Creating connection through innovative worship

Eight unique ministries offer insights into the future of the ever-evolving church.

In a world where steeples and pews often define how we think about “church,” it can sometimes be difficult to imagine something new. Yet the commitment to journey into the unknown lies at the heart of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative, where innovators are changing how we think about ministry.

On the following pages, you’ll find eight stories about ministries and leaders who have traded in pews for garden rows and steeples for coffee shops in their commitment to loving God’s people. In their faithful devotion to Christ, these unique ministries offer us new insights into the future of the ever-evolving church.

Blank Slate | Allentown, Pennsylvania
Sue Pizor Yoder, organizing pastor/facilitator

In her many years as a pastor, Sue Pizor Yoder has had extra compassion for people on the margins of organized religion. In 2018, after years of research and pastoral experience, Yoder felt led to establish Blank Slate, a community to create a safe place for “nones and dones.”

Listening to the voices and stories of those around her, Yoder began to discern a need. People were hungry for community. They were searching for opportunities to form meaningful relationships with others and to ask big questions about the meaning and purpose of their lives. Blank Slate tries to meet this need.

At its core, Blank Slate is an innovative community that creates safe spaces for people to develop into their authentic selves. People meet regularly to discuss important questions in their lives. They discern what it means to live meaningfully with one another. The leadership of Blank Slate applies Christocentric principles without the Christian lingo, creating an open environment for people to explore what they believe. The organization gives people a place where they can belong and grow curious about the love of Jesus, without feeling pressure to conform.

Blank Slate also cares deeply about service and invites participants to pour back into the community. The group provides healthy meals for those with food insecurity by using the produce of its community garden, and it volunteers with local organizations that seek to enrich the larger community. Participants not only talk about how to live a meaningful life but put those words into action.

Sustainability is a topic that Yoder and her team are actively investigating. While grants helped them get started, they are looking for other solutions to maintain the community over the long term, as well as means to support other innovative ministries. The team is looking into the viability of business/ministry partnerships that can provide revenue to support Blank Slate’s relational mission. The team is also looking to partner with local churches to enrich one another’s ministries.

In reflecting on what the group has learned since starting Blank Slate, Yoder shared her insight that people aren’t being unfaithful. They have faith. They just haven’t found what they’re looking for yet. Everyone desires deep belonging, a sense of knowing that their voices and experiences matter. They just aren’t interested in conforming. They want a seat at the table. If the church is to remain open to these emerging generations, it must pay close attention to and develop this sense of safety and belonging.

Yoder has also spent the past two decades doing extensive research on the subject. Check out her new book, Hear Us Out: Six Questions on Belonging and Belief, for more information.

Okra Abbey | New Orleans, Louisiana
Hannah Quick, organizing pastor and director 

Okra Abbey is more than a community garden. It serves as a hub of enrichment for the community, where Hannah Quick and her colleagues tend both soil and souls. Okra Abbey gets its name from two familiar things. Okra is a staple food in southern Louisiana. It’s a food that transcends all social barriers, truly a food for everyone. And calling the garden an abbey reveals it to be place of rest, healing and community. Okra Abbey lives into its name by offering food and safety for all who draw near.

Okra Abbey’s stability has been one of its greatest gifts to the community. From an ecological standpoint, consistent care in the garden has allowed Quick and colleagues to reap bountiful harvests. They grow enough produce to offer 10 home deliveries a week plus stock a community fridge. They are also able to supplement Okra Abbey’s weekly community meal, which feeds upwards of 50 people. The Wednesday meal is Okra Abbey’s main event, inviting all to gather for food and fellowship.

Okra Abbey has also become a place of stable hospitality in the community. Touched by poverty, addiction, violence and insecurity in housing and food, the neighborhood is also no stranger to loss. But in the community’s grieving of these losses, Quick has seen the richness of Okra Abbey’s ministry. The garden has become a safe place, a gathering space, a rest stop in the ebb and flow of life. Quick often provides most of her pastoral care during informal conversations with those who stop by throughout the day. She sees her role as being a community chaplain, available to walk alongside community members through ups and downs.

Sustainability is at the forefront of the abbey’s mission as the staff and members look toward the future. The abbey is supported by grants, local churches and individual donors, but Quick noted that its focus on big projects is helping the group remain self-sustaining. Installing solar panels and a tank to store rainwater has helped meet the garden’s basic needs and reduce the cost of keeping both the garden and the ministry going.

