I love meeting people in ministry who are thinking creatively, taking risks, and exploring new territory beyond the walls of the church. In our recent webinar “Using the Assets We Have: Innovation in Ministry” Mark Elsdon said, “This is the time for the church to think bigger and take risks. What do we have to lose?” Mark’s words call to mind our church’s declining statistics — the loss of church members, pastoral leaders, and young people who claim any religious affiliation. We can wallow in this decline, or we can see this moment as an opportunity to do church differently, to experiment, to invest our money and our gifts in innovative ministries that might have a faithful impact. The following individuals are innovators I’ve come to know through my connections as Outlook editor, or who have been recommended to me by others. I’d love to hear about and highlight more innovators in ministry. Reach out to us at email@example.com to let us know who’s doing creative, innovative ministry.
Addressing affordable housing
Arlington Presbyterian Church, Arlington, Virginia
After a decade of discernment, countless Bible studies, and relentless prayer, the congregation of Arlington Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia, and its pastor, Ashley Goff, were called by God to do something about the affordable housing crisis in Arlington County, Virginia.
In 2016, the church sold its building and the land it was on to Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH).
From the demolition came Gilliam Place, a 173-unit, intergenerational, affordable housing apartment building that is home to 500 or so neighbors.
To maintain its commitment to the affordable housing crisis and to be in community with its neighbors, APC completed a 3,000-square-foot buildout in 2019 of its own worship and office space on the entry level of Gilliam Place.
Through the demolition of its building, APC demolished old and nostalgic ways of being the church. APC now lives with an incredible sense of freedom of what it means to reimagine Christian community.
APC continues to leverage God’s power to create change in the community through the following offerings:
- Free music lessons to Gilliam Place residents.
- A garden next to Gilliam Place that serves as a front porch for the residents and APC.
- Work with VOICE, a broad-based community organizing network in Northern Virginia, to end exclusionary zoning in Arlington County.
- Work with APAH to financially alleviate the rental debt crisis brought on by the pandemic for APAH residents.
- A commitment to decenter the church by shaping APC’s annual budget around the stories, gifts, and concerns of neighbors.
- Being intentional about APC’s money story and working to use its wealth to disrupt harm
and create justice.
- Naming and claiming APC’s core values to create and build relationships with neighbors in relational and communal ways.
- Worshiping every Sunday in a values-based, beautiful, right-size space.
Ashley lives with deep gratitude for several communities that have formed her along the way: Denison University, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, the Open Door Community, Rikers Island NYC Jail, and Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA). Ashley and her family live in the Green Valley neighborhood of Arlington County and she enjoys the 15-minute walk to APC.
A digital rest stop to fuel the faith journey
Da Baddest Chaplain, Out there in the metaverse
“Baddest Chaplain” is a moniker Burton began using during his first “for real, for real” job as a chaplain in Charlotte. He loved being a chaplain at a K-8 school and it encompassed so much more than what was on paper, giving him the joy of teaching faith studies, participating in weekly chapel services, all of which honed his understanding of God as a God of justice.
His thoughts around education, economics, race, urban planning and much more were becoming cruciform, and the urgency (thankfully, he says) propelled him to sharing his thoughts — which he took online with podcasts.
Since, he has expanded his thought-sharing in almost every part of the metaverse: (@Baddestchaplain on TikTok, Facebook, IG, and Twitter), his website (baddestchaplain.com), and podcasts (Baddest Chaplain, CrossStreets, and The UPSem Leadership Institute Podcast).
He is building a digital rest stop: A place where people can get the fuel they need for the journey. For some, that fuel comes through his “Morning Meds” posts, about a minute to 90 seconds about Scripture, its context, and how it applies contemporarily. For others, the fuel is found in CrossStreets, where he and Brittany Buongiorno interview brilliant Black people who are making the world better each day.
In 2022, after being appointed director of the Leader Institute at Union Presbyterian Seminary, he started a podcast through the Leadership Institute in order to give listeners a better understanding of the work of the institute and the options available to them as they pursue their interests and calling to leave the world better than they found it.
While online, he says, the ministry that he has been called into gives him an opportunity to connect with people on a one-to-one basis. You share a message with “the internet” (or whoever the algorithm allows you to encounter) but you cannot do ministry for the numbers. What matters, he says, are the messages he receives both online and off, where people tell him that they appreciate the message. Sharing the Good News online can still feel like speaking into a void, but he continues because he feels it’s impossible to know who your words and work will encounter.
Chris believes God enjoys surprising us with joy and bringing us into community with folks we did not even like before, and he wants to help people break out of their echo chambers and learn about different silos by learning how to live in good faith with each other.
