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Seeds in the city - Urban church planters rely on innovation, mission Mary Jacobs, Aug 12, 2011
PHOTO BY HELENA HAU
Urban church plants like Embrace Church, led by Rev. Rosario Picardo (right), are making inroads in reaching young adults.
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
Nothing about the Rev. Jerry Herships’ church plant in Denver, Colo., says “church.”
First, there’s the name: AfterHours Denver. Then there’s the fact that worship takes place in the basement of a bar called The Irish Snug. (Beer coasters advertise the gatherings with the slogan, “More Love, More Laughs, Less Judgment.”) Then there’s the way that virtually every AfterHours worship service involves some act on behalf of others, like preparing food for the homeless.
As Mr. Herships likes to say, “Making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches is our call to worship.”
At least three times a week, AfterHours participants make sandwiches to pass out at a city park, where they also share communion with whoever turns up hungry: homeless people and, occasionally, drug dealers or prostitutes.
AfterHours Denver is one of a handful of United Methodist church plants that are gaining traction in places where many once-stalwart United Methodist churches are failing—cities. Church plants like the Urban Village Church in Chicago, The Village Church in Toledo, Ohio, and Embrace Church in Lexington, Ky., are experimenting with a variety of unconventional ways to “do church” in urban environments, and they’re making inroads with that most elusive of demographic groups, young adults.
These innovative ministries are reaching people who might not otherwise set foot in a church. They’re adept at networking and community organizing and nimble enough to thrive on shoestring budgets. Unfettered by building overhead, they gather people in theaters, bars, storefronts, or in one case, the auditorium of a Jewish museum.
These urban plants represent only a small niche within the denomination’s efforts to start 650 new congregations by 2012. While they’re growing, none are yet financially self-sustaining, nor are they turning out large numbers of newly minted United Methodists who will fill the pews every Sunday and tithe regularly. They’re creating something much more fluid and harder to quantify—but, leaders would say, much more exciting.
“We’re not building a church as defined in the 1940s or ’50s,” said Mr. Herships. “We’re much more interested in building disciples.”
People before property
Church growth experts say these new congregations thrive precisely because they are church plants, rather than established churches. “When a church is planted fresh, it’s planted after looking around and saying, ‘Who’s here and how are we going to design what we’re doing with them?’” says Paul Nixon, new church strategist for Path 1, the denomination’s church planting resource team.
That’s how the Urban Village Church in Chicago got started: with a vision dreamed up by two United Methodist elders, the Rev. Christian Coon and the Rev. Trey Hall, friends who attended a two-year training course in church planting in the Northern Illinois Conference.
Before launching regular worship, the pair devoted almost a year to building relationships in the community. They networked in the downtown Chicago area and hosted informal gatherings. They used social media and Meetup.com to start small groups. When they launched regular worship services on Palm Sunday 2010, a campaign of ads in city trains and train stations promoted the gatherings with taglines like: “Bored or burned by religion in the past? We’re doing church differently.”
Today, about 175 people worship each week at one of two Urban Village sites: a downtown location, in the theater of The Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, and in rented space in a Lutheran church in the Wicker Park neighborhood. A third is slated to open in October in the Andersonville neighborhood.
“People before property” is an Urban Village catchphrase, and the pastors say they’re following in the footsteps of Methodist circuit riders. The Urban Village doesn’t own a building—or have any plans to buy one.
“I haven’t spent one day waiting for a plumber or praying over a boiler,” Mr. Hall said. “We are freed because we own nothing.” And that freedom keeps the Urban Village nimble and flexible.
“We go where the people are,” Mr. Coon said. “People in the city are more likely to worship in their own neighborhood. We’re embracing different neighborhoods.” Worship at each site has its own flavor, he added, tweaked to fit the folks who live in the area.
Church for the unchurched
All four church plants strive to connect with folks who would not otherwise find church appealing, like Luke Haim, a 23-year-old graduate student in Denver. While he’s a faithful attendee at AfterHours, he calls himself an agnostic.
“There’s no BS,” he says. “There is no one telling people how to do the right thing. It’s just, have a beer, and make a sandwich, and it’s going to feed someone tomorrow. You don’t need an M.Div. to do that.”
Similarly, the Rev. Cheri Holdridge, pastor of The Village Church in Toledo, says that she’s careful to make worship accessible to those who have little if any church experience.
“We don’t use church language,” she says. “We don’t say ‘bulletin,’ we call it a program. We don’t use words like ‘Pentecost’ without explaining what they mean.”
