and performing the sacraments. That wouldn’t necessarily come from having a teaching elder employed by each community — there could be other creative, collaborative approaches.

– An inward focus — for accountability, perhaps to a congregation or a mid-council, and for making disciples.

– An outward focus — a commitment to mission.


Both Dermody and Hardwick said they see these communities as going beyond just a Bible study or a discussion group — although a new community might start that way and grow from there.

The theological basis is the kind of community found in the second chapter of Acts in the New Testament — where “you share baptisms and evangelism and breaking bread together and teaching and praying,” Hardwick said. “Those are some of the most important components of a worshipping community. But they don’t necessarily answer the question in the sociological sense,” of what the community looks like.

Flexibility. Among many interested in this movement, there’s a real desire for flexibility — to avoid getting so locked into polity concerns or definitions that creativity can’t flow. One of the biggest shackles might be a requirement that either a teaching elder or a commissioned lay pastor be present to perform the sacraments, which could mean bringing in a non-indigenous leader or “this circuit rider pastor who comes in to baptize someone … which doesn’t feel organic or part of this faithful expression,” Hardwick said.

Getting to the bottom of that is important … There are good reasons for the denominational standards about who can offer the sacraments, who can preside over the sacraments. But there might be other ways to live into those good and faithful reasons other than simply requiring that Ministers of Word and Sacrament be involved.”

People also are asking, “How are you going to pay for it?” Dermody said. “There will be some seed money for fresh ideas,” training opportunities and the possibility of debt forgiveness for seminarians who take on a new initiative.

There’s also the question of how the PC(USA) provides the flexibility for racial-ethnic and immigrant fellowships to take root, providing their own leadership and worshipping in their own context, rather than saying, “OK, Kenyans, come be part of this white congregation,” Hardwick said. “It’s a way of empowering and honoring what God has done in these local contexts … It bears a different kind of fruit than hoping that 15 Ethiopians will find a home in a church that has always been Anglo.”

Presbyterians are not alone in moving toward an emphasis on planting new worshipping communities. Both the United Methodists and the Disciples of Christ have similar initiatives, and Presbyterians have been studying the Fresh Expressions program of the Church of England.

This is not unique to the PC(USA) by any stretch,” Dermody said. “This is something the Holy Spirit seems to be doing all over the place.”

The Aichingers, the church planters from North Carolina, say it’s vital for the PC(USA) to start new congregations.

If we’re going to be here as a Presbyterian denomination, we have to be starting new churches,” Frank Aichinger said. “That’s where the energy is.”

Each community will be different, and “it’s going to be messy,” Ann Aichinger said. “It’s about taking that risk and saying, ‘Dream a dream.’ … It can be as creative as people want to make it, that’s the exciting thing. If presbyteries will allow people to dream that way, I think it will be absolutely mind-blowing.”