Reflecting on what she’s learned during her time at the abbey, Quick spoke of the importance of taking stock of traditions to open ourselves to new opportunities: “Just because we’ve always done it that way isn’t a good enough answer.” Looking beyond what is, and then learning to let go, creates space for something new to grow.

Misión Presbiteriana Mackay | Charleston, South Carolina
Antonio Colón and Sandra Otero

For Antonio Colón and Sandra Otero, ministry is about being with the people. Hailing from Latin America, Colón and Otero felt called to care for the Hispanic and Latino community in their second home of Charleston, South Carolina, so in 2017 they began working with their presbytery to establish Misión Presbiteriana Mackay. Colón named the organization in honor of John A. Mackay, Christian leader and former president of Princeton Seminary, because of Mackay’s commitment to missional ministry.

Mackay argued there are two ways to do ministry: one can look down from the safety of the balcony, or one can engage with the world on the street. This latter way is the way. Misión Presbiteriana Mackay embodies this approach and seeks to be in the streets with the people.

Colón and Otero started by building relationships with the community. And they built these initial relationships through basketball. Through recreation, Colón and Otero formed connections throughout the Hispanic and Latino community in Charleston. Their first task was to build trust and demonstrate that they were truly interested in people’s needs. This way is about being with people where they live, embodying the lifestyle of Jesus, who walked among the people.

Colón and Otero focus on meeting people right where they are. Because the Hispanic and Latino population in Charleston primarily consists of immigrants, their needs are often tied to family members whom they left behind.

Misión Presbiteriana Mackay’s reach has therefore spread beyond the U.S.-Mexico border. Colón and Otero have been investing in the community of Oaxaca, Mexico, where many of the community’s relatives still reside. In one of the poorest communities in Mexico, they are working to increase access to education, enriching communal activities (like recreational sports) and taking other measures to effect an overall improvement to well-being. Because family is so important, helping those who are here requires helping those who are there.

Misión Presbiteriana Mackay is supported by grants from its presbytery, namely the 1001 New Worshiping Communities grant. Many Charleston churches also support the work of the misión, with several locations graciously providing facilities where Colón and Otero can host basketball gatherings.

Colón and Otero hope that the future church can embrace Mackay’s theology of “the way.” The church cannot grow comfortable by staying on the balcony. It must step into the streets and walk with people along the way. It must reach into the margins of society and see everything that those on the margins can offer. There, on the way, Colón and Otero have seen Christ show up. The future of the church lies outside the building, following Jesus on the way.

Community Cup Coffee and More | Martinsburg, West Virginia
Dwight McCormick, pastor

Community Cup Coffee and More is tucked into the Appalachian foothills, in the little town of Martinsville, West Virginia. It might look like a coffee shop outside, but inside the business offers a place of radical welcome, hope and compassion.

In a community afflicted by homelessness and addiction, Community Cup Coffee’s pastor, Dwight McCormick, says the need is great. Many of the individuals McCormick serves are unhoused, either in recovery or in need of recovery. The coffeehouse offers an open space where they can find fellowship and resources.

Those resources are holistic. The shop offers good food and coffee at low prices for all. Bathrooms and charging stations are available. McCormick and his team help provide transportation for things like hospital visits, doctor’s appointments or transfers between shelters. McCormick has also partnered with social services; social workers come in regularly to help people access the resources they need. During the winter, McCormick keeps the shop open a little later to let people spend a few more hours out of the cold.

Beyond providing resources, Community Cup seeks to meet the basic human need of connection by creating opportunities for fellowship. Friday nights are evenings of worship, gathering everyone around the Communion Table. Songs are sung, Scripture is read, and participants delight in the company of one another. During Ash Wednesday 2024, the shop had standing room only. The shop also hosts trivia nights. A local school displays art in the café, and a bluegrass jam session meets regularly as well. Community Cup is truly a hub for the community.

McCormick said sustainability is a big concern. The shop is heavily supported by grants, but it must continually plan ahead to remain in operation. The team has networked hard within the community to foster broad ecumenical support for the shop.