That approach worked for Rock Hoffman, now a member of The Village. When she moved from Seattle to Toledo last October, Ms. Hoffman found herself at a low point. She had struggled with addiction for years. She didn’t know anyone in the area other than her son and his family. She visited one church in the community, where she was ignored.
When she came to The Village, however, she liked the informal worship services, held in a former restaurant in an otherwise empty strip mall. The worship space looks more like a jazz club than a church. The bar is still there, but now serves coffee.
A church member called Ms. Hoffman on Monday morning after her first visit. Ms. Holdridge soon buttonholed her to discuss ways she could serve the church, and discovered she was good with repairs.
“The more involved I got in the church, the more my life started changing for the better,” Ms. Hoffman said. “Now I have lots of friends. I have someone to talk to. I’m doing all kinds of service work at the church.”
“I don’t think I can ever tell anyone how much this church means to me. I’m alive and doing life,” she said. “My son is 34, and he says, for the first time in his life, he has a mother.”
Ms. Holdridge points to Ms. Hoffman’s story as one of the most rewarding aspects of planting an urban church—the chance to minister to the wide diversity of people that live in the city.
“At our gatherings, you’ll find a county prosecutor sitting across from someone who’s been in jail,” she said. “We have people who are Ph.D. therapists next to people with long-term mental health issues who are just trying to hold their lives together.”
Embrace Church, a church plant in downtown Lexington, Ky., also attracts a diverse crowd, including young professionals, college students, young couples, empty-nesters and the homeless. Embrace started with a small group of people meeting in the one-bedroom apartment of the Rev. Rosario Picardo, Embrace’s lead pastor. Today, about 300 people attend weekly worship at two locations: the historic Kentucky Theatre in downtown Lexington, and at Embrace’s Epworth campus in another low-income neighborhood of Lexington. “Not everybody looks the same,” said Mr. Picardo. “That helps with outreach.”
An urban location, too, is a plus for attracting young people who are often more interested in outreach and service projects than in Bible study, according to Mr. Picardo. With homeless people right in the neighborhood, that’s actually appealing to young adults who, he says, are “tired of playing church and wanting to actually roll up their sleeves.”
While they’re generating a lot of attention, the four urban church plants haven’t shown they can stand on their own financially. Leaders of the Urban Village were given seed money by the conference but say they expect to become financially sustainable in another year or two, as planned. This year, they were able to get pledges from members for at least $200,000 of the church’s annual $300,000 budget, with the remaining $100,000 coming from the conference. The Village in Toledo partnered with the United Church of Christ to get the startup funding to launch. With unemployment hovering between 12-14 percent in Toledo, Ms. Holdridge says that long-term financial viability remains a challenge.
“We have to be able to welcome people who are hurting and living on the edge, and be prepared to deal with their brokenness,” she said. While she’d like for The Village to be financially self-sufficient, it’s difficult given that many at her church are struggling to make ends meet with their low-to-moderate income.
Finances may prove to be another realm in which urban church plants need to revise the conventional model, Mr. Herships says. Currently, the Rocky Mountain Conference pays his salary, and he raises the rest to meet his budget. He doesn’t expect to collect enough from offerings. But he finds that local businesses, with no religious agenda, are often willing to support his ministry to the homeless, as are some suburban church members who have donated to AfterHours.
Another monetary challenge: The young adults who attend these urban church plants haven’t proven to be reliable sources of funding. Some are transient. Most have entry level jobs and can only donate small amounts. Some will participate regularly and enthusiastically for a few months, and then disappear.
“Being patient is key,” said Mr. Coon. “The prodigal son is a huge story for us.”
It takes a certain breed to lead urban church plants successfully, according to Mr. Nixon, who coaches the pastors of The Village, Urban Village and AfterHours.
“They are all entrepreneurs,” he said. “They like to color outside of the box. They love God, they really love people, and they do not fit into church culture.” Mr. Nixon adds that successful church planters are also indefatigable networkers. They know how to meet new people and make connections.
“Church planters have to be extroverted and you have to know how to network,” said Ms. Holdridge. “I network like other people breathe oxygen.”
Similarly, Mr. Herships’ email signature identifies him with two titles: “Chief Love Monger” and “Lead Spiritual Entrepreneur.” Mr. Nixon says that, in whatever locale they’re ministering, United Methodist churches can glean lessons from the experiences of these urban ministries.
“Every church has to keep looking outside at its community,” he said. “They remind us to keep looking outside of the walls of our churches, and be aware of other people who matter as well.”