Forming New Worshiping Communities: Church Planting in the 21st Century
Worship can change lives when people--whether unchurched or eager for fresh expressions of worship and life together--understand what they are doing and why.
Jul Medenblik: Welcome, brothers and sisters, to this special session. I’m Jul Medenblik. I’m privileged to serve as Calvin Seminary president. And certainly when I think about the work of Calvin University and Calvin Seminary and what we can do together, I do think about the Institute of Christian Worship and especially this symposium.
Usually I’m at an international gathering of guests, where we welcome them—some of them have never seen snow, and then I would make a note about that, and we talk about the warm welcome even if it’s very cold. And even on this day, I see that we have international people at this particular session. I’m grateful that you’re here. And certainly you can be warm where you are, but again, we want to extend a warm welcome and a sense of greeting and community to you.
I’m grateful that this topic—Forming New Worshiping Communities: Church Planting in the 21st Century—is one that you’ve said I want to learn more about. And we’re grateful for the people you’ll get to hear and meet in just a little bit. And I would say because I know them, that they served in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. So you’re going to get two centuries of wisdom from all of them in some ways.
But even as they smile and laugh, and we’ve had an opportunity to talk in different ways, we come with heavy hearts. We all know that what we saw in the past week at the United States Capitol is a reminder—when we see a banner of Jesus flown at that event—that we need a lot of work to do on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
And so as we come together, from wherever you are—and once again, we’re dealing with a global pandemic, so we’re recognizing the fact that we have an opportunity, even today, to just lift up the name of Jesus throughout the world in a way that, once again, points people to what Jesus really does. And his desire once again to invite us into his kingdom, not to create our own.
I invite you to join me in an opening prayer.
Dear Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thank you for the brothers and sisters who are gathered at this table. It is your table. It is an opportunity for us to learn and listen from each other from across the globe. And you desire once again to call us to be your disciples, your witness in this world.
As we saw some of the chat, we might have seen things like “weary,” “tired.” We are. There’s a heaviness of heart that we have even this week that we had, that’s gone to another level of depth and breadth. We pray for healing in this time with this pandemic. We pray not just for a vaccine to be distributed well, we pray for healing of hearts.
And I’m thankful for the wisdom, the calling you have had upon people who are forming worshiping communities, that desire to form disciples of Jesus Christ. So that we as disciples of Jesus Christ, your disciples, Lord, that we point people toward you and what your kingdom really does stand for.
So, lift up our hearts. Be present with us, as you have promised, and may we again recognize that your Spirit is moving in different ways in this time and throughout the world. In the name of Jesus we all pray and say together, Amen.
We’ve had the opportunity to, in the chat—and you can still do that—just identify your name, your context, where you’re from. Maybe some questions, or the context of what you do, because we know as we present this material, we come from a North American context. And we recognize that whatever context we are is limited, but we hope that from that contextual background or learning, and even navigation, there’s something to be learned and shared.
I’ll start, and then I’m going to call on the others, as the moderator. Just in terms of my background, not only being president of Calvin Seminary—I had the privilege of being an attorney in Florida who was called to the seminary in terms of a student. I served as an intern in Calgary, Alberta, Canada—shout out to Canada and the Canadians that are going to be listening in—and then served for sixteen years as the senior pastor, eventually, of New Life Christian Reformed Church in New Lenox, Illinois, southwest side of Chicago. And also served for a number of years as a church planting leader for the denomination of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
So for twenty-five years, I’ve been involved in church planting, and it is a topic that’s still close to my heart. And I love to be around people who talk about church planting and especially the people that you’re going to be meeting in just a moment.
For this kind of conversation, it may be helpful if I direct us in terms of my screen. That way I don’t forget anybody. I’m going to go to Amy first, and then I’m going to go to Glen. And then I’ll identify who’s next.
Amy, would you introduce yourself and what’s your education and life experience for this topic, and maybe where do you now serve, or where you served and how long? What’s it like? We want to have—you have more than three words, but … would you just share your heart as we enter into this conversation together?
Amy Schenkel: Sure thing. Thanks, Jul, and I apologize, my picture is washing out. We saw the sun here for a minute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is so unusual that I never have to worry about the window behind me, but obviously it’s popping—it won’t last long. Don’t worry.
I’m Amy Schenkel, and I am here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and our ministry career started with a church plant in downtown Grand Rapids. But even in a city of churches, it was a church plant that was in a neighborhood that was ninety to ninety-five percent unchurched, in a redeveloping urban setting.
It was really one of the first in that era—just after that Willow Creek model of big, attractional church and more into an incarnation setting, and what does it look like for us to be the church to our neighborhood? And so, as pastors, we were neighborhood chaplains, in many ways, and exploring what that meant for church planting.
My husband and I co-planted and co-pastored that church for about fifteen years. We are both bi-vocational planters, and so my bi-vocational work was with our denominational mission agency, helping to recruit, train, and assess church planters. And then that work ended up becoming full-time work. I’ve had a number of different roles for our denomination, but currently I lead the Great Lakes Regional Team for our mission agency. And in that role, we are helping churches develop a missional imagination to connect with their community.
Sometimes that means starting new expressions of worship—church plants, micro churches, micro-church networks, communities of faith, holistic mission networks, those types of things—as well as campus ministries and some other, more established church outreach possibilities, too.
I’m so glad to be here. Thanks.
Jul Medenblik: Thanks, Amy. We’ll go to Glen. And Glen, after you will come Denise.
