There is a Balm in Chicago

Rebecca Anderson grew up Evangelical, but as a young adult, she didn’t consider herself a religious person.

That didn’t mean she didn’t dip her toes in the waters of different communities of faith.

And then she attended a local church in Boston at the suggestion of a fellow non-religious friend, which changed her life. In fact, she describes the experience as her day of Pentecost.

“It was this big lung full of bright, fresh air,” Rebecca recalls. “I hadn’t heard the gospel in the way that I heard it that day. I could finally understand what they were saying.”

This experience is what drives her ministry today, and it’s what inspired her in 2017 to launch Gilead Church Chicago, a joint congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ, with her co-pastor Vince Amlin, who also pastors Bethany United Church of Christ alongside her.

“I try to create conditions where people who need a particular translation of the gospel can hear it,” Rebecca says. “I see on people’s faces, when the way we do church speaks to them, and I see it when it doesn’t.”

So, who does Gilead Church speak to? It’s with, for, and by people who’ve been told or made to feel that church isn’t for them.

“If these stories, traditions, practices, questions, and the person of Jesus are compelling or in any way meaningful to you, they are yours,” says Rebecca. “I’m not making seats at the table. It’s not my table, it’s yours. If you are drawn to this, God has prepared it for you. My call to ministry is to let people know that and then get out of the way.”

Worshipers at Gilead include members of the LGBTQ+ community, young adults, professional activists, and in Rebecca’s words “a disproportionately large number of women.” Several members of the lay and staff leadership are performers, as one of the faith community’s core practices, which were developed when Rebecca attended Leadership Academy in 2015, is telling true stories that save lives.

One of these stories is about a recent addition to Gilead, who returned to church after a 10-year absence due to severe spiritual trauma. To curtail their fears about and suspicion of Christian institutions, this person researched Gilead online and tentatively attended a worship service. Afterward, they made a list of what they wanted from church, including praise and worship music a la Hillsong and authoritative leadership, the kind that had the answers and knew their answers were right. Gilead didn’t have any of those requirements, so they told themselves they wouldn’t return. But as the week progressed, this person questioned what any item on their list had done but harm them. What they needed in their life was love, and they knew that Gilead had that. Ever since they’ve attended every service.

“It’s a miracle,” beams Rebecca. “They told the story at church this past Sunday and it was heartbreaking, good, and generous.”

One of Gilead’s other practices is making beautiful, creative worship. While its liturgy, order of worship, and communion are traditional, Gilead’s creativity is found in how it chooses to gather with its people. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they met at a bar, where they hung out and filled in story prompts. In the past, they’ve had worship on the subway and now they meet in a gym. Gilead also meets online, which Rebecca admits has been hard for her to do.

“Pre-pandemic, we were deeply analog because we didn’t want anything more on our phones, we were so done with it,” she remembers. “Gilead had always been this kind of doggedly in-person place. People tell personal stories that they consent to tell in a room to a specific group of people.”

COVID-19 also changed the way that the congregation threw parties, another one of their core practices. While throwing parties may seem like an odd practice for a church to embrace, for Gilead it’s about reclaiming a theology of joy, which has been absent from modern Christian tradition. Basing its practice on a Yale study that found joy was a marker of the life of faith in both Jewish and Christian scriptures, Gilead views Jesus as a party goer and God as a party thrower.

“Things are very serious,” Rebecca acknowledges, “but the antidote isn’t somberness, it’s joy.”

To that end, Gilead typically threw four large annual parties. It celebrated Easter with a dance party, complete with a DJ, communion, and a liturgical piñata. Every year, Rebecca’s co-pastor Vince insists that just hitting the pinata works, no one cares about the candy.

“We’ve got this one congregant who said, ‘we should get a pinata shaped like a gravestone,’ Rebecca laughs. “We thought it was so serious and on the nose. Couldn’t we just get a unicorn?”

These all stopped with the arrival of the novel coronavirus, but with creativity at its core, Gilead persevered. For Easter 2020, church leadership got people to contribute to its worship service, including award-winning poet Ada Limón, who kicked it off by reading her poem In the Country of Resurrection to the congregation. The following week, Rebecca and her colleagues purchased doughnuts from a local breakfast sandwich joint, fanned out around the city, and took doughnuts to congregants. Mindful of the health guidelines, staff members flung doughnuts through windows and placed them in containers lowered out of windows. They took communion to as many people as they could in the same way, adding a little table on the side of the street, which was used to do a socially distanced liturgy.

“We found ways to be together,” says Rebecca. “We had worship outside with everybody spread out. Only Vince and I were singing, and while I’m a big extrovert, I felt so exposed.”

This tension, one of curtailing your natural behavior for the safety of others, and what it does for your mental health, was explored in a 2020 sermon series Rebecca called Pity Parties. It featured true stories of the difficult times people were having during the pandemic, instead of glossing over them.

“There was that pandemic narrative where people would start off saying they were fine, continue on to a middle section of how they were really feeling, and then ending with them saying how lucky and privileged they were,” Rebecca explains. “We wanted to provide people with an opportunity to be honest.” 

Of course, honesty and vulnerability come hand in hand, so she is always careful to say that Gilead’s dynamic is about building intimacy from where people are at, appropriate for their context, and true to their DNA. Ultimately, the people of Gilead don’t want church that is sanitized of authentic experiences, even if they’re messy. This commitment to sharing what Rebecca calls “high emotions” is what makes the people of Gilead more than fellow worshipers, it makes them real friends, incidentally the last of the church’s core practices.

“Early on, we received a grant for a project with and for young adults, which in this case was people in their 20s, so we studied how people come into community,” says Rebecca. “We found that making adult friends is notoriously difficult so there’s this loneliness epidemic. As a result of that study, “’making real friends’ became one of our core practices.”

This practice comes from the close relationship that she and her co-pastor Vince share. They met in grad school and kept in touch over the years, communicating via text and getting together once a year. On a trip to St. Augustine, FL, they asked what it would look like if they started a church together. Not only did she and Vince share the same affinities and commitments, but Rebecca also didn’t think a solitary leadership model was ideal. They started talking about it then and soon they were texting every day. Rebecca shared what she learned at Leadership Academy about mission, vision, and values and they decided that Gilead would be a church for two pastors. Rebecca quit her job and that same week, she and Vince learned that Bethany was searching for one full-time pastor. They pitched their idea of splitting the job and co-pastoring not only Bethany, but Gilead too.

“This was a big risk for Bethany,” reveals Rebecca, “but thanks to some good DNA and interim work, they took a chance and hired us.”

The church had a small number of worshipers when Rebecca and Vince arrived, so they approached their new positions as leaders of a revitalization project. While Bethany was a 125-year-old neighborhood church, it was progressive and had a young membership. Now Bethany is vibrant and growing its numbers. 

Rebecca and Vince can juggle both positions because Gilead holds its worship services in the evenings. Each week, they’re both in leadership at one of the congregations, but one of them preaches and takes the lead on liturgy and the service. The following week, they switch positions and churches. Student pastors fill in their positions at their other congregation.