When asked what he’s learned, McCormick shared, “The need is great. It’s one thing to preach about those on the margins in church on a Sunday. But it’s another thing altogether to spend every day of the week with these folks. Up close you can see how truly great the need is.”

McCormick added, “I think a lot about that verse in James: ‘If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?’ And that really sticks with me as I do this work.”

This theology has shaped McCormick and the good work he and his team do at Community Cup. If you’re ever passing through, you’ll surely be greeted with a warm smile and a friendly hello as you step through the door.

First Light Fellowship | Anthem, Arizona
Brandon and Kristin Willett, pastors

After serving as pastors in PC(USA) for many years, Brandon and Kristin Willett felt called to start something new. With backgrounds in education and a heart for kids’ ministry, they decided to take everything they had learned and apply it in a new environment.

This decision led them to form First Light Fellowship, a worshiping community built on the principle of establishing places of healthy connection for all.

The Willetts have transformed educational theory to develop a more dynamic Sunday morning worship that engages people of all ages. Movement, dance, questions and interactive commentary are all part of a Sunday morning gathering. This intergenerational community prioritizes making space for children and teenagers to take active roles in the life of the church.

But the fellowship’s impact extends far beyond the boundaries of Sunday morning. The Willetts believe strongly in the Christian imperative to be good neighbors, so they actively seek ways to bring the love of Christ into their community as part of their commitment to establishing places of healthy connection for all. Whether through community craft days, game nights that invite parents to play with their kids, or gratitude groups where people reflect on life with one another, First Light Fellowship is facilitating healthy connections among people from all walks of life. Even if some people do not join the Sunday morning worship, they have other opportunities to form connections.

The fellowship currently does a lot with a small budget. While it is also still supported financially by its home presbytery, the Willetts are always finding creative income streams to fund the community’s worship needs. But the greatest resources are the members of the community. Everybody is ready to lend a hand to help the community flourish.

One thing the pastors have learned in this new experience is the importance of getting off campus. Kristin Willett shared that the leadership team does not meet in the church building for all staff meetings. Instead they rotate through different neighborhood locations, like the library. This effort allows them to stay in touch with the community they are part of and to witness the needs present.

Kristin Willett shared that God’s grace has been so evident to her in this experience. As the team has taken risks and tried new things, establishing First Light has given them permission to be messy. At every step, the Willetts are reminded that God often meets us in the beauty and the chaos.

Commonwealth of Oakland | Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Mike Holohan, pastor, and Erin Angeli, associate pastor for queer and neighborhood ministry

In the heart of Pittsburgh is the Commonwealth of Oakland, “a progressive and Jesus-centered community of faith” committed to celebrating queer identity in a changing world.

A Pittsburgh native, Mike Holohan felt called to establish a space for people to process new spiritual identities as they make sense of the world. Holohan and Erin Angeli have worked hard to establish a place for people who are rethinking Christianity after experiencing church hurt. The process entails not just deconstructing traumatic church experiences, but also asking the question “What goes here now?”

Originally bringing together the homeless, student populations and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, Commonwealth of Oakland has evolved into an intergenerational, multifaceted community. Some folks who have moved away from Pittsburgh continue to attend Commonwealth online. Accessibility is key to the Commonwealth’s sense of community, and Holohan and Angeli are conscientious about making certain that both online and in-person gatherings are multisensory, participatory and engaging for all. The community meets regularly but often rotates through meeting formats — sometimes meeting for worship, sometimes meeting in the park to contemplate how the Spirit shows up in nature, and sometimes just meeting to share a meal.

With her pastoral connections, Angeli partners with LAMP, or LGBTQIA+ Affirming Ministries of Pittsburgh, a partnership of LGBTQIA+ affirming Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) churches that provide spiritual resources to the queer community. Angeli works to create opportunities for people to follow Christ and be in community together.

Angeli and Holohan are currently supported by a New Worshiping Community grant, the presbytery, individual donors and established churches in the area. Through this work, they’ve come to appreciate how the presbytery is like an ecosystem. Every ecosystem benefits from sheltering diverse inhabitants, and Commonwealth has been blessed with opportunities to support and be supported by other ministries in its community.