Glen McCarthy: Welcome, everyone. My name is Glen McCarthy. I am the pastor of Reconciliation Church, and we’re located in the Chicagoland area in South Holland, Illinois, just ten minutes south of Chicago.
Basically, I led a church plant initiative for about five years on the south side of Chicago. I was a bi-vocational pastor. I worked for Chicago Public Schools in the Office of School Turnaround or School Transformation—it kind of changed names a bunch of times. Basically our office led the school reform work in the city of Chicago for the lowest-performing schools in the district, and I managed family and community involvement for that time. I believe that that experience has led to some great insights and wisdom for institutional change and transformation. And so I try to bring that to my work.
Currently, like I said, I’m the pastor of Reconciliation Church, but I initially came to South Holland five years ago to be the lead pastor of Peace Christian Reformed Church, a fifty-year-old, predominantly Dutch, Reformed church. And the goal was to help the church revitalize and reach their community that had transitioned from being a predominantly Dutch American community to a predominantly African American community—about eighty percent African American, about ten percent white, about five percent Hispanic, and five percent other.
After two years of that, we closed the church and reopened as a brand new church. So I’ve had some grueling experiences with church restart as well. And so I’m happy to be here and to participate in any way that I can.
Jul Medenblik: Thanks so much. One of the reasons we have people put your names in the chat is you never know what connections are formed even between you, the participants, and others here on the panel. So, Pastor Glen, there’s a pastor Kelsi Jones that just has moved to the Chicagoland area. She graduated from Calvin Seminary. Kelsi, you know what I’m going to say: Get connected, make some connections, and look forward to that.
Pastor Denise, would you share about your kind of ministry setting?
Denise Kingdom Grier: Hello, everyone. I’m Denise Kingdom Greer. I’m the lead pastor at Maple Avenue Ministries here in Holland, Michigan. We are a union church of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in North America. I’ve been pastor here for almost twelve years. We are multicultural, multigenerational, multi-dynamic. Our demographic would probably be about forty-five percent Anglo, forty percent African American, and then certainly a mixture of others beyond that.
Prior to coming to ministry, I had ten years, a little over a decade of experience as a social worker in varying capacities—working with not-for-profits, mostly Christian organizations, everything from child welfare to working with houseless demographics and such. I went to Western Theological Seminary here in Holland, received both a Master of Divinity as well as a doctorate in divinity.
I’ve been interrogating for many, many years now the ways in which the North American church, evangelical church in particular, does outreach. And the ways in which it perpetuates, often perpetuates, systems of apartheid—and want to offer a new way forward that I call embracing.
I come to this conversation regarding forming new congregations and new communities, really at the at the prompting of my son. At my first call, my son—at Calvary Reformed Church here in Holland; I was the pastor of congregational care—and my son was about three years old when I received the call to come to Maple Avenue to be the pastor. My son insisted that he was not leaving Calvary. Even at that age he’s every bit of my son. And because of his adamant nature, we were forced to think about what it meant to build a bridge from that side of town to this side of town.
So I posture myself as a community pastor and look forward to talking more and more about the ways in which we are forming new communities by collaborating with other churches and by extending the ways that we worship throughout the breadth of our city and, in many ways, of West Michigan.
Jul Medenblik: Great lead-in into the next question. Before that, though, we’re going to hear from Kevin Adams. So Kevin, would you introduce yourself?
Kevin Adams: Hey friends, I live in the Sacramento area. I began my ministry in Minnesota, where I was for four years. And about thirty years ago this summer, my wife and I traveled to Sacramento area of California, where we began a new church plant.
At the time we didn’t really know anyone in the neighborhood. It was one of those—our image is a parachute drop. So the—forgive the military image, but the denominational plane flies over and they say, “Go, go, go!” And my wife and I parachute into this new neighborhood where we don’t know anyone, we haven’t met anyone, and no one is really asking us to be there. And by God’s good grace, the church is still alive and flourishing today.
And along the way, with a network of other churches, we’ve had a chance to plant ten other churches in various neighborhoods of the Sacramento area and even into Stockton and some other places.
Along the way, I’ve had a chance to do some writing on the intersection of worship and church planting, and that’s been a gift as well—and also to teach in various seminary settings. And one of the joys of my life is to mentor students and especially folks who are interested in planting churches. Glen already hinted—you could hear that from all of us—the complexity of it. And sometimes the pain of it and the uphill challenge of it. And being able to connect in conversation and other ways of support and other things, and to learn from folks on the frontline of ministry, is always a wonderful gift. So glad to be part of this.
Jul Medenblik: Thanks, all of you. We will get to some of those joys and sorrows, the encouragements but also the things that cause you to pause. But our second question that we thought we would share together—and Kevin I’m going to just start with you, so we go reverse order. And Denise, you had a great kind of lead-in, but if you think about just the title of this particular panel—Forming Worshiping Communities—I mean, there’s an issue of how do you even think about formation?
What does worship look like, and certainly the Symposium has, I understand, a broad view of that, but there’s—specifically, maybe think about discipling community. So what does it mean to disciple? What does it look like in your neighborhood? Because that definition of community as Denise already shared, it has to be broader than maybe just the corner of Fifth Street and Main, something like that. What does it mean to really engage your community and to honor God in that fullness of community?
So when you heard the topic and being asked to speak here, what kind of made your heart go a little faster in terms of this topic, forming worshiping communities? What does that actually look like?