“I already know that working with Vince has been and will be one of the great and abiding joys of my entire life,” Rebecca reveals. “I’m just grateful.”

She’s also appreciative of the generous support from both the UCC and the Disciples of Christ, including the New Church/Ministries team of the Illinois-Wisconsin region, which has provided funding and just as importantly, encouragement.

“There’s mutual trust, so they’re not suspicious of our translation of the gospel and I’m not scared to ask anybody in the region anything,” says Rebecca. 

Rebecca and Vince also try to be available to folks who would find their experiences and knowledge useful, especially new church leaders. At its core, Gilead is viewed by its co-pastors as a ministry of their respective denominations.

“I’m doing this work to serve God and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which is the denomination where God found me,” Rebecca concludes. “I used to feel sheepish because I fell into this church, but it doesn’t matter. It is the place where God found me outside the empty tomb.”

To support emerging congregations like Gilead, make a gift to the Pentecost Offering, received in most congregations on June 5. 

Finding faith and community in the margins with Comunidad Limen

“Have you seen the movie Luca?”

Rev. Pedro Ramos Goycolea

Rev. Pedro Ramos Goycolea, the pastor of Comunidad Limen Christian Church, was trying to find the right words that would describe the ministry of his emerging community of faith. As the organizer of the first official Latinx, Spanish-speaking, open and affirming congregation in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he’s often felt compelled to “justify” his theology in the past. And as a father of two young boys, he’s also compelled to watch various animated films. 

“Luca is a young merman who can turn into a human. His parents are concerned about him entering the human world because they believe humans will reject their son and fail to understand who he is,” Rev. Pedro continues. “It turns out that his grandmother has been sneaking around and doing this all of her life.”

Without going into too many spoilers, Luca’s grandma assuages his parents’ fear by saying that some humans will accept him, and some won’t, but either way, Luca will just have to live with that reality.

While that’s not your typical source material for organizing a new church, Rev. Pedro describes watching the film as an ah-ha moment. 

I was just blown away when I watched it,” he recalls. “I’m choosing to work with the reality that our younger generations are building, accepting, and creating.”

This reality is one of affirming the identity of young LGBTQ Latinos. Instead of spending his time trying to explain what his faith community is doing for these individuals and their families, he has decided to work with the two or three generations that are waiting for these communities to happen.

“Younger generations are deconstructed already. TikTok has done the job for us,” laughs Rev. Pedro. “There’s just so much information out there, folks can just listen to Martin Luther King instead of me!”

For this Tucson, AZ place of worship, creating a safe space is a piece of deconstruction. While this term, which essentially refers to the process of re-evaluating and interrogating Christian practices, history, and institutions, has recently been mired in controversy, Rev. Pedro views it not as a reductive vision of Christianity, but an amplifying one.

“It’s about understanding different dimensions to faith through deconstructing the limits that place it in boxes,” he goes on to say, “as opposed to open roads to it.”

The roads in his own spiritual journey took Rev. Pedro from Mexico to the United States in 2006, where he launched a Hispanic church in Arizona, then received his M.Div from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. After working in New Mexico, Rev. Pedro returned to Arizona, 10 years after he had left.

“I went to a very progressive seminary so when I came back, I was all fired up,” remembers Rev. Pedro, “not knowing what had been happening with those families that were at the first church I started.”

One of those families had two daughters that were eight and 10-years-old when he went away for school. Now as teenagers, they are navigating all that comes with young adulthood – including their sexual orientations. While Rev. Pedro acknowledges that he is a cis-gender, heterosexual man, he can empathize with the experiences of rejection that many queer youths face in religious spaces.

“When my parents separated, I basically became the son of a single mom, and we didn’t contribute much financially to the church,” he reveals. “Because I was so passionate about church, I tried to bring my talents and gifts, but it didn’t matter to the leadership, they still rejected me. I was deeply hurt. I don’t want people to connect with God in that way because God is the total opposite of that.”

That’s why Rev. Pedro thinks of Comunidad Limen CC as a movement, and not as an institutionalized spirituality. According to him, it’s not a church for everybody: the good news that’s going to come out of that space is going to be good news for those who need to hear it. He’s aware that a lot of folks are just going to stick to existing structures – Comunidad Limen needs to be a movement that’s accessible outside of those structures. 

Comunidad Limen’s first meeting

So in January 2020, Rev. Pedro and his core team had their first official meeting, determined to start this movement. And like so many faith communities at that time, they had to stop their in-person meetings the following month. Yet they were unfazed – the movement would simply take place online. They soon reached out to the Arizona region, which enthusiastically welcomed Comunidad Limen and connected it with New Church Ministry, a general ministry that has provided Rev. Pedro with educational opportunities such as Leadership Academy.

For a while, congregants worshiped together on Zoom, but these meetings became unreliable due to a combination of factors, zoom exhaustion, poor connection speeds and/or lack of access to a laptop. So Comunidad Limen started uploading content to different social media platforms (YouTubeTikTokFacebookInstagram), where viewers could watch videos or review posts on their own time. The Comunidad Limen podcast has been one of its most successful ventures. With the easing of pandemic restrictions, Comunidad Limen began meeting in person again, but it doesn’t occupy a permanent building. Instead, it uses the facilities of local church communities at different times on different days.

“When we talk about essential workers, that’s the Latino community – folks that don’t stop working, no matter if there is a pandemic. We are the ones who don’t stop cleaning, cooking food, and making deliveries because society needs to keep going,” says Rev. Pedro. “So when you ask folks to come and meet you at a time and place, it’s a burden for them.”

After all, Comunidad Limen was started out of a need from the bilingual Latino community to connect during the pandemic because its members were isolated in their homes. They no longer had access to the spaces where Spanish language Bible studies were held, that taught theologies that spoke to them. In fact, Comunidad Limen’s name refers to the fact that it always stays in liminal space, in what Rev. Pedro calls the “in between-ness of being.”

“What if the in between-ness is actually the place where you need to be?” Rev. Pedro asks. “We’re always experiencing faith and culture in this in between-ness, in this liminal space. So we’re going to claim that as the place where you experience God’s presence. There are hundreds of Biblical references of God meeting people in the in between-ness of life. Peter was literally walking on water when Jesus grabbed his hand. Liminality can’t be more real than that.”

Comunidad Limen was also created to provide safe spaces of affirmation and welcoming for a community that is oftentimes marginalized – progressive Christian Latinos. 

“There’s a desire for a graceful faith that welcomes all the diversity within the community. When I asked my core group of leaders to join me in starting this church, they responded, ‘we thought you would never ask,’” Rev. Pedro says, “because people love to gather in community, to celebrate it, and to worship a God that gives you freedom, that liberates you.”

Despite this, he has found that when many LGBTQ families in the Latino community attend worship, they hear something judgmental about people that they love, such as their children, grandchildren, and even themselves. Comunidad Limen is a place where they are safe from experiencing any of that and can hear about a God of love, a God of welcome.