Chris recently launched ChrisBurtonSpeaks.com as a way for communities to get in touch with him, and he says all of his work is about building “just community” with each other.
Connection, understanding, wholeness, kin•dom
Papa Paniagua founded kin•dom community in February of 2020 when she realized there was no space in her geographic area for members of the LBGTQIA+ community to explore faith in a space specifically designed for and led by members of her/their own community. Named after a concept coined by theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Díaz, “kin•dom” speaks more clearly to the full inclusion, belonging and relationship of all of God’s people. “Kin•dom” is more expansive that “kingdom” and invites a new way of imagining what community can look like when we understand ourselves as connected.
It moves beyond dynamics of power and oppression and invites us to see the ways we are interconnected and made better together. To that end, kin•dom community works to dismantle prejudices within the church and to hold space for naming and healing harm. With the kin•dom community launching as the global pandemic began shutting everything down, innovation and adaptability became unanticipated core parts of culture.
The vision of kin•dom is to be an example of what is possible when all are seen, heard, and nurtured; when all are free to bring their whole selves; when all questions are celebrated as much as answers; and when inclusion, integration, and love are the norm. The work of kin•dom community is to help guide people into meaning making experiences, transformative connections, and the process of cultivating an expansive understanding of what spirituality and faith can look like in the world. The community seeks to foster a culture that values wholeness, a willingness to be in relationship even across dividing lines, and reflects the abundant diversity of God’s creation.
Kin•dom community believes in the sacred identity of all people and has partnered that belief with the innovative nature of our community and team to create adaptive ministries that are led by the movement and timing of the Holy Spirit. Programming includes kin•dom monthly virtual conversations and gatherings; kin•dom weeklong camps in Texas and California for LBGTQIA+ youth ages 12-17; kin•dom collective, which are monthly in-person gatherings for adults over the age of 18, and the kin•dom coffeehouse, gatherings with music, reflection and collaborative action.
Pepa and her wife, Kelli, live in North Texas with their two dogs, and they are passionate about good food, good coffee, and good people.
Advocate for creativity, catalyst for NWCs
Presbytery of Denver, Colorado
Fernando Rodriguez, associate presbyter for mission in Denver Presbytery, is responsible for supporting mission efforts and partnerships throughout the presbytery and serving as an advocate and catalyst for more than 10 New Worshiping Communities (NWCs).
Denver Presbytery has a history of supporting new expressions of the church. Their NWCs include Latinx, East African, Ghanaian and Vietnamese immigrant communities, and also communities that connect through paddle boarding, a daily devotional app, and living at a retirement home.
As part of a revisioning process, the presbytery decided to create a NWC Incubator, which would hire four NWC leaders to begin four new communities. The search team did not have a predetermined picture of what these communities should look like. Guided by the Holy Spirt, they were focused on finding the right type of leaders that thought outside of the box and were “spiritual entrepreneurs.”
At this point, three of the four leaders have begun their work in the presbytery. Led by Bethany Peerbolte, Our Tapestry, which began after Peerbolte grew a significant following on TikTok, is an envisioning of a progressive Christian community in digital spaces.
Evan Amo and Waypoint Spiritual Community seek to gather those who are discontent or disconnected from the traditional church around service, justice and the outdoors. Raafat Girgis just began his work (on March 1) to begin an intentional intercultural community.
The pandemic has made clear that the church must think of different ways of gathering and being Christian community. The NWC Incubator and the variety of NWCs in the Denver Presbytery do not seek to provide a definitive answer on “how to” be the church. But there is intention to stimulate the creativity and collaboration between new and existing communities of faith and the belief this creates a unique opportunity to learn what Christian community can look like in the short and long term.
Rev. Fernando Rodriguez serves as the associate presbyter for Mission in Denver Presbytery. In this role, he serves as a catalyst for new worshiping communities and helps existing congregation re-imagine mission and ministry.
Merged congregations addressing racism, hatred, housing
Friendship Presbyterian Church, Chicago, Illinois
Friendship Presbyterian Church was launched 2010 due to the visionary work of leaders in two historical Presbyterian congregations on the northwest side. These two congregations, St. Andrew and Norwood Park, became legacy congregations as they sold and closed buildings and said goodbye to pastors in order to create something new called Friendship Presbyterian Church.
For eight years they worshiped in a Metra station in Norwood Park while they engaged in community-organizing conversations in order to understand the needs and passions of the neighborhood. They hosted concerts in their space and did a “God Talk on Tap” series in neighboring bars.
And as their own work and understanding around issues of hunger, homelessness and systemic racism deepened, they partnered with community leaders to form two advocacy groups, Neighbors for Affordable Housing and the Northwest Side Coalition Against Racism and Hate.