Kevin Adams: One of the ways I think about it is, we’re about a hundred miles from San Francisco. So if you think of the flower children of the 1960s, people who left their parents and other things in the Midwest and other places—some of them were already in San Francisco, many moved to San Francisco—and they were looking for another kind of reality. They were looking for another kind of place to belong. They are looking for other ways of doing life and connecting with people, both like them and unlike them. Many of those folks dropped out as teenagers and young people in their twenties. They dropped out of church and they never went back.
Well, I’m a pastor to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. So if you think about someone with no Christian memory, with no Christian reality, really—Easter is sort of about the bunny, Christmas is about Santa, and there’s not a lot of Christian memory. Now that’s not to say we don’t have other folks who’ve transferred to our church from other churches. But on the whole, I think of myself as a pastor called to love and serve the folks who are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the flower children.
When you think about a background that not only is not participating in the church but against the church—and really, frankly, a lot of the things, the symbolism we’ve seen at the Capitol and other things—are plenty of reasons not to belong to a church and to just skip that whole thing. But we really believe the church is called to make a difference in this neighborhood and that there’s something beautiful, especially about a new worshiping community in a neighborhood, where it can understand—it has to understand, in a fresh way and a vital way—its neighbor and neighborhoods and offers an opportunity to do something new in the neighborhood.
So it’s been a pleasure in my life to see not only our church, but the churches that have been part of our network, to not just gather people in their neighborhood, but really serve and be a witness of an alternate lifestyle. … You don’t just pray “Your kingdom come,” but you get to see, in a church plant, it actually start to come in small but important kinds of ways. That’s maybe a beginning.
Jul Medenblik: And we look forward to others joining. And just to follow up, because I know all of your ministries—you do well in teaching our students about preaching to your zip code and knowing that geography setting. And for those in Canada, the postal code. So zip code, postal code. That kind of area.
And then from Pastor Denice we’ll go to Pastor Glen. But Denise, you were kind of in this already in some ways about your son, and I love that story. I’m sure he made the transition, but this challenge of bridging. But go specifically where you want to go with: What does it mean to form worshiping communities? What comes to mind for you?
Denise Kingdom Grier: So first of all, I think about worship as a concept and what are we talking about, what are we really engaging in? And I’ve sort of nailed it down a little bit in terms of the embodied work of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication—sort of the ACTS model of praying that we’ve learned before.
And to that end, you could worship anything, right? Whatever you adore, whatever you confess, whatever you give thanks, and supplication too. But in particular in our context, this has to do with the centrality of Christ, with the Word and the sacrament. So, the ways in which we embody the work of these things in our particular context where we are. And so the work and the task, I think, before me in the twenty years that I’ve been here in Holland is to be able to galvanize the community of folks who do worship in this way and who are curious about worshiping in this way together, in order to lift up the centrality of Christ, in order for the flourishing of the people of God overall.
So what that looks like is not only the bridge that’s built between our congregation here at Maple Avenue and the congregation at Calvary Reformed Church, with whom we celebrate every Maundy Thursday—one year with them, one year with us. We do pulpit exchanges in difficult times. Because I was once their pastor of congregational care, I’m able to go there and still provide care; and in difficult times here, they’re able to provide the same.
But they are also all sorts of other branches that go out into our communities that allow us to share—on like an Ash Wednesday service with one congregation every year. Sometimes we go there, sometimes they come here. In times of crisis: Two years ago, a young man, unfortunately, very young—twelve years old—was shot and killed in our community. And it was a beautiful expression to see, to send forth the call to all of these branches of folks who adore and confess and give thanks to God and supplicate, with Christ at the center—to call all of them together from different denominations, different expressions, to all come here and say to this family who didn’t claim any church as their church—I didn’t know them.
I sent out word that said if they need something, tell them to call me. They needed a funeral, apparently, and to have all of the folks who worship come together and to be able to stand up and say, “Whatever you heard about the church, whatever you thought about the church, this is who we are. We’re about showing up for people, we’re about bearing the image of God in the presence of tragedy.” And that’s not about what belongs to our church or who comes within our doors, or who even looks like us. That’s about us banding together and really adoring, confessing, giving thanks, and supplicating.
Jul Medenblik: All I can say is, “Preach it.” Thanks for that. Amen to that. Glen, we’re still on the same topic. But as you heard that phrasing and “forming worshiping communities,” what’s kind of been your heart to testify about today?
Glen McCarthy: For me it’s about the beauty of forming worship communities. Again, as a church that has been in transition, I really had to lead my church from a missiological perspective to reach a community that they were pretty much detached from. And so we had to be very intentional about going outside of our doors, doing prayer walks, going door to door, asking neighbors how can we pray for them, letting them know that we exist, and what type of things.
And as new people began to come to our church, particularly African Americans in a church that was predominantly white, it’s been a joy to see relationships connect. So for me, yeah, it’s really about covenant. I think forming a worshiping community for me is, if I understood the question correct when I first heard it—I think when you asked Denise it was a little different from when you asked me—but I think what I have joy about, or see, or look forward to, and just overjoyed with when I think of forming worshiping communities is forming covenant relationships.