That is certainly true for the families that attended Rev. Pedro’s Sahuarita congregation 15 years ago, who are the same families that are attending his Tucson one. It’s true for folks in Mexico or in California who are now having intimate conversations about their faith, or for the grandparents who tearfully told Rev. Pedro that Comunidad Limen was the first church they’d heard about where everyone’s identity is valid.

Multiple generations take part in coloring praying mandalas, where each color represents a different prayer need. 



“That’s why we wanted to create a community that wasn’t bound by geographical location,” he shares, “but rather, a community that attends to the needs of people where they are.”

To that end, Comunidad Limen’s leadership is working with Alliance Q to expand its Familias Incluyentes ministry, where LGBTQ families share their stories with one another online, across the U.S.

“We found that a lot of the families in our community have never had a safe space to share their struggles and joys,” Rev. Pedro discloses, “without someone like a family member or friend judging.”

But even though many of the interactions among Comunidad Limen’s members are virtual, the church does conduct its ministry right on the Arizona-Mexico border and Rev. Pedro is keenly aware of what that means for his community, many members of which are immigrants.

“Our bodies never leave this space of liminality. Our faith doesn’t either. Our last names are hyphenated, our identity as Mexican-Americans is always hyphenated,” he muses. “The same thing happens in our faith journeys.”

While he describes this latest destination on his own journey as “practicing bold faith,” Rev. Pedro is also simply providing something that has been denied to so many queer Latino families – a place of worship where they and their children are welcomed with open arms, where their faith and orientations aren’t viewed as incongruous, and where they can feel liberated and loved.

“Creating a community based on love and grace takes longer, but it’s harder to break apart,” finishes Rev. Pedro. “And that’s what we’re experiencing here.”

To support congregations like Comunidad Limen, contribute to the Pentecost Offering, which is received in most congregations on May 29 and June 5. Half of the gifts made go to regional new church development and the other half goes to New Church Ministry, which trains, equips, assists, and multiplies emerging faith communities and their leaders. 

Your Pentecost Offering Gifts Boost Ministry to Folks in Springfield, MO

The Connecting Grounds (TCG) has always been a Disciples congregation, it just didn’t know it.

That’s what Christie Love’s good friend, a Disciples of Christ pastor, told her when she called in the middle of June 2020. TCG’s landlord had just informed the new Springfield, MO, congregation that it must move or end its ministry doing outreach for unhoused people.

TCG provided food, clothing, and public restrooms from the strip mall location they rented. But as the Covid-19 pandemic began, the ministry to 200-plus people moved to the sidewalk in front for safety.

“My team didn’t feel like the church — the whole church— could shelter in place,” during the heightened need created by the pandemic, recalls Christie. “Yes, there were safety issues. But the call of the gospel doesn’t have a caveat for health conditions.”

When shoppers objected to “those people” being so near their grocery store, Christie called her Disciples pastor friend in frustration. As he listened, Rev. Phil Snider recognized in this independent, interdenominational worshiping community qualities that matched the Disciples ethos. He knew that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada could support his friend’s community of faith. (Through the annual Pentecost OfferingDisciples Mission Fund supports local new church development as well as New Church Ministry (NCM), which trains, equips, assists, and multiplies emerging places of worship and their leaders.) Would TCG consider joining the denomination? 

An Increasing Discomfort with Church

Christie had launched TCG nearly two years earlier out of profound discomfort with what she saw as inappropriate coziness between American faith communities and middle-class values.

“A lot of people living at or below the poverty line don’t feel welcome in American churches,” Christie says. She heard from lower-income people an awkwardness and even “shame in their inability to afford participation.”

So, Christie and her team had researched socio-economic trends within the local church context. They learned that financial status did factor heavily in membership. When they explored the lives of those who were not included in church, they found their ministry calling. Those facing decreased income, housing instability, or with their children in foster care, often had experienced significant trauma that had created those conditions. Further, many others had felt the sting of exclusion from communities of faith.

“We asked, ‘How do we create a church space that isn’t classist, that is open, especially cost-wise? How do we create one that is trauma-informed? How do we be aware of the imprint that the church has on people who’ve been the victims of weaponized and misused religion?’ These questions helped to shape our identity,” remembers Christie.

TCG’s planters had also noticed another trend: wealthier, progressive congregations on the south side of town had planted smaller congregations on the north side, focused on addiction recovery and re-entry after prison.

“It’s all good work, but there wasn’t an entry point for people that didn’t have preexisting issues,” says Christie. “It seemed like people who struggled with drugs, alcohol, or an addictive behavior were sent to (those churches). It didn’t feel like a space existed for people who were trying to understand who Jesus was.”

Building Church Around Community Need

In a neighborhood with a poverty rate of 30 percent (twice the state’s average), TCG launched a no-barrier food pantry and a clothing closet designed for low-income and unsheltered people. TCG didn’t require IDs or proof of address for participation, making access easier for visitors.

They also started Family Connection, a program developed in partnership with the county’s Children’s Division to provide space for children in foster care to visit their biological families.

“A big part of our heart from day one was to wrap around and support the reunification efforts of separated families,” Christie says, “and to do that in a loving and trauma-informed space.”

When the landlord called to challenge their operation in her building, Christie knew the congregation was not going to abandon the call they felt to welcome people unconditionally. She called Rev. Phil to pray with her. He prayed. But he also introduced her to Disciples who could help.

New Partners

Christie learned the Disciples of Christ Mid-America region owned an empty property in her community, so she met with Regional Minister Rev. Ron Routledge, who then connected her with former Regional Minister Rev. Christine Chenoweth. In her meetings with Rev. Christine, Christie discovered not just help for the faith community, but for herself as well.

“She pastorally cared for me as a faith leader in ways that I’ve never experienced,” says Christie. “So often pastors love on people. There aren’t a lot of people loving back. She recognized we were going through a traumatic situation – grieving the loss of our location. She connected us to the wider church (including NCM) and introduced us to Disciples pastors in the area.”

In short order, TCG became affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and accepted an early termination of its lease. Then it relocated to a small house and empty church building the region provided.

The house became the Family Connection center, providing a homelike environment for parents visiting their children in foster care. Interior walls were removed to open the floor plan, a kitchenette and a dining room table were added, and family-friendly board games were brought in.

Not Navigating Alone

But the new location presents its own challenges. The facility can shelter only 15 individuals each night in the church building – a far cry from the hundreds it used to house and shelter. Furthermore, the new location is on a very busy state road without any sidewalks. Even public transportation proves problematic, as there is a lack of bus stops nearby. 

However, as they navigate these new challenges, the people of TCG aren’t doing so on their own. NCM and local DoC churches have stepped up. 

Through Leadership Academy, which is the ministry’s annual educational opportunity for pastors and core teams of both established and newly planted churches, Christie has been able to share her knowledge about trauma-informed ministry. Through relationships with local pastors, she has found peer support.

Today, Christie and her team plan to create phase one of a US $12 million transitional supportive shelter called Roots of Community, which will provide affordable housing through an apartment complex with a community and daycare center on-site. Already, they have petitioned the city council for American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and started fund-raising efforts.

The TCG team also bought a small respite house this year to support people receiving chemotherapy or hospice care, as there are few places in Springfield for them to go to. 

