The latest count: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) now has 383 new worshipping communities, nearing the halfway mark of the denomination’s push to create 1001 new worshipping communities from 2012 to 2022.
What that has meant is a burst of creative ministry at the grass roots – from new immigrant fellowships to worshipping communities meeting on the beach, in coffee shops, nesting in existing churches.
A report presented at the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting in March states that 120 of the PC(USA)’s 170 presbyteries are involved with the program.
The Presbytery of Greater Atlanta is one of the most active, with 21 new worshipping communities. About 60 percent of those are immigrant fellowships, Lindsay Armstrong, the presbytery’s director of new church development, told the Way Forward Commission when it met at Columbia Theological Seminary in March.
Four (three Burmese and a Pan-African congregation) have begun in Clarkson, Georgia, perhaps “the most diverse square mile in the entire United States,” with 44 nationalities living there, Armstrong said.
For many of these new worshipping communities, the measure of success is not necessarily owning a building or being formally chartered as a PC(USA) congregation, Armstrong said. Instead, these are incubators for flexibility and faithfulness.
What the fellowships need, she told the commission, is a denomination with a trial-and-error culture, one that encourages imaginative conversations, provides resources and points out examples of what’s happening at the grass roots, which catalyzes and incites.
Here are three of those 1001 stories, still in progress.
More than half the participants in the PC(USA)’s new worshipping communities are people of color, according to the Presbyterian Mission Agency. That includes new fellowships of immigrants from all over the world.
In Seattle, a group of Honduran immigrants began meeting together for Bible study about seven years ago – a collection of friends and family mostly, meeting informally in one another’s homes. After about six months, the group began looking for space in a church where they could meet, and through some connections, were offered space at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Normandy Park.
Now known as Misión Hispana John Knox, the fellowship meets on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons, worshipping in Spanish. Most Sundays, 40 to 50 people show up. Robert Ruiz, 38, serves as the fellowship’s pastor, although he’s not formally trained – he works a full-time construction job to support his family, so lacks both the money and the time to go to seminary.
“My call is to be a pastor, and not to be a construction worker, as much as I like being one,” Ruiz said. “I want to do what God wants me to be,” but he is married and the father of three, so “I have to support my family in the meantime.”
The Friday night service is held twice a month, with one of those being a youth service – about half of Misión Hispana are young people, Ruiz said. They partner with another church to hold “Basketball Sundays,” with a devotional time and prayers, then time on the court for the kids.
If he had more time to give, “we would be able to reach more people within our community,” Ruiz said. “The area where I’m at, I’m the only church (serving central American immigrants) within a few miles around. There are apartments right behind the church full of Latinos that we have not once gone knocking on doors, being friendly, making contact with them.”
But the people from his congregation have their own needs – for counseling and services to keep the families strong, for help with everything from jobs to transportation to formalizing their immigration status. Some have little money. Some worry about deportation. So far, there have been no funerals – “I’ve got only young people,” Ruiz said. “We’re having a wedding this weekend.”
In March, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board awarded four Sam and Helen R. Walton Awards, each worth up to $26,250, to new worshipping communities. Among them: Not So Churchy in New York City.
Mieke Vandersall, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York, founded Not So Churchy in 2011 when she was working as the executive director of Parity, a faith-based LGBTQ organization (although there is no longer a formal relationship between Parity and Not So Churchy). The community meets for worship on the second Monday of each month, using space in a synagogue near Penn Station.
Not So Churchy has assembled a community of about 40 people, including two inquirers who are considering becoming PC(USA) teaching elders. Some grew up in church; others did not; none would have gone to worship in a traditional church on Sunday morning, Vandersall said.
Vandersall described the Not So Churchy community this way: “Many of us are artistic, underemployed, over-talented people living in New York City, needing places to explore and improvise and be able to play with our experience of the divine.”
Many in the community identify as queer, she said – “queer in the sense of strange. There’s something a little bit different about us. And we all want to be in a place where LGBTQ people are not welcomed, but included. … We don’t talk about whether we’re accepted in the reign of God, that’s not the conversation. It’s part of our fabric.”
The Not So Churchy community gathers twice a month – once for worship, and once for a different experience (such as a spirituality workshop, retreat or service project). The community uses the Slack app to communicate online – sharing responses to sermons, prayer requests, announcements and more.
For each worship service, a new three-person planning team assembles – meeting for several months in advance to interpret the Scripture reading through original music, dance or art, with the result that the community’s leadership rotates.
“It’s really beautiful to watch that happen,” Vandersall said. “For these folks who have been told that the Bible has been used to condemn them – for them to take biblical readings and interpret and digest them is an incredibly liberating process.”
One participant described the experience this way: “I had been without a faith community for nearly a decade when I found Not So Churchy in 2013, and it couldn’t have been at a better time. It was the kind of community I hadn’t realized I’d been looking for for years. Not So Churchy is one of those incredibly rare places where there isn’t something about who I am that’s a problem.”