And I think that’s been a true joy for me—seeing people from different walks of life, multigenerational, multicultural, pray for each other in crisis. We’ve experienced crisis, death, and people making poor decisions. It’s just been a joy. And I think relationships outside of me—because as the pastor, everyone typically comes and are brought by me or connected to me. But to hear members talking about being on the phone—two middle-aged women … of different races, different backgrounds, talking about being on the phone together, talking about the sermon. And they cry together about what God is doing in their lives and their families. It’s just been a joy to see people forming relationships outside of church, and thus building covenant relationships—is what I see and has been my joy.
Jul Medenblik: To highlight what I take away from you: that covenant relationship. So many times we think about the Sunday morning experience, when we could have them, where you’re watching the back of someone else’s head. And you really brought again that picture of people facing each other, serving each other, listening together.
Amy, I know it’s always hard to go last in these sort of things, but we know you have something as well from your heart to this idea of forming worshiping communities, and then we’ll go on to the next question. But what comes to mind for you? What are the phrases—ACTS, covenant, relationships—what comes to mind for you?
Amy Schenkel: Part of what comes to mind is reflected in what everybody else has said already. I think there’s such wisdom and that, but I also think that in this moment that we find ourselves in, particularly with what the COVID pandemic has done to our idea of church and our ability to have an expression of church, this question of, What does the worshiping community really look like? What is at the core of it that we can’t lose in order to be a worshiping community?
So, of course, established churches: Maybe they couldn’t go to a building anymore to worship. Maybe they couldn’t sing when they were worshiping together. Maybe they had to be outdoors. There’s all of these different components that all of a sudden were thrown out. And then what is church after all of that?
With our church planters, we had some church planters who were doing the whole traditional model of gathering a core group, getting people together, and literally had just opened a building for worship right before everything was shut down in March. So what is church for them? What is that worshiping community? Does their church still exist?
And I think this has been an opportunity for the church to say, “When we get rid of everything else, what really needs to be at the core of it in order for us to be a true, authentic, Christ-centered worshiping community?” I really appreciated what Brian Sanders has said about—in the micro-church community that he’s working with the—the core pieces being this worship, this up relationship that we have with God; how are we focused on that worship? Community in terms of our fellowship with one another, these relationships, those covenant relationships that Glen was talking about. And then also mission; so, what is our relationship with our neighborhood, and how do we get past this idea of a worshiping community being a place that we go to, that church is something that we go to. And instead, how are we being the church? How are we doing the worship? How are we doing the fellowship? How are we doing the mission in our community?
I would add one thing to what Brian Sanders has said. I would add a with component to it. So in addition to the up, the out, the in, I would also add a with. Because I think that it’s important that the worshiping community can’t be a silo. It can’t be just something that a small group of people is doing by themselves. It has to be connected to the bigger church, to the Church, big C, and God’s people worldwide, which is awesomely reflected in the people that are gathered here today.
Jul Medenblik: Thank you all. Just a reminder, we’re going to have probably a few more questions that I work through, and I would especially like if you, the people who are participating in this—you can use the chat or Q&A feature, and I know one person already put something in the Q&A. We’ll get to that, but let me unfold a little bit more. And Pastor Glen, going to come to you first, so heads up on that.
It was referenced already—I think Amy referenced Willow Creek. Saddleback. There’s these kind of eras, and I started twenty-five years ago, I think in 1995, and what that meant on the southwest side of Chicago. And then you, particularly Pastor Glen, you referenced your move to this renewing church, this church that … you actually had to close to get to that start of a new chapter in ministry.
And so we know that planting and renewing—there’s a lot that’s coalescing around that. But especially for us that know that 2020 not only brought a pandemic but also led to a lot of revealing moments. But what does encourage you? What’s encouraging you about maybe this era that we’re facing, maybe about the openness that there is for new forms, and some of it was brought on because we couldn’t worship together the way we used to? We know there’s a lot of uncertainty in these times, but what does still encourage you about this task about forming worshiping communities today? Pastor Glen, and then I’m going to come to Pastor Denise.
Glen McCarthy: That is such a great question, Jul. What has really been encouraging to me is the gospel being preached. I mean, I was just blown away when we—when the pandemic first hit, one of my elders, we were kind of scrambling: What do we do, what do we do? … We were not streaming before the pandemic. So he said, “Pastor, you know what, just take a break. Why don’t you give us some things to study and we’ll have church at home on our own.” Because we do an inductive Bible study, so it’s very conversational. It’s like, hey, we’ll just take some passages. I said, “Great. Take a break.”
And when I saw how fearful some of my members were and I saw other churches preaching, I started digging and we got the technology to start streaming, but I noticed on Facebook on Sundays, there’s preaching everywhere. The church has taken over Facebook on Sundays, and that was so encouraging to me, to see so much gospel being preached. It’s been really encouraging.
I was also encouraged by Proverbs chapter 9 … 8 or 9 or both, whereas wisdom is personified as a woman who goes onto the street corners and she’s proclaiming, saying, “Come into my house and turn away from folly” and all of these things. And I believe that’s what’s happened with the pandemic, that God has pushed us to the street corners where businesses are happening.
Facebook is where everyone is, social media is where everyone is, and I think that the pandemic has forced the church to come out of the four walls, in a sense, though digitally and through technology, to really reach the people where they are, in my opinion, which is through social media.
So it’s been a blessing to see people hearing the gospel and seeing the church in a way that they would have not before, because we were within the four walls and they were not coming in.
Jul Medenblik: I appreciate your enthusiasm and especially appreciate that member of your church who … set you off in that direction. Great. Pastor Denice, and then we’re going to come to Amy.