“As we’re building relationships with people, we’re including them in community, and making them feel welcome,” says Christie.

With NCM and other Disciples partners sharing the load, TCG will continue to look for innovative ways to fill gaps the church has historically missed in Springfield. For Christie, an evolving ministry is what innovative theology is all about.

“We never say, ‘Okay, we accomplished this,’ because love, justice, and mercy are the things that we’re called to, there’s always going to be a call to something deeper and higher.”

You Can Help

Gifts made to the Pentecost Offering support New Church Ministry and innovative new church development, like The Connecting Grounds. This Special Day Offering will be received in most congregations on May 29 and June 5. For additional information and resources that you can share with church members, visit pentecost-offering.com

Ekklesia

Finding a path to God with Ekklesia Global

Michelle Beech lives and works in Spartanburg, South Carolina. In her words, that’s not where she’s from, but that’s where God has her now.

Due to her father’s career as a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), she’s lived all over the United States. So it’s fitting that her new community of faith, Ekklesia Global, has people joining their video calls from across the country and across the world. 

Michelle Beech (back row) visits a waterfall with members of her faith community.

Ekklesia launched in 2019, after Michelle had taken a break from church. Over the years she had filled almost every single position one could at a Disciples congregation and needed some time away. 

“I felt the Lord leading me to do something new,” Michelle says in a recent interview with New Church Ministry. “Was that digital church? But how do we use technology to create something beautiful, instead of trying to force what we know works in a building to fit the medium?”

So in March of that year, she hosted a listening retreat to hear what her friends’ spiritual needs were. It turns out that many of them had left church 30 to 40 years ago and others, five to ten years ago. Still others hadn’t found a place of worship that was right for them since moving to the area.

“Some people left church when they were young. They walked away from God and they haven’t been involved since,” Michelle tells us. “To some degree, they’re unchurched because they have that one early experience with their inherited faith, instead of their chosen faith.”

She led them through what she was thinking she wanted to do – to create an outreach ministry serving the new mission field of our own backyards – primarily for those who have left traditional church. After receiving feedback, Michelle came away with some helpful information. She then invited people interested in what she was doing to an Easter sunrise worship service, which was Ekklesia’s first official meeting. After that, they got together periodically and talked about God, read books, and learned about sacred dance. Because they didn’t have a fixed space, it freed them up to locate venues that would fit the particular service.

“We didn’t look at what we could do within the confines of four walls,” Michelle shares. “We are a church without walls.”

This structure made the transition to online gatherings easier for Ekklesia after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Participants meet on Zoom every week, where they bring the best of their own faith journeys. And yet Ekklesia is more than just a series of virtual gatherings. It’s an inclusive faith community, encouraging all to keep moving forward on their own path to God. Michelle believes that real spiritual growth happens in intimate settings, so Ekklesia is being developed as a collective of small groups.

“Some people like going into a new church that’s big, because they can disappear until they’re comfortable,” she says. “So this might be a little intimidating.”

Creating a safe space of radical hospitality has thus become an important aspect of Ekklesia for Michelle. She avoids using vocabulary that would alienate the de-churched and eschews membership. 

“We don’t teach a particular theology,” she adds. “We inspire people to keep exploring and discovering by exposing them to different theologies.”

To that end, Ekklesia features guest speakers such as the Rev. Hannah Fitch, a member of its theology team, who introduced participants to ecofeminist theology, and Rev. Ronnie C. Lister, a founder of The International Center for Labor, Social and Spiritual Activism, who discussed Black liberation theology the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day.

For Michelle, Ekklesia is about getting people to the Table.

“I’m not looking to convert anybody, but if I had a Muslim friend come be part of these conversations around faith, he could hear why Jesus works for me, and I could hear why his faith has led him down this path and kept him close to God,” she emphasizes. “Without the conversation, neither of us ever get there.”

Michelle adds that she’s under care of the North Carolina region and working toward being commissioned. Ordination may come down the road, but that’s not where she feels she’s being led. Michelle refers to herself as a shepherd, one who makes sure Ekklesia’s conversations stick to its tenets of loving unconditionally, celebrating differences, seeking joy, and being a catalyst for positive change.

That’s not to say that she doesn’t take her leadership role seriously. Last year, Michelle and her team attended Leadership Academy, an annual event hosted by New Church Ministry that empowers leaders, regardless of their denominational affiliation.

When we ask her what to expect at an Ekklesia meeting, she holds up a neon green notebook. Michelle explains that every new participant receives one, even if journaling isn’t their thing, because she wants to at least provide them with a resource, a holding place for their thoughts and feelings that they can turn to at another time. As she describes it, journaling can be a way to meditate – after all, the simple act of writing something with a pen and paper requires time and attention. 

“If nothing else, you’ll see it,” Michelle chuckles, “and be reminded of the circle of people who love you.”

Other than a brightly colored notebook, participants in an Ekklesia meeting can also anticipate thought-provoking discussions shaped and formed by other attendees. After her friend and chairman of the board, who left the Catholic Church when he was 13 years old, came to her asking about her thoughts on original sin, she decided to do a series on “big God questions.” Michelle admits that she began to interrogate what she was taught, where her beliefs came from, and if she still held them today. 

“I really started thinking harder about my answers,” she recalls. “And in doing that, I was then excited to share the Bible with the group because it’s been a wonderful source of inspiration, hope, and wisdom that I put on a pedestal.”

Michelle is careful to point out that she doesn’t bring in the Bible to teach others her way of practicing her faith, but to inform their own personal faith journeys. She knows that others have different interpretations of Scripture and all she can do is share what works for her and why.

“So they get a ton of my Jesus stories,” Michelle laughs, “and a ton of my Holy Spirit stories!”

Over the past couple years, she says that she’s learned to step back and be more sensitive and unassuming as she’s gotten Ekklesia off of the ground. Michelle advises other church planters to trust the spirit and allow themselves to be open so that God can work through them.

“Let me tell you, if I had done what I thought needed to be done,” she jokes, “I probably would have pushed some of these people away!”

While 80% to 90% of Ekklesia’s participants identify as Christian, others see themselves as spiritual instead. It’s not that they’ve abandoned Jesus Christ’s teachings, Michelle clarifies, they just got frustrated with the people and the politics and decided to walk away from organized religion.

“They still love God and believe in Jesus,” she says. “They think we could easily build the kingdom on earth, if we would all just do our part.”

When we ask Michelle how Disciples can do their part to support new faith communities like Ekklesia, she encourages them to contribute to the Pentecost Offering, which divides gifts between the Regions and New Church Ministry. New Church Ministry uses gifts from this Special Day Offering to develop and maintain programs such as coaching and New Church Hacks

“New Church Ministry’s resources and training help Disciples develop new ideas on how to do church,” she summarizes. “The biggest leap I made was the day I realized that just because I wasn’t specifically teaching a certain way, didn’t mean that I wasn’t doing important work to fulfill the Great Commission of making disciples.”

The Pentecost Offering is collected in most congregations on May 16 and May 23. 