In 2018, Friendship began collaborating with neighbors and with a not-for-profit affordable housing developer called Full Circle Communities to bring 75 units of affordable housing to the neighborhood. Through this partnership, Friendship developed a vision for a community center in the building, and when the building opened in April of 2022, Friendship Presbyterian moved in and launched a new not-for-profit called Friendship Community Place.
Friendship Community Place is meant to be a space for conversations, collaborative programming and convening resources that meet the needs of their neighbor in the building and in the wider community. They are committed to growing into this space at the pace it takes to create genuine relationships and they are grounded in these values:
- Collaboration and building relationships
- Transformation and healing
- Inclusion and belonging
- Accessibility and solidarity
- Nurture and sustainability
- Risk-taking and celebration
They are inspired to innovate in ministry because the hope and liberation of the Gospel is really good and really hard news. It invites them to tell the truth about where we are as individuals … and to build collective power to do the work of repair and restoration. They believe creativity and collaboration can be an antidote to loneliness, fear and oppression, which are the things that hold us back. The Church is a beautiful, messy place filled with beautiful, messy humans capable of creating new ways of being and they’re here for it.
Rev. Shawna Bowman (they/their/theirs) is an artist and pastor. They are the first called and installed pastor of Friendship Presbyterian Church and have been doing ministry with the creative and justice-seeking folks here since 2011. Shawna serves as the executive director of Friendship Community Place, is an organizer and facilitator at Crossroads Antiracism and Training, and serves on the board of directors at the Night Ministry in Chicago.
Creating new expressions in youth ministry
The Missing Voices Project, Flagler College, St. Augustine, Florida
A young man named James, who was born with a unique blend of cognitive and physical disabilities, inspired Justin to think deeply about the presence of God in marginalized spaces and people. A central figure in a youth ministry program Justin led for neurodivergent young people, James died in a car accident, and Justin was invited to speak at his funeral. James didn’t have degree letters behind his name, or a list of accomplishments that might otherwise be mentioned at a funeral, leaving Justin to express, and consider – in ways he’d never been challenged to do before – how the presence of God was manifest in James’ life.
Justin continued to wrestle with this experience. He also continued looking to marginalized people for the presence of God. In developing The Missing Voices Project, he put into place the working assumption that we can learn things about God and about youth ministry on the margins of society that we can’t learn elsewhere. Teen moms, kids from group homes, kids in the queer community, and neurodivergent kids have prophetic insights into community and the presence of God, and the goal of the Missing Voices Project is to help congregations create expressions of youth ministry that take seriously the voices and experiences of historically marginalized young people.
Thanks to a Lilly Endowment Inc. grant, the Missing Voices Project researched and created resources for congregations to engage in this transformative ministry. The Missing Voices Project first worked with 12 congregations across the state of Florida to focus youth ministry efforts on social locations such as disability, sexuality, race and reconciliation, foster care, and teenage parents.
Learn more: The Missing Voices Project at missingvoices.flagler.edu.
After ten years of working for Young Life in Florida, Justin currently serves as the director of Flagler College’s Youth Ministry Program. Justin is also a Ph.D. candidate in theology at the University of Aberdeen.
Land-back effort addresses Indigenous homelessness
Chris Dela Cruz
Barbie’s Village, Portland, Oregon
The vision of Barbie’s Village, named after an Indigenous woman who worked to the benefit of healthy families, is a Native-specific transitional village focused on parents and children. It will be on the land that once housed the Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst in Portland, Oregon.
The village will have six to ten tiny homes, a resource center with early childhood and public health services for Indigenous parents and children, and public health services for Indigenous parents and children.
Leaders with the Presbytery of the Cascades are exploring the possibility of Land Back: an effort of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which would return Indigenous lands to their original communities. Still under consideration, the act would be one of restitution and repair for displacement and sins committed by the White colonial church toward the Indigenous peoples.
Future Generations Collaborative (FGC), a coalition of 12 Indigenous-led organizations, is spearheading the effort to build the village. And the “Barbie” of the project was Atwai Barbie Jackson Shields, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, who died of an aneurysm and worked with FGC to advance healthy families and communities. She and her husband, Ken, and their family were working to find housing even while helping other families remain stable and healthy.
FPG began to partner with others, including Leaven Community: Land and Housing Coalition, which is a community organizing movement of 50 congregations in the Portland Metro area. The conversation then expanded to Chris Dela Cruz and Westminster Presbyterian, now part of Leaven Community.
FGC now has a two-year lease on the land of the former Presbyterian Church site in Laurelhurst. Early childhood programming is in the building, and FGC is moving toward working with architects and engineers to construct a tiny-home village that is culturally-sensitive and supportive.