Denise Kingdom Grier: I’ve just been really encouraged by the unveiling, as we all have been forced to push away from all other things that might be inclined to encumber us or distract us or even entertain us. We’ve been forced to stare down many, many things in our own country that have been extremely painful for us—including events of the last week, but certainly throughout 2020 as a whole. There’s just so many pieces, so many things that really did come to bear.
Just before the pandemic, I had just returned from South Africa, where I work for an organization that places orphaned and vulnerable children in homes instead of orphanages. And so I came back kind of on fire, ready to invite people to come and go with me, and all of a sudden it was like, slow down. Stop. Here we are.
And then we started watching the news and we started seeing things unravel, but I was really—I’m really encouraged by the unraveling because I see it more of an unveiling than an unraveling. And so for me, in our worshiping community here in Holland, it’s been a joy to see stuff like our young Freedom Fridays group that’s formed with middle school girls of different races who don’t even necessarily all go to the same church, but who are meeting together and who are talking about what can we do, and what does it mean to be concerned about the things that are going on in the world?
To see congregations and pastors and other people who have felt paralyzed by some of the conversations around justice and conversations around race to now feel emboldened to be able to learn, to be able to speak into the chasms, to be able to preach into that, to have the courage to be able to sit still and sit down and to be able to listen and to learn. There have been so many conversations via Zoom. There have been so many platforms and trainings and master classes that have really captivated us in order to, I believe, sharpen our capacity to really be a good witness in the world in the times that we’re in.
So I’m excited. I’m invigorated, although it’s also a painful time. It’s painful, but it’s unveiling, and I think what brother Glen said is what I said at the beginning of this year: Wisdom is leading us. And so may we welcome her, rightly.
Jul Medenblik: Thanks for that testimony. Certainly what you’ve shared in some ways, both of you, is that the context has changed and some of the content we’re bringing has shifted. But again, Amy, same question. Then Kevin. What encourages you, what kind of gets you going in this time?
Amy Schenkel: What I’ve loved to see is the creativity that we’ve kind of been forced into. For a long time, we’ve just done church the way we’ve always done it. In whatever context or setting you’re in, you’re probably doing church very similar—well, a year ago, you could have said we’re doing church very similar to the way that we were doing it twenty years ago. The way that we’re doing outreach. The way that we were—the expectations we had for how we were connecting with our neighbors.
Glen said, “You know, we hadn’t even thought about going online.” And in a lot of these churches where I was working and trying to say … let’s develop this imagination—how could we connect with our community? It was often a backburner item because things were just busy the way that they were, and they were kind of stuck with the momentum that things were going. And why change it? If it’s even kind of working, let’s just keep doing it instead of taking a risk.
And this has forced us to take a lot of creative risks, to try some new things, whether that’s going online, or what does live streaming mean, or connecting with people around the world. We’ve had one of our brand new church planters that had just started last March—it’s a bilingual church, mostly Spanish-speaking with some English—and he was forced to put everything on Facebook Live, which was a totally new experience for him.
But because of that, he is now planting churches in four different countries in South America because there were people that connected to his online worship service through Facebook, and then friends of friends, and people—relatives and people that they knew—and now he’s discipling these church planters in these new countries. And now they’re starting new churches that are connected to his church here in Michigan. It’s just unbelievable what the risk-taking and the creativity has allowed the Spirit to just kind of be unleashed in that way. And that’s just awesome.
Mary in the chat, or in the question, had asked, So what do we do, you know, if we just feel limited? We feel kind of stuck because this pandemic—we’re on lockdown, we can’t go door to door, we can’t have conversations with our neighbors in the way that we normally might, or churches can’t do the types of outreach things that they normally do.
There are creative ways. And even if you look online, you do some searches for how some missional groups have encouraged some things—I know some churches, or some people, that have done “driveway donuts.” They have a box of donuts in the middle of the driveway and they tell their neighbors to come by as they’re taking a walk. Or in our own neighborhood, we set up little scavenger hunts. We’re allowed to walk, and so as people are walking through the scavenger hunts over St. Patrick’s Day, they were looking for little green leprechauns that were hidden throughout the neighborhood.
Or even just leaving a note on all your neighbors’ doors and saying, “This is my phone number. If you need something or you just need somebody to talk to, please give me a call.” Because so many people are just lonely today. So what are the creative things that this is pushing us to do that are outside of our box, outside of our comfort zone?—but really, where the Spirit is at work.
Jul Medenblik: I’ve heard the phrase used during this time especially, about what it means to have a “missional imagination.” And especially, even as Amy and I have shared some things about fresh expressions, there’s a lot of other people out there doing different things. Kevin, we’re coming to you in terms of this last part of this question. What encourages you? … What else encourages you?
Kevin Adams: You listen to Glen and Denise and Amy, and I think they encouraged me. I could listen to them all day long. So I’ll just kind of back up and chill out and let these wise, excited people go. Seriously, it’s really heartening to hear each story and each person talk about it.
If I were going to go real local, yesterday I had a conversation with a person from our church the last seven years. Part of an immigrant community. And he said to me, “Kevin, as I reflect on our service Sunday, what I’m taken by is how free of Christian jargon it is.” You know, in a world—that seems like such a simple thing—but in a world where people are using Christian symbols inappropriately, and in a world where people are using them to kind of foment and agitate in bad ways—there’s good trouble and there’s bad trouble, right?—but when they’re doing bad trouble, to have a church where people say, “I can come here, I can be safe, I can be respected”—not safe in the sense that they’re not going to be called to justice and action, but safe in the sense that they can have a conversation and not be shamed or belittled because they don’t have previous knowledge. That was encouraging to me.