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What a congregation for those impacted by incarceration can teach the church about welcoming all

Rev. Dr. Louis Threatt never thought he’d be a pastor.  

But that changed when he became a prison chaplain in North Carolina, where he noticed a disconnect between church and prison.

In a recent video call with New Church Ministry, Rev. Dr. Louis tells us that there’s both a lack of prison ministries and congregations doing prison ministry well.

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Rev. Dr. Louis Threatt

“In Matthew 25, Jesus asks ‘did you visit me?’ Churches will use that text to check this box off, even if they do little more than stop by,” Rev. Louis says. “Others will come into the prison and preach fire and brimstone.”

Attitudes toward those who have been incarcerated are not much better after they’re released.

According to Rev. Louis, when someone is released from prison and enters into a church, a simple introduction can be very uncomfortable, as some struggle between revealing that they’ve been incarcerated and having their past exposed or waiting until somebody finds out and then being treated differently. 

So he asked himself, why not have a place of worship that welcomes everybody? 

In February 2020, after several discussions with God and confirmation through friends, Rev. Louis and others pressed forward with planting a faith community for those impacted by incarceration, including those that served time, are currently serving time, and their families, as well as those that work inside these institutions. The pastor counts himself as a part of this community, as one of his best friends and several of his immediate family members have been incarcerated. For example, his sister spent 17 years behind bars, but is out now and doing very well. 

“I know what it’s like writing to somebody who’s locked up, visiting them, talking to someone through a glass window, wondering when you can see them on the outside,” he says, “and I know what it is like beholding the joy when they’re released.” 

Rev. Louis’s prison coworkers would say that he was doing time just like the inmates, but he knew the difference was that he could leave when he wanted to. 

“I can never fully understand the experience of somebody who has been incarcerated,” he clarifies.

Being on the other side though hasn’t exactly been easy for Rev. Louis. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and it’s continuing to rise. The rates for African American males have gone from one in 12, to one in eight, to one in three.

“Seeing that increase, and witnessing the vast number of persons of color inside, especially as an African American man, has been challenging,” he admits. “So have the conversations with people that have served their time, have been released, and returned. Some of them informed me that they recommitted just to get back in for a peace of mind and less responsibility. Unfortunately, this is a challenge for many who do not receive the support that is needed, especially the kind that can come from the church.”

So in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rev. Louis and others started developing a community of faith focused on incarceration. He knew that he could wait until he had more funds and more planning, but that this need was too great and urgent. So in June 2020, Cities of Refuge Christian Church (DOC) was launched. 

“I have pastored other congregations and I’m not big on starting a church just for starting a church,” says Rev. Louis. “I feel called to this particular ministry, and in this particular fashion. Our mission is to share Jesus Christ’s goodness, words, and teachings. We are open to and for those that are left out, abandoned, and forgotten.”

When we inquire about his involvement with New Church Ministry, he gives high praise to Pastor Terrell L McTyer, Minister of New Church Strategies.

“Pastor Terrell has helped extend some of this vision that God has put on me,” remarks Rev. Louis, “and been able to help formulate some of my radical ideas.”

In addition, he is grateful for the spiritual guidance through others such as his pastor, Bishop William J. Barber II and NC Regional Minister Bishop Valerie Melvin. (Watch Cities of Refuge Church’s video that was shown at the recent Regional assembly.)

A virtual worship service

Participants gather on Zoom and there are plans to explore sites in the area between Durham and Hillsborough once COVID-19 restrictions ease. As for the name, Rev. Louis turned to the Old Testament, when the Israelites were crossing over the Jordan River. In Joshua 20, God tells Joshua to set up cities of refuge. Those that have committed a crime can flee to one of these cities and be received without judgement, and protected and loved.

“There’s a lot of cities of refuge that focus on refugees, those that have been pushed to the margins, those in the LGBTQ+ community,” Rev. Louis says. “But you rarely see any that particularly serve who the scripture talks about.”

People tend to point out that these cities of refuge are for those who have committed a crime unknowingly. Rev. Louis counters this argument with Matthew 5. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” He goes on to say, “My father rains on the just and the unjust,” and to greet everybody even the least of these. Rev. Louis then presents the case of Barabbas, who was serving a life sentence for murder until he was released by Jesus.

“How can we pick and choose who we invite into the church?” Rev. Louis questions. “I don’t believe that’s the God we serve. That’s not Jesus. In fact, many forget that Jesus was an inmate.”

Rev. Dr. Louis and a volunteer

So Cities of Refuge Church’s congregants include people who have been incarcerated, those who have been impacted by incarceration, and others who are passionate about the work that is happening. Their worship services are like any other services – they have music, invocation, prayer, and scripture reading. Every Sunday, Rev. Louis intentionally sets time aside for testimony to hear celebrations. In our ministry’s interview with him, he offers two examples. One is of a worshiper who sang in a prison choir, was released, and now continues his passion for music with Cities of Refuge. He shared with the church that he was able to get his ankle bracelet removed and is no longer on curfew. Another is of a member who was serving a life sentence and was released after 29 years. This individual shared the joy of receiving his driver’s license and insurance.

“These brothers are putting everything on the table, keeping us on track with what they are doing,” explains Rev. Louis. “So we stopped and put our hands together to celebrate these wonderful accomplishments. Getting a driver’s license might seem like a small achievement to a lot of people, but this is huge for him and us.”

Rev. Louis tells us that for his brothers and sisters at Cities of Refuge (COR) and elsewhere across the country, finding somebody after they get out—other than a judge or a probation officer—to hold them accountable, to check on their spirit and peace of mind, and see how things are going and offer support, is essential. That’s why he and his associate ministers and other members build relationships with individuals before and when they come out. Rev. Louis believes that strong support systems, like families and religious groups such as his, will decrease the recidivism rate.

In addition to worship, COR visits homeless shelters and transitional homes at least four times a year, but supports them on a monthly basis. Rev. Louis shares with us an experience of a trip to one such transitional home that he and others at COR had previously been to. On their second visit, an employee there informed them that a neighbor was shot and killed the night before, so he and his staff were hesitant about letting COR return. In the end, they let them visit and serve.

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COR visits a transitional home

“I’m glad that they did,” divulges Rev. Louis. “We were setting up to do a fish fry and community give away, when a woman approached us and said that people living nearby were sad and heartbroken over the killing of the young man, but our congregation’s presence was bringing them life. So we prayed, gave out food, and blasted music. It was a great joy to help this transitional home and the neighborhood in the midst of pain.”

He and his colleagues anticipate making more consistent visits this year as well as providing educational and partnership opportunities to those who have been impacted by incarceration. Additionally, the congregation has a faith team with the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham and Rev. Louis is one of the facilitators that helps mitigate sentencing and reduce recidivism.

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COR visits another transitional home.

He hopes that COR can lead by example and change the narrative when it comes to the church supporting those impacted by incarceration. Helping them to reintegrate back into society without feeling ashamed, nor scrutinized but supported in every way. If other congregations can see that returning citizens and those who have been convicted of a crime have done their time, guilty or not, can further help strengthen the church as part of the body, then maybe they’ll consider forming a prison ministry, reevaluate the one that they have, and/or how they’re currently doing ministry as a whole.

