New southern California worshiping community stops waiting for people to ‘come to church’
September 19, 2012
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.
Brieann Glass was leading her southern California congregation in worship, but found that, in doing so her heart was breaking.
It wasn’t that Glass didn’t believe in what she was doing. It was what was missing that she couldn’t shake. Or, more to the point, who was missing.
“Sunday after Sunday I would get up front and lead worship but my heart would be breaking for the people who would never walk in our doors,” Glass said at a recent “1001 – Get in the Game” gathering held in nearby Newport Beach. It was the first regional gathering for those interested in the “1001 New Worshiping Communities” movement within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Many of those people were her dear friends — some young, some older, who once had a strong faith but who, for whatever reasons, had stopped going to church.
“We have this gap in the body of Christ — of those who were once here but haven’t come back — that is who my heart broke for,” said Glass.
It wasn’t that Glass’ church was wrong or bad — there was just something missing.
“Like most churches we cared a lot and tried many things — an evening service, or making worship dark and contemplative,” said Glass. But none of those attempts seemed to work.
“I felt so discouraged, I didn’t know what else to do,” admitted Glass.
It was at that point that a series of events began to unfold, beginning with the PC(USA)’s West Coast Training Center of the Office of Church Growth event being hosted down the hall from Glass’s office and the church deciding to be intentional about reaching those outside its doors.
Through a conference on new church development hosted on the San Clemente church’s campus, Glass began to wonder if she might be being nudged in that direction.
“It was like I had all these ingredients in front of me, but I had no idea what the first step was — I didn’t have the recipe,” said Glass.
It was at a Fresh Expressions Conference that the pieces finally seemed to come into place. Fresh Expressions began as a movement in the United Kingdom, primarily within the Church of England and the Methodist Church that seeks to foster new expressions of church.
“I realized that weekend that what God was calling us to — it wasn’t about me at all. It wasn’t about creating a program, the right program. I had been going about it all backwards,” said Glass.
The idea of mission, she came to realize, was not nearly as linear, not nearly as defined has she had wanted it to be. Instead, what Glass came to see, was that the shift that was needed was a shift in her understanding of what she, and the church, were called to.
“What I came to realize was that mission is seeing what God is doing and then joining in,” said Glass.
But that approach, she quickly learned, can be messy and a bit more challenging.
“It required a kind of attentiveness to the Spirit and a life of discipleship that, frankly, I was not doing a very good job of living out,” said Glass. “Basically, I’m supposed to be a disciple, to follow Jesus and that, in all my years of professional church ministry, was not what I had been doing.”
Though this realization was a difficult one, it also released something within Glass that allowed her to move forward and to follow the nudging she had been sensing.
A few weeks later, she, along with five others, began gathering together. “I realized that I had been feeling stuck wondering, ‘who do I need to recruit’ but what I realized was, why don’t we just start with what we have?”
What started with six has now grown to eight. Glass pointed out, a bit tongue in cheek, that this growth of thirty-three percent, is something that most churches would long for. They don’t really have a name yet, but four months in they’ve begun to refer to it simply as the Monday Night Gathering.
The group’s first meeting included sharing a meal and stories. Though they made a plan for the next meeting, they resisted the temptation to put together a ‘six month plan’ or a grand vision statement for the group.
Rather than refer to the gathering as a ‘worshipping community’ they have begun to refer to it instead as a ‘listening community.’
“We committed to listening to God through scripture and prayer and corporate practices and disciplines,” said Glass. “But we also committed to listening to people around us, in our community.”
This practice of listening has challenged the group to pay attention to their own lives and the lives of those around them. It has led them to a point which Glass describes as being ‘on the cusp.’
“We don’t know what will become of this, but this is our story, and this is God’s story.”
The Rev. Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.