There is in our neighborhood, our Sacramento neighborhood, a young church planter who began his church—Amy kind of told a story like this before, too. They began their church and they’re making networks, and suddenly … the pandemic hits. Now there, as Glen was saying earlier and Denise before, there’s plenty of challenges in every era of church planting. But this person could have given up. He could have done something else, but he’s still at it in creative, imaginary, imagination kind of ways. That encourages me. I salute that.
And I have a friend in the Boston area. Their church was about nine to twelve months into regular meetings—and they have a variety of ministries in their neighborhood, they’re loving their neighborhood—but in terms of worship, they have only about nine or twelve months’ head start on COVID. And the imagination they’re showing, the steadfast faithfulness they’re showing, the vision they’re showing is really connecting with their neighbors and each other in powerful ways.
If I were going to summarize, one of the things I’m excited about is the way mission and worship and spiritual formation and justice all combine in this era. Not automatically, not easily, but I see new conversations happening. And it’s really exciting how those things all integrate together in beautiful, powerful, energizing kind of ways.
Jul Medenblik: Thanks to all of you. Kevin, you used a phrase just now and said, “not easily.” This wonderful combination that come together—not easily. So I think we want to go there. … What causes you—and Denise, we’re going to come to you first. What’s something that caused you to pause or be challenged by—or difficulty—right now in forming worshiping communities. And yeah, the pandemic is one of those things that makes it worse. What might get in the way of the mission and vision that you believe God is calling you to? How would you respond to the challenge of this time, Denise? And then I’m going to go to Amy.
Denise Kingdom Grier: I think the restriction—the ways in which people feel restricted by the building, whether we can or we can’t actually be in the building, and really trying to move people outside of that mindset. I think that’s a large problem. I think for us at Maple Avenue in particular, our Facebook Sunday morning experience is alive. We’re having conversations, passing the peace, all sorts of things like that. But I know that for other congregations, there really seems to be this sort of stagnation, this feeling of we’re waiting for something, we’re waiting for something.
Which really just brings me to, I guess, our challenge is we have not had communion since COVID. Yeah. And that’s kind of on me, and they let it be on me. So I’m just kind of rolling with it, trying not to commandeer it, but my feeling, my conviction is we’re in Advent. The liturgical seasons teach us how to live the rest of our lives. So Advent is not about December, Lent is not about March, right? All of these things are about seasons: How do you make it through the wilderness when all you know is that there will be a resurrection? How do you make it through waiting and waiting and waiting, when … you don’t know when the Messiah is coming?
And so that’s sort of the posture and what we place before us—we place the dish, and we ask everybody to put a plate and a cup out whenever we come together for worship through Zoom. We have one in our sanctuary in front of the camera. So, it recognizes that we are waiting for something. But I just had a little trouble with this sort of feeling like, “We’re just going to hurry up and eat bread and just pass it out, and drink”—and I’m not judging anybody because I’m sure great pastors had real theologically astute reasons for doing what they did. But for us, in particular, we’re like we’re in Advent. And we’re waiting and we’re hungry and we’re desperate and we’re thirsty. And when we come to the table, we will partake and we will be filled again.
But that creates a bit of tension. And so we’re just living in the tension. We have had baptisms, by the way. We did baptisms outside because those babies couldn’t wait. But for the table, we’re just so desperate and waiting and longing and will be so grateful—really, Great Prayer of Thanksgiving will be a great prayer of thanksgiving in a really robust way, I believe, when we are able to come back to the table together.
Jul Medenblik: That longing, that desperate, that waiting—and we live in a society that just wants it done today or yesterday. Amy, then Glen: What else are seeing out there that’s kind of getting—let’s put it this way—that is a challenge that may be getting in the way?
Amy Schenkel: I see a lot of this creativity leading into new models of church. So I’ve mentioned micro church a few times, or smaller worshiping communities, things that are incarnational, things that might be lay led—those types of things. And I’m hearing from some people that this has awoken them to the fact that that’s what they want from church. They want those covenant relationships that are embedded in their neighborhood. And they’re searching for this type of Christian community that’s smaller and deeper.
And as they’re forming those things, the challenge that I see and the wonder that I have is: Is the established church as it is now going to see that as a threat and as a break-off? Or are they going to see that as a different expression of who the church is and welcome it as different forms of church?
I’m really hoping it’s the latter, because I don’t think the church should be dividing over forms of church or models of church or those types of things. But it’s going to be challenging, I think, for us to see that. I heard a pastor earlier today say he was praying that all those wayward people will come back to church.
And I thought, you know, some of those wayward people are just doing church differently. And so, how can we learn and listen to that? And that’s, I think, a conversation that’s going to lead us into the future. Some of these people that are joining us, I noticed, Jul, are from Europe, where I feel like they’ve moved into that model of church long before we have. And so I almost wish I could learn from them. I wish they could come here and tell us what they’ve learned about that. How do they help the church have different expressions of church and still maintain unity?
Jul Medenblik: Yeah, the post-Christian context has already led them to certain things. Glen, next to you, and then Kevin. What strikes your heart? … What gives you pause at this time, or maybe even a challenge or difficulty, about forming new worshiping communities today?