One thing Angeli and Holohan learned is that the community actively engages in social action. In response, Holohan and Angeli have been considering how to make Commonwealth a place to unpack and process experiences of activism. Given how such a shared commitment unites community members, social justice has become an organic part of Commonwealth’s identity. Personally committed to racial justice and reconciliation in Pittsburgh, Holohan and Angeli see this work as part of their pastoral calling to empower and support the community as they work to carry out sustainable social justice.

Interwoven Church | Los Angeles, California
Harlan Redmond, lead pastor 

Several years ago, if you had asked Harlan Redmond whether he’d be starting a church in the heart of Los Angeles County, he would have laughed and said no. But a few years later, Redmond found himself in seminary and considering how to establish a new worshiping community in his old stomping grounds. Saddened by the division he was seeing – politically, religiously, socially – Redmond established Interwoven Church in 2021 to meet the needs of a fractured world.

Vulnerability is key to Redmond’s mission. He likes to ask, “How can we get folks to take the risk of opening up to one another?”

Redmond takes a lot from his military experiences. In just a few short weeks, he says, the armed forces can turn complete strangers into the most loyal companions ready to die for one another. The military does this by demanding arduous service from its members. A member of the military is completely vulnerable and dependent on the person next to them, which forges a strong bond of loyalty.

As Christians, we are called to have that same loyalty for our neighbors. However, contentious issues can drive us apart.

To address this, Redmond is working to create spaces of vulnerability in his community. Whether in Sunday worship or small groups, he’s always looking for ways to bring people together to listen to one another’s stories. He’s helping his community become good listeners; through good listening, the community is learning to understand and love one another. But this effort is hard-hearted work, and it takes effort to be vulnerable.

Redmond draws on the theology of Martin Luther King Jr. expressed at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in 1968: “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” As interwoven people, we rise and fall together.

Currently, Interwoven is supported by its local presbytery, but Redmond is considering alternative sources of income to sustain the church. Running a preschool or other business both gives church members access to employment and generates resources to support the development of the worshiping community. Redmond does not want the organization’s success to depend on giving.

As he reflected on what he’s learned during his time in ministry, Redmond shared poignantly that comfort is the enemy of faith. While being vulnerable is hard work, Redmond believes that the PC(USA) is uniquely positioned to be relevant in the future. The mission is for all of us — if we’re willing to take a risk and seize the opportunity God has set before us.

NOLA Wesley and the Labyrinth Café | New Orleans, Louisiana
Zoë Garry, director and pastor

“Instead of wondering why young people are no longer coming to ‘church,’” says Zoë Garry, “we need to reimagine what ‘church’ will look like for young people.”

Committed to this reimagining, Garry, director and pastor of NOLA Wesley and the Labyrinth Café, is working to serve her students for the kingdom of God.

NOLA Wesley is an ecumenical campus ministry with a rich history of serving the students of Tulane University for more than 60 years. To meet the changing needs of an evolving community, the ministry opened the Labyrinth Café in 2018. The cafe serves as a restaurant, gathering space and place of worship for students.

Garry and her team are committed to making a safe and affirming space for the queer community, exposing people to the love of Christ through the filter of relational connections. Love for Jesus and authenticity of self are brought together as one.

To that end, Garry organizes a wide range of programs to meet the needs of campus populations — everything from a needlework class to more traditional Bible studies. These groups meet regularly at the Labyrinth Café, making it a hub for connections across various activities.

The team also hosted free events for college students to engage with one another in a safe environment without the added pressures found on college campuses. The ministry also rents out its space for concerts, karaoke, dances and other social functions to serve the community.

Labyrinth Café makes its own incredible impact on the community by serving 5,000 students a month. Those who walk through its doors meet with the breadth of Christ’s love, in the comfort of a cozy coffee shop.

The ministry has recently become wholly sustainable, receiving support from a variety of sources. Grants, rent from dorm housing, resources from the cafe, and nearby churches’ financial and relational investments allow the ministry to flourish.

Garry has learned a lot from serving at NOLA Wesley and the Labyrinth Café and is excited about fostering the evolution of Christ’s kingdom here on Earth. As Christians, we believe in the resurrection — new life being made from the old. Church will look different for future generations, so the job of ministry today is embracing creative foretastes of that future. Garry and everyone at NOLA Wesley and Labyrinth Café are trying to be sensitive to that unfolding reality, and they hope others will partner with them to explore the future.