“These people coming out are not just inmates,” he emphasizes, “they’re our brothers and sisters.”

To support churches like COR, make a gift to the Pentecost Offering, collected in most congregations on May 16 and 23. This Special Day Offering is divided between New Church Ministry and local Regions.

Navigating death, intimacy, and the palpable nature of online church with Rev. Orlando Scott

New Church Ministry’s interview with Rev. Orlando Scott started later than expected.

As a chaplain at Northside Hospital in Lawrenceville and Duluth, Ga., he had just spent time in comfort care with a dying patient and her boyfriend, who had been brought down from another floor. Rev. Orlando is busy turning on lamps in his office to improve the dull clinical lighting and apologizing for his tardiness when he joins our video call.

Even though we ask if he wants to reschedule, Rev. Orlando replies that it isn’t a problem, this is everyday life for him and his colleagues, including the intern who pops into the room to confirm his patient’s death.

As we get to know Rev. Orlando better throughout the afternoon, our ministry comes to understand that what he says rings true: journeying with people as God meets them where they are is part of his day-to-day life, whether it’s virtually gathering on Wednesday nights with members of his new congregation, Amplify Christian Church (DOC), or urging legislators at the Georgia state Senate to love the homeless as much as they love the homeowner, or even handing out food to local residents.

Before the pandemic, Rev. Orlando officiated the marriage of one of his co-workers.

“I just want to be a helping hand, a listening ear, a compassionate heart,” he tells us. “That’s the way I approach pastoral ministry.”

Before he launched Amplify Christian Church last year, Rev. Orlando was on the team to create mental health awareness and advocacy programming for pastoral leadership in his region as part of its mental health initiative. As a hospital chaplain, he regularly interacts with folks experiencing mental illness, so he went from asking himself, “how do I become aware?” to “how do I become a partner?”

This way of thinking has served him well, especially since he planted his faith community right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, he had several conversations with the former Regional Director of New Church & Church Development, Rev. Richard Williams, about the different sites that the Christian Church in Georgia was looking at developing, including Snellville, a city not 10 minutes away from where Rev. Orlando lives. He asked to look at the building and if anyone occupied it. It turns out no one was, so Rev. Orlando began to develop a ministry there. He brought relatives and others that live in or near the community to the site, and asked them what they envisioned for it. The plan was to open in March of 2020, which, for obvious reasons, did not go through. But what did end up happening was numerous calls with friends who were anxious about the state of the world. Rev. Orlando initially responded by organizing an online Bible study about anxiety, that has now moved on to studies about mutually supportive relationships. On Zoom meetings, he and his friends have explored the Book of Ruth, and how the three women in the story sustained each other over time through their crisis. Rev. Orlando has found that creating vital relationships during the past 13 months has been essential as people still need ways to communicate with each other. This last quarter, the topic of his weekly conversations has been how to love and grow in community, even in the midst of continued isolation.

The number of congregants has grown too, from six to 11, as family members and friends join. Rev. Orlando also welcomes those from different faith traditions and even those without a faith tradition.

“On a day-to-day basis, I meet people in all types of circumstances and spiritual or religious traditions,” he shares. “These exchanges undergird how I envision what church or a pastor should or could be.”

And yet, he’s wary of adding additional participants to his meetings at this time, as he doesn’t want to lose the dynamic he’s built with his fellow worshipers. Many of the people Rev. Orlando’s met through Amplify have experienced church trauma, but find his space one of fellowship, healing, and development – one where they can become the person they were called to be. As he discusses his faith community, it seems that the environment he’s cultivated is due to the way he does ministry.

“You’re the expert on who you are, and your spirituality,” says Rev. Orlando. “I’m not going to force you into some type of ideology. I don’t know your experience. In chaplaincy it’s called being an intimate stranger – we walk in this intimate space together, but I’m still a stranger.”

While he views his work at Amplify as meeting needs the way that most other churches are, Rev. Orlando describes his approach as non-traditional, something he picked up as the secretary of the National Benevolent Association (NBA)’s Board of Trustees. Seeing all of the NBA’s different health and social ministries across the United States helped him think outside the box.

Historically, the Church has wanted numbers, to open up the doors and find a way to get people in,” Rev. Orlando says. “For me, it’s about learning to build trust, so that people can feel that we are investing in them, not just extracting. As I invest, I want people to do the same, so that we have this mutual exchange.”

On that note, we ask the pastor/chaplain/church planter what it means to him for Disciples to contribute to the Pentecost Offering. Half of the gifts made to this Special Day Offering go to New Church Ministry to train, equip, assist and multiply leaders through programs like Leadership Academy, coachingNew Church Hacks, and Water the Plants. The other half stays in regions across the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the U.S. and Canada to support local new church development.

“For me, to be able to receive those gifts… it’s doing the ministry of Jesus Christ, creating opportunities to meet particular needs of folks around us,” muses Rev. Orlando. “And to be able to share the love and compassion of Christ in a tangible way.”

Brother Stan, a member of the church, handles boxes for Amplify’s food distribution program

While “tangible” may not be the best way to describe a virtual faith community, Amplify has done some work on the ground. Since June of last year, it has partnered with the county once a month to give away 200 boxes of produce. It has a similar collaboration with a local high school, which lets students and families know that boxes of food are available to be picked up.

“Two people started out giving produce, then it grew to three, five people,” he recalls. “It doesn’t take much, just an idea that you want to give of yourself and provide a space to help others.”

Rev. Orlando sees food sustainability and serenity as future goals for Amplify. He hopes that through a community garden, he and others can provide organic food to their neighbors, helping people reorient the ways that they consume and produce food, as well as relate to the land around them. Along that vein, Rev. Orlando also looks forward to offering horticultural therapy to the community as a way of cultivating spirituality along with emotional wellness. Others in his circle may have other plans.

“People are still wanting to gather and meet each other, but we’re not going to do that,” he laughs. “We have talked about doing a retreat in 2022 for us to all get together, probably in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it’s not going to happen right now.”

As our hour together comes to a close, we ask Rev. Orlando for any parting words.

“In our worldview, we sometimes have a scarcity mentality, but each of us have talents and abilities,” he opines. “If we use that for mutual growth and development, there is no lack.”

You can support new faith communities like Rev. Orlando’s by making a gift to the Pentecost Offering, collected in most churches on May 16 and May 23. 

You never know what’s going to happen with Kesh ‘Oved Faith Ministries

What makes a new church unique? How can Disciples do church the new way?

The answers are as diverse as the congregations in formation across the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.

But one thing is common: launching a new place of worship is difficult. It’s especially difficult in the middle of a global health crisis, when gathering in an intimate space with fellow congregants is made next to impossible. So why would someone take this leap of faith?

As a military spouse who’s been previously stationed overseas, Pastor Jennifer Moreno has a personal understanding of life away from one’s faith community. She started Kesh ‘Oved Faith Ministries during the COVID-19 pandemic to not only provide worship services for families like hers, but to help other congregations connect with one another through technology, such as pre-recorded videos and Facebook Live. Pastor Jenn hopes that her emerging collective will be an example to others of how to keep in touch with members located out of town, out of state, or even across the world. 