Whether it’s that sense of waiting and longing or people—will they be able to incorporate the things we’re finding out during this pandemic? So I’ve heard, for example, and maybe using it this way: There’s some people who feel like we’re going to go back to church as usual. And Amy’s answer kind of reflected, are we really going to be able to do that?
But you’ve also dealt with the context of closing down a church, restarting a church. In fact, there was a question in the chat that spoke a little bit about that. But let’s just start with—we’ll go to the questions in the chat in just a little bit, but … what is something that is in your heart that says it’s not always sunny and bright and up and to the right? There’s things that we have to deal with or call out—the sin, the brokenness we all have in this world and in ourselves.
Glen McCarthy: Something that gives me pause is, I care about proper training. I would hate for people to jump into planting a church or starting a ministry prematurely. And I think that prior to COVID, some churches had a social media presence and were thriving, but I noticed that—this is in my opinion—there were a lot of, especially in my region, individuals on social media propagating a Christian message and so forth, sometimes with some questionable doctrine.
And I’ve also experienced as a pastor people kind of promoting themselves and pushing themselves out into ministry, and I think that there’s something beautiful about going through a process and submitting to a process and being developed and trained. And so I think that I would hate for easy accessibility to lead people into thinking that they don’t need the Spirit’s leading or God’s process for developing men and women of God who are launched out into ministry.
So I don’t know if that made any sense, but that’s kind of—did you want me to address the comment in the chat? I thought we were going to have a time to—
Jul Medenblik: We will do that. So we’ll get to you, and … if you still want to put a question in the chat or the Q&A, we’ll do that. But Kevin, what’s giving you pause out there in California? It’s just a wonderful state, I know, but sometimes you—
Kevin Adams: It’s always happy. It’s never on fire. If any of you are firefighters, please move to California because fire season is now eleven months out of the year.
I think one of the things that gives me pause, and I’ve heard it in different ways—Denise was talking about this earlier. I think about my friend in another neighborhood in Sacramento and my friend in East Boston and some other places. To start a church, to nourish a community where people don’t all think alike or vote alike, or I mean there is some unanimity, but that old phrase, “in Christ there is no Greek or Jew, Barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all”—there are times that seems harder.
I think it’s always been hard, but that seems harder now. How do you have conversations with folks who think differently than you politically, or maybe socioeconomically, but there’s a oneness in Christ—how do we have that conversation together? I think that’s a difficult conversation right now. I think it’s, frankly, always been difficult. And what I’m not advocating is to say that that’s ever been simple but that’s—I think that’s really difficult. And I don’t think I’m saying anything that’s probably new to folks.
The other thing that’s always an issue in every era is this intersection of old and new. Amy was kind of talking about this, but there are wonderful treasures—and Glen really was through his training, I think—but there are wonderful treasures in the historic church that I think wise leaders today are always paying attention to. I appreciate what Denise is saying about her wrestling with Eucharist and communion. We really wrestle with that too because we don’t want it to be an easy thing. We’re really wrestling with what does it mean to do this as a community, to be present together, to have Christ present among us?
And so that is just like a symbol of many issues where we’re taking the old wisdom of the church and applying them in a really new context now with COVID. That’s always kind of an uphill challenge, but a special uphill challenge right now.
Jul Medenblik: And it doesn’t stop on January 20. We all know that. … Thanks for that. Glen, we are going to go to questions in the chat. There’s two that were specifically directed to you, but I’d like to combine them for your answer. And it really addresses something that also is part of the challenge of this time: grief and loss. We’re all going through stages of grief and loss, and we need to acknowledge that when we’re in our communities.
But specifically, how did you address the sense of loss that accompanies the loss of a church? … What did the process of opening a new church look like? Are you still in the same building? And what was the process of discernment that led to the restart? Could you tell more about that story of closing, discernment, restart, and what that was for you? And even that sense of how you addressed the sense of loss that happens?
Glen McCarthy: That’s a great question. At first, I was a little confused about whether that was due to the pandemic, the loss of … being in the building, but I’ll address the church plant or the restart environment.
We had a process of discernment that included our entire council, as well as leaders from the denomination. We had been in conversations with church planters, folks who have been involved in the restart work, and with our congregation. So this decision wasn’t made in isolation. It was a unanimous decision by our full council to make this, and everyone was invited into the process. … Quite a few people chose not to be a part of the process, but everyone was invited to be a part of the process.
We just didn’t close the church. We had vision-casting sessions, we had sessions where we engaged community people and brought people in on Saturdays for coffee and donuts to talk about a new, fresh vision for the church. We invited existing members into that conversation. And we basically planned, or talked about, what the process would look like together.
We had a time where our sanctuary was being remodeled and we moved our services to our gymnasium, where we again went through a process of dreaming about a new church and disclosing all types of information about what it would look like. I specifically channeled preaching on evangelism and the gospel and dealing with the mission of God in the world.
We actually visited churches. We visited a predominantly African American church in our community to give our white congregants an idea of what it looks like, or feels like, to be a minority and to be in a Christian congregation that’s of a different cultural context. We visited a multicultural church. So again, we did tours of churches.
We created a process that we walked through together. And so we grieved together as well. It was not something that we took lightly. But the majority of us agreed that it was something that needed to happen. You know, Jesus said, “Unless a seed, a kernel of wheat, falls to the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” So sometimes there’s life that comes out of death, and we see that also in the resurrection. So really just tying to Scripture.
So that kind of addresses that part. And also the process for opening a new church—there was another part of the question that I was going to address.
