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From storefronts to RV parks to historic theatres and coffee shops, we in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have spent the last few years putting up new church communities in some pretty unorthodox places. We’re planting churches beyond church walls — a 10-year project we call 1,001 New Worshiping Communities.
As the deputy executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many of these atypical churches.
Tamara John, an evangelist in our mainline Protestant denomination, started a church in Southern California in her custom RV with a 10-by-12-foot chapel in the back. “I’m talking with people who have walked away from God,” she says. “To those who are struggling to trust God again.”
Hope For Life Chapel is one of more than 237 new worshiping communities that have started since 2012 when the PC(U.S.A.) denomination officially adopted the movement. Each one is part of a grassroots movement, nurtured by the church, for people seeking an alternative to traditional church — where they can explore faith.
John says it took a year for her to earn the trust of her new community. She began by telling her neighbors about the emotional, physical, spiritual and psychological trauma she’d been through — and how God’s healing power through Jesus brought her to the other side.
Her transparency opened the door for those around her to share their stories. There are 52 RVs in her park fulltime, each housing between one and six people. John has been able to help her neighbors deal with kid’s bullying issue, shame, guilt, despair, and broken relationships.
In our rapidly changing culture — where, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, about 20 percent of adults (46 million) have no religious affiliation — Protestant denominations like ours are trying to reach those who distrust institutions and call themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.” We modeled 1001 New Worshipping Communities after a program in the United Kingdom called Fresh Expressions that has planted thousands of new, modern congregations, along with some traditional ones.
Nearly 50 percent of our new worshiping communities have been started by racial/ethnic minorities and new immigrants in partnership with our denomination’s judicatories. This is great news for a church that is 90 percent white — the average Presbyterian is a 63-year-old woman.
We believe new worshiping communities like Shalom International Ministry will help us change that. Located just outside of Atlanta, Shalom began when a pastor from the Democratic Republic of Congo started visiting his neighbors in Clarkston, Georgia, a city that is home to an estimated 8,000 residents from 30 different countries.
Pastor Gad Mpoyo remembers knocking on the door of a family from Haiti. Their 16-year-old daughter told him her family came to the U.S. after the earthquake in 2010. “We used to feel lonely a lot, she said. “Before you, no one came.”
Mpoyo grew up Methodist. Before he came to the U.S. his bishop in Congo told him to go “where God’s spirit went.” He was working at Druid Hill Presbyterian Church’s night shelter in Atlanta when a few members of the congregation who had heard of his ministry reached out to him.
“They didn’t see denominational boundaries,” Mpoyo said. “They wanted to help us service these immigrants and refugees still suffering from the trauma of war and devastation.”
Presbyterians worked with Mpoyo, befriending him through his PC(U.S.A.) ordination process. The nearby Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church offered him use of their chapel. Members of Mpoyo’s ministry, who had previously gathered in homes, now have one place where to gather and worship — where it is safe and feels like home.
Now some 100 people from 16 different countries attend Shalom, where they receive aid in understanding transportation, searching for jobs, shopping for groceries, and even obtaining basic furniture for their homes.
Our goal isn’t just to create 1,001 new worshiping communities over 10 years. We also want to capture the imagination of our church — to re-engage our missional spirit.
At one time Presbyterians planted churches, schools, and hospitals here and around the world. Hopefully learning to do church in a new way beyond traditional church walls will help us rediscover our purpose and focus on bringing God’s mercy, love, and justice into the neighborhood.
Image via Shutterstock.