“It’s building-less and borderless,” she says in a recent video call with New Church Ministry, “because we need that right now even more than ever.”

Pastor Jennifer Moreno and her Associate Pastor

Kesh ‘Oved Faith Ministries also strives to create a sense of belonging for those who have become socially isolated during the past year. After an interruption from the household’s pet parrot Yoshi, whom Pastor Jenn refers to as her associate pastor, she stresses that we have to recognize mental illness and how COVID-19 has exacerbated it, particularly through the restriction of outdoor hobbies and pastimes that would contribute to better mental health.

“It’s really important that we check in on each other,” Pastor Jenn says. “And make sure that we’re all okay.”

The people of Kesh ‘Oved, which is Hebrew for ‘lost sheep,’ do just that in Zoom meetings called BYOBB (Bring Your Own Bible and Beverage), where they drink coffee and talk about what’s going on, whether they’re joining from South Korea, Japan, or Germany. If they do happen to be in Pastor Jenn’s town of Riverview, Florida, and it’s safe to do so, members will eat a meal with each other.

“We all connect,” she emphasizes, “and ensure that we have relationship with one another.” 

Pastor Jenn hasn’t been with her own parents, who live in Amarillo, Texas, because they are elderly, homebound, and she doesn’t want them, nor her, to get sick.

While Kesh ‘Oved is a virtual church plant, she makes sure that local residents become familiar with it, too. Pastor Jenn’s car is adorned with a chalice and as a Door Dash driver, she puts her business card in with every meal that she delivers, every load of groceries that she does through Walmart.

“I do that because I want people to know we’re here,” Kesh ‘Oved’s minister shares, “and that we give of ourselves, time, and talents to help those that can’t get out right now.”

For Pastor Jenn, her work in ministry is about more than just bringing together Riverview’s Disciples. It’s about promoting the denomination’s mission and vision of being a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. After all, she sees the Church as a safe space for her – the region provided her support during the launch process and New Church Ministry provided her educational opportunities through Leadership Academy.

“When everything’s falling apart and it doesn’t look like it’s going right, New Church Ministry’s there,” Pastor Jenn says. “Knowing that we have such a good foundation, it’s the perfect time for everybody to try to plant something new.”

And she doesn’t just mean new churches. Pastor Jenn believes that throughout our lives, we’ve all been given seeds of wisdom, love, grace, and mercy. When somebody took us to church as a child, the seed of prayer was planted, helping us grow and mature into who we are today. To her, everyone has the chance to spread the seeds we’ve received through the people that we come in contact with every day, even complete strangers. If someone’s struggling, we can plant a seed of compassion by giving them a smile or expressing our gratitude for their service. The Holy Spirit will water that seed throughout the day, which will germinate, and grow into something fresh. But there’s a difference between a positive seed like that, and a negative one, and we have a choice to make between which one we scatter. Pastor Jenn makes the case for treating workers in the service industry with more care, say if they got a customer’s order incorrect or delivered it to the wrong address.

“We need positivity,” she says. “We need to know that we’re all in this together.”

Member Deborah Heffern holds a hand-delivered Lamby.

Throughout our call with Pastor Jenn, she spoke with calm self-assurance, even when the doorbell was ringing in the background or her dog barked. When we asked her where this confidence comes from, Pastor Jenn said it was due to her work as a pastor at another congregation in Winter Haven, Florida, and the experience she gained as a leader for Family Readiness groups within the army. She also credits the support she’s received from friends, one of whom serves on Pastor Jenn’s team as the Music and Worship Director, and the owner of Ms. T’s Soaps N Such, who was inspired to make different colored bars of soap for Kesh ‘Oved, all in the shape of sheep. (Kesh ‘Oved’s catchphrase is “Finding lost sheep everywhere!”)  

“We are all looking for comfort and security,” she says. “I started Kesh ‘Oved so that anybody could reach me at any time and know that they’re not alone.” 

Pastor Jenn then asks her daughter, who had just recently returned from school, to get her a “Lamby.” When she returns, Pastor Jenn holds up a rainbow lamb. On the bottom of the soap it says, “God loves ewe, no matter what.” People who have become regulars of the church receive a “Lamby” from her that has been prayed over. This way they know that they are loved, they are thought of, they’re missed.

“No matter how dirty we are,” says Pastor Jenn. “Jesus Christ cleans us and has made us clean for God.”

And she wants Disciples to know that they can be supporters of the new church movement too. Money is an important issue in church planting. Often, church leaders initially operate with little to no funds. All of the startup costs that Pastor Jenn has spent so far have come out of her own personal finances, despite her husband’s misgivings, because she felt the need to do so.

“Give cheerfully, because when you do so, you’re not just touching the general church or region,” Pastor Jenn says. “You’re touching all of those new churches.” 

As we wrap up our conversation, we ask what the future holds for Kesh ‘Oved.

“You never know what you’re going to get,” laughs Pastor Jenn. “Whether it’s the bird landing on my head, the dog barking, or my kid running through.”

On a serious note, a nearby Colombian café has offered her the use of their facilities for Bible studies and different kinds of worship services. Pastor Jenn looks forward to that, and to watching her baby, as she calls Kesh ‘Oved, flourish.

“If you take that leap of faith and do what God is calling you to do,” she concludes, “the blessings will overflow.”

You can support new faith communities like Pastor Jenn’s by making a gift to the Pentecost Offering, collected in most congregations on May 16 and May 23. Half of the gifts go to New Church Ministry to train, equip, assist and multiply leaders, and the other half stays in regional ministries to support local new church development.

The Children and Youth Ministry’s Wii party and BBQ.

Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly together in Des Moines

The New Church Ministry team met Rev. Debbie Griffin, the Senior Minister of Downtown Disciples, last summer at General Assembly (GA). Since the pastor’s congregation is based in Des Moines, IA, it offered worship services, hosted pre-assembly activities for general ministries, prepared a meal for regional ministers, and chaired the local GA mission committee.

All of that as a new church planted in 2015.

To celebrate the culmination of the 2020 Vision goal to form 1,000 congregations within the first two decades of the 21st Century, we spoke with Rev. Debbie about Downtown Disciples. 

How do you describe Downtown Disciples?

It’s a progressive faith community. We are LGBTQ+-affirming, and we proclaim Black Lives Matter. We say that every time we gather, because it matters to us. We are a new church formed by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Upper Midwest Region.

Why did you plant Downtown Disciples?