Jul Medenblik: You’re in the same building too, right? So you talked about that. That’s part of it.
Glen McCarthy: So, we physically closed the church. It wasn’t open for public worship for a season, and we did worship in our homes. So again, we had required readings, we studied,
and all of this was affirming the direction that we felt we needed to go to. And again, the congregation, or the council, was unanimous in its agreement to go in this direction. So, just a season of meeting in homes, meeting in our gymnasium while remodeling was going on, and also visiting other churches.
That was the process, but the discernment had to do with prayer—prayer and fasting. We went through a period of prayer and fasting to discern to make this decision. The church, Peace Church, had been struggling to reach the community for twenty years. So it had been in a declining state for twenty years prior to me coming, so this wasn’t something like a new idea. It was just something that needed to happen, and someone had to have the courage to move the church, the congregation, forward.
Jul Medenblik: Restarting does take courage, as you found out. I appreciate and honor you and your church for that commitment.
We’re coming near the end of the time. And there’s actually a question in the chat that might be helpful for us to use as a closing question. And the question was, What are some of the things that are non-negotiable in church planting? What are the things that you … think ought to be where we invest time, and what opportunities and endeavors might pull us away? I’ll put it this way: What is your best advice to someone who’s planting, or renewing, or involved in both? And by the way, that’s everybody. I’m trying to put you all in the same boat that way.
The reality is that this panel has been wonderful to lift up some stories of imagination, missional imagination. So there’s something about that. I’m going to start with Kevin and we’re going to do a reverse of how we opened. So Kevin, then Denise, could you answer that question: What are some of the non-negotiables when you talk or are encouraged—and I know from knowing some of the people on the chat, there are people who are brand new, haven’t really thought of themselves as a church planter or a church renewer. The reality is you need to think of yourself as a missionary in context. What does that look like, or what’s your word of good advice or counsel for that person? Kevin, we’ll start with you.
Kevin Adams: Thanks, Jul, and thanks to the person who asked the question. There’s the forty-five minute response to this, and there’s the forty-five second response. So the forty-five second response is by participating in the Symposium, you are doing a very wise, wise thing. My encouragement to you is to really think about and understand worship in your context in a way that reflects and honors the old, old ways. You may have a particular tradition, like Methodism, for instance, or something like that. You want to honor those ways, but I think you want to honor the ways of the ancient church. Get to know Athanasius, who was called the “black dwarf.” Get to know why he was who was who he was, how he wrestled with the circumstances of his neighborhood and his time and era.
But I think really going to the Symposium, learning the ways of worship. You know, I’m Reformed, so the keys to the church are the sacraments, preaching, and discipleship—so, spiritual formation. I think really, not master those, but go on a lifelong journey of deepening the practices that you have in those. That’d be my forty-five second version.
Jul Medenblik: I know John Witvliet was in this session, so he appreciates that, as we all do. So Denise and then Glen. What’s your blessing to people at this time?
Denise Kingdom Grier: I would say don’t be afraid of conflict and don’t be afraid of what might seem hard. What might be hard for us is certainly not impossible for God. And so, be brave and be courageous in engagement with your community and with your context and with your wrestling with Scripture and who Jesus is and how Jesus shows up in the world—perhaps in ways that are different from the ways we’ve always been taught. Don’t shy away from what might be hard and what might not be conforming to the patterns of this world, if you will, but be brave and be transformed in order to transform our communities for Christ.
Jul Medenblik: Amen. Glen and then Amy.
Glen McCarthy: I would say keep prayer at the center of everything—prayer and God’s Word. Don’t go without prayer. And I would say be true to who you are, who God has called you to be.
I believe people respond through authenticity—that the Holy Spirit is at work guiding and leading you, and if you’re obedient to God, then he knows how to turn people’s hearts. I’ve had people in my church that voted to close the church and agreed to restart the church but didn’t stay with the church. They knew it was the best thing to meet the goal of reaching the community, but it wasn’t something for them personally. And so I think that you have an obligation to be faithful to God, just as he’s faithful to us.
Jul Medenblik: Amen. Amy?
Amy Schenkel: If I was redoing it, if I was planting again right now, I would spend way more time listening to God and listening to our community. We think we know how to listen until we start practicing listening, and it takes so much energy and so much time. But unless we’re deeply rooted in God’s Word and listening to God, we can’t help others do that. And unless we’re listening to our community and asking more questions than what we’re telling people, we’re never going to be able to create a new worshiping community that actually meets the community where they’re at. And so, learning to listen is my best advice.
Jul Medenblik: Thanks for that. And maybe in ways taking what you said, it’s a confessional, contextual church planting, church renewal work that we’re called to. And I really appreciate the work that obviously has been part of your lives and how out of that you’ve been able to share with others. So it’s been a real blessing to be in this conversation with you.
Those of you on this call and participants: One thing I would invite you to do is—through the wonders of technology, these sessions are recorded. Share them with others. Maybe you even want to have a conversation at your church about what’s happening in your context by just listening once again to some of this material as a way of hopefully bringing insights to you.
Our desire has been to listen to each other, but we desire, ultimately, to honor what you’re doing in the field and desire that this has equipped you in some small way. So we really want to encourage you. We’ll continue to—we saw some of the thanks and places where you’re from—pray for those places from throughout the world.
But at this time we are closing, for your conversation to continue. So on behalf of all of us, we would once again say, Go in peace. Blessings to you in your ministry. God is with you.