The groups have worked to research and tell the “land genealogy” story, putting hands on the grass, acknowledging the pain and suffering of brokenness of relationship with people and the land, speaking the truth of genocide, displacement, redlining and racist housing covenants that affected many people of color, and leaning toward the possibility for renewal. Members of the Presbyterian Church in Laurelhurst have said this feels like resurrection, a perfect reimagining and continuing of the work of the church.
“I’ve had Indigenous folks say out loud that this is the first time they’ve felt people outside their community have their back,” Dela Cruz said. “I don’t know what to do with that. It doesn’t feel like we at all deserve such kindness, given it is their boldness and generosity that is making any of this happen. It feels something like grace.”
Rev. Chris Dela Cruz was called to Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon, in September 2020 as the new Associate Pastor of Youth, Young Adults, and Community Engagement. He organizes with multiple local coalitions, including the BIPOC Faith Leaders Council for Black Lives in PNW, Leaven Land and Housing Coalition, IMIrJ (Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice), Portland Jobs with Justice, and the Together Lab organizing cohort.
Building faith in a virtual world
The Robloxian Christians, online, everywhere
When Daniel Herron was in sixth grade, he would play games on his computer after school. One day, he clicked on an ad for an app called “Roblox,” which allows users to play and create games (called “experiences”), chat online to other users around the world, and bills itself as the “ultimate virtual universe.” These experiences open spaces for socializing, simulations, and adventure, to name a few.
Hooked by the game’s “if you can imagine it, you can build it” tagline, and because faith was important to him, Daniel began looking for a Christian community in this virtual world. He found a few Roblox groups that felt more like fan clubs for Jesus, but they didn’t actually do anything — Daniel wanted a community with which he could pray and talk about God. In late 2011, Daniel created what he couldn’t find: The Robloxian Christians. At first, it was a space for Daniel’s friends to gather and pray for one another in a Roblox experience. But more people joined, and the Robloxian Christians grew more structured, with Scripture readings, community prayer, worship, and a sermon. They met weekly in a Roblox game, communicating with avatars using text chat, and sometimes playing mp3 tracks to create more ambience for worship. Friends invited friends. They ran ads for the space on the Roblox platform, and the community grew.
Twelve years later, the Robloxian Christians serve more than 53,000 middle and high school students representing 85 countries. The church is multi-denominational in the sense that all are welcome. The Robloxian Christians are inclusive and affirming and are one of the first, if not the first, youth-led online churches in the world. They are also the first Roblox-based 501c3 nonprofit organization, and a pioneer in the world of online and virtual church.
Daniel recently graduated from Whitworth University and is a member of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington. He served as a young adult advisory delegate to the 223rd and 225th General Assemblies, works for the Washington State Legislature, and is pursuing a career in public policy and tech safety.
Authentic community of belonging
Gather Tacoma, Tacoma, Washington
Gather Tacoma, a 1001 New Worshiping Community and ministry of the Presbytery of Olympia, began with a group of friends wanting to experiment with discipleship and worship in non-traditional spaces. They are an intentional faith community that gathers around a shared table, on a shared journey, and for a shared purpose.
Community members noticed that they serve two distinct populations: people actively deconstructing their faith, and people with little or no faith commitment. A unifying element is the desire for authentic community, and Gather finds ways to unite these two groups with a core of committed Jesus-followers.
The leaders of Gather believe everyone deserves the opportunity to belong to an authentic community on a journey together, and they hope people will journey toward apprenticeship to Jesus. Gather creates non-religious and religious spaces of belonging where diverse people can come to know each other and be known. Gather’s non-religious spaces include a monthly community dinner, Surprise Adventure Saturday (show up and find out what you’re doing!) and Love Your Neighbor Days (serving the community together through care for the vulnerable and care for creation).
Gather’s intentionally religious spaces include a monthly Worship & Dinner gathering, Zeteo (a discussion group where people in faith renovation explore weighty topics), Gather & Grow Bible studies, and Discipleship Core (a nine- to 12-month journey for people who want to apprentice themselves to Jesus). Gather has a high commitment to transparency regarding these spaces, so they won’t feel like a bait-and-switch environment, while simultaneously offering a pathway for spiritually curious people to explore following the Jesus-way with a community of people with whom they’ve developed meaningful relationships.
Learn more about Gather Tacoma at: facebook.com/gathertacoma.
Taeler Morgan is the founding pastor of Gather Tacoma and an ICF (International Coaching Federation) trained coach working with ministry entrepreneurs. Taeler, her husband Tim, and their two kids, love hanging out in their neighborhood, exploring the Pacific Northwest, and finding adventure in the ordinary.