Kianna Chandler wasn’t looking for a church when she first showed up at the skateboard warehouse space offered by Serious JuJu. This was winter in Montana. It was the only dry place to skate.
JD Carabin wasn’t looking to start a bricks-and-mortar church when he first went to the skateboard park in Kalispell. He knew how to weld, he believed in Jesus and he realized that the roll cages he built for Jeeps could also be used as rails for skateboarders. He showed up at the skate park with rails and a cooler full of water – and got to know some of the skateboarding kids and their stories.
Over time, “we started recognizing kids, and we suddenly belonged in their world, you know?” Carabin says in a video on Serious JuJu’s website. “We said, ‘what happened to this kid?’ Well, he couldn’t come tonight, because his mom wound up in jail. Or this kid couldn’t come, he wound up in jail because he was smoking pot last night here. So-and-so’s pop gets liquored and beats him up, so he couldn’t skate.”
This is the story of an evolving ministry and its evolving impact on a group of both skateboarding teenagers and the adults who’ve grown to love them. First, Carabin and his wife, Nicci, turned their garage into skateboarding space; then they rented some warehouse space, where the kids would come after school and stay until midnight, and still “people weren’t calling to find out where their kids were,” said Miriam Mauritzen, a PC(USA) teaching elder who became involved with JuJu.
The Carabins sought support for their growing work in the community, making a connection with the Rotary Club, which is how Tom Esch, a lawyer and member of First Presbyterian Church in Kalispell, got involved.
“We came to know the skaters and were moved by their tragic stories,” Esch wrote in a blog. “Stories of poverty, broken homes, neglect, abuse, parents consumed by addictions and mental illness, of unexpected pregnancies and dangerous approaches to suicide. A constant struggle was hunger. ‘This is America; how come these children are hungry?’ I would ask.”
There also were stories of redemption: of skateboarders graduating from high school, being baptized, mentoring and teaching others.
“For many, many years I was just a guy in the pew,” Esch wrote. “I served as an elder but I wasn’t very good at that. I had judged my pastors by the wit and cleverness of their sermons. But at the warehouse I was exposed to raw essence of the gospel. I learned the secret truth that some of my pastors’ best ministry nobody sees. It’s about relationships. It’s about love. Forget the sermons. This is where the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.”
The work was hard. JuJu was struggling to pay its bills, and in the fall of 2012, was about to close. On the very day the warehouse closed its doors, Serious Juju received a $7,500 grant from the 1001 program. “That’s our first resurrection,” Mauritzen said.
With the warehouse gone, the organizers took an old linen truck and, when the weather was good enough, drove it around town to set up mobile skateboarding sites in the parking lots of partner churches. In February 2015, they moved into another rented warehouse. Around that time, the Carabins moved south, and First Presbyterian Church took over the ministry. Mauritzen, who’s an associate pastor there, has half-time responsibility for JuJu.
Friday nights are the main skate night, with as many as 75 kids, mostly middle and high school students. They skate at 5, eat dinner at 6, “bring the Word” at 7. Skateboard leaders pray and read the gospel together, assign jobs, set up the food, sweep the floors.
On other nights of the week, the warehouse is open for skating, for Bible study, for a mentoring program, for skate team.
Kianna, who’s now 17 and a JuJu intern, first came to JuJu when she was 12, when her home life was tumultuous and she was experimenting with drugs. “After a few weeks, I decided to give my life to Christ. … It’s changed me completely – 180 degrees,” she said of JuJu. “It gave me the strength to get out of my home situation. I got emancipated when I was 16. I graduated high school a year and a half early, and now I’m a freshman in college. JuJu introduced me to Christ, and without Christ I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
In JuJu’s difficult financial times, when the bank account was empty, Kianna told Mauritzen: “You need to figure this out. Don’t let this ministry die.”
JuJu is now a nonprofit. First Presbyterian is deeply involved, and a mix of people from the community have stepped up: making dinners and birthday cakes for the skateboarders, bringing apples from their orchards, teaching them to play chess. A church member who’s a snowbird and goes south to Louisiana every winter makes quilts for the skateboarders, letting the kids pick the colors and mailing back the finished product.
Between the skateboarders and the established churches, the relationship wasn’t always easy. Some congregations, for example, didn’t want to let the skateboarders come inside to use the bathrooms – they set up portable toilets in the parking lots.
At First Presbyterian, an older man – frustrated by the resistance – said, “Let them in to use our bathrooms. I will sit there. I will sit there by the door” to make sure no damage was done, Mauritzen recalled. “He literally opened the door to the church.”
Kianna added: “Now we are welcome in their homes. … We’re not as scary as they think. It’s really about commitment, and showing that you’re not going to walk away. If you have that trust thing, a lot of these kids will open up to you, flooding you with information, pouring their hearts out. … They don’t have that stability, or people they can talk to in their lives. They struggle with a lot of things, and they shouldn’t have to at that age.”