I was about to give up on the Church. I love many things about it. I was raised in the Disciples Church. I love the faith. I love the stories of Jesus. But I was really frustrated that some folks within the Church were really challenging progressive theology. I just felt like the Church wasn’t being the inclusive, boundary-breaking, justice-loving presence of Christ in the world. I thought I would just go work in the nonprofit sector. I secured a position with the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa when I was called by the Region to consider a small congregation that needed a short-term interim minister. I started serving that church full of beautiful people and they really changed me. They were doing such great ministry, in western Iowa of all places, which is very conservative. This small church of faithful people was doing amazing work in the love of Christ. They had two queer women in leadership positions. They were serving a home-cooked meal to more than 100 people every Wednesday night, no questions asked, opening their doors and not pressuring people to be church in a certain way. A diverse group of people came for many reasons. Relationships were built. It was just organic, and it was ministry. They gave me hope for the Church. I thought to myself, “If this can happen in western Iowa, it can certainly happen in downtown Des Moines.” I thought, “there must be more people like me, who love Jesus and miss faith community, but whose theology is too progressive for most people.” So, I laid out a vision of starting as an LGBTQ+-affirming book club. We started with a book called Saving Jesus From the Church by Robin Myers, who’s a UCC pastor. People came! We read one book, and then we read another book. Then we started serving meals at the homeless shelter down the street. Then we walked in the Pride Parade. Then we started doing a variety of other activities, going to our city council about policing and racial profiling. Pretty soon someone said, “When are we going to worship?” That’s when I knew we had a church. 

The Pentecost Offering allows local Disciples to support new church plants like yours, across the United States and Canada. What does the Pentecost Offering mean to you as a church planter?

We wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Pentecost Offering. Downtown Disciples wouldn’t have had a place to worship that worked for us. We needed to be in a neutral place, because we’re reaching out to people who’ve been wounded and excluded from church. Also, we wanted to be in an urban setting. That costs money. Plus, we needed a full-time pastor to make this work. The Upper Midwest Region has been exceptionally supportive of us. Ultimately, they set out a three-year plan of sustainability for us. And the other people in our Region have been just as supportive of this amazing ministry.

The 2020 Vision prioritized forming 1,000 congregations in 1,000 different ways. What is the “way” your faith community demonstrates that diversity?

We didn’t start with worship. When we did decide to start worshiping, we were clear that we didn’t want to do so in a typical church building. At Pentecost, we’ll be five years old, and we’ve had three worship locations: a community center, a loft-type space above a music venue, and now a bakery. We also started out with worship on Sunday nights. Then as we grew, we added a Sunday morning worship.  We also have a podcast called Like Micah, because our mission is Micah 6:8 – “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.” We tell stories of our faith. We like to say we’re nimble, and we respond to the needs of the community. Most of our people were not coming to us through worship. They were coming to us at the wine bar when we were having Word Up Wednesdays. They were coming to us for Bible Geeks on Tuesday mornings at the local hip coffee shop. We were meeting up at a laundromat where we would just do random acts of kindness and hang out and be there with children’s books and food and quarters. People found us at other places that were easier entry points, and then once they could trust us, they would move to worship. 

Senior Minister Debbie Griffin leads worship at La Mie, the bakery that serves as the church’s worship location. (All services are now online.)

How would you define the progressive Christianity you promote?

We spell it out in our website. People who have been wounded or excluded by the church, need to know who you are. I’m specifically referring to LGBTQ+ people. They have gone to churches that say they’re welcoming, until you want to marry your beloved; or you want to be a leader in the church; or you want to attend seminary. So, when we say progressive, we mean LGBTQ+-affirming; we proclaim Black Lives Matter; we are curious about other faiths. We do not condemn or judge others, because Jesus calls us not to do that. And we are passionate about social justice.

What role do new faith communities have in the church?

They are the heartbeat of the church right now. I know that in the Upper Midwest Region, other Disciples churches that identify as traditional look to us. Oftentimes people worry the new churches are going to “replace” the traditional churches. I don’t see it that way. I see that we can be an outreach for traditional churches who see in us something that they love, but they can’t be right now. So, we become an outreach of their ministry. We currently have one church in the Upper Midwest Region that supports us financially. They send us part of their outreach budget. They send us a check every quarter because they can identify that we can do some things that they can’t do right now. I think we’re the hope for, not only people who have been excluded and wounded by church, but for traditional church people who see in us an opportunity to partner and extend their ministry.

Do you have any advice for people looking to plant a church?

What God is doing in new church is different in every single place. What worked for Downtown Disciples was unique to what God was doing here and is doing here in our time and our place. New church planting here is not the cookie-cutter for other new churches anywhere else. Still, some things are true for all church plants. I would say, don’t do it alone; listen to the Spirit and to the people who you’ve gathered. We wouldn’t be who we are without the people who gathered with us, allowing the Spirit to work through them.

How is your congregation responding to the coronavirus?

We worship and gather virtually. We share what type of bread we are breaking together in our homes during communion. We raised $1,000 for PPE, donating those funds to our local hospitals that need life-saving equipment. We continue to deliver supplies to our homeless neighbors, wearing face masks, gloves, and staying at a safe distance. We write cards to our friends who are isolated. We cook and deliver meals, flowers, and groceries to members who are quarantined or at high risk. In summary, we are still a movement for wholeness in this fragmented world. The Spirit still calls and empowers us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly together.”

Downtown Disciples holds a worship service over Zoom.

New faith communities like Downtown Disciples are supported by the Pentecost Offering. Half of the offering supports New Church Ministry to coach and train new church leaders. Half supports local Regions to sustain new churches. Join us in celebrating the 2020 Vision by making a gift through your congregation or the DMF website. This Special Day Offering is received on May 31 and June 7.

“We walk with our community:” How new church planters are doing ministry

UrbanMission, a joint congregation of the United Church of Christ (UCC) and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), lies at the intersection of White Avenue and Ninth Street in Pomona, CA.

The city sits just north of a men’s prison, and is one of the areas in which formerly incarcerated individuals are released. South Pomona struggles with gang violence and drug abuse.

None of that was a deal-breaker for Rev. Al Lopez, the congregation’s Lead Pastor. He felt called to plant a new church where folks could be themselves and still belong. 

In this New Church Ministry interview he shares how UrbanMission reframes church in the 21st Century.

What is UrbanMission?

We are a church without walls. We have several ministries that are interconnected and interdependent… plus we get together and worship. 

In our Open Table gatherings, people from all walks of life create a sense of belonging and provide a free meal.

An Open Table gathering

Rev. Nora Jacob, our Restorative Justice Minister, goes inside Chino State Prison every week and facilitates several groups. She also heads up the Reentry Coalition, which assists, and provides a place for, people coming out of incarceration.

Rev. Nora Jacob serves communion outside.

In 2014, we founded UrbanMission Community Partners (a non-profit organization) with a vision and purpose that really aligns with that of the church, although it’s an independent entity.

So UrbanMission has been kind of like a seed planter. UrbanMission Community Partners takes those seeds and helps them grow.

What was the impetus for you to plant UrbanMission?

A few years before starting seminary, my theology began to change. As it expanded from the faith that I had grown up with, I found myself feeling less and less part of my community because of our different insights and interpretations of scripture. There’s a very dualistic way of understanding who’s in and who’s out. 

When I received the call to start a church, I began meeting with Rev. Dr. Felix Villanueva, the Southern California Nevada Conference of the UCC, Conference minister. I indicated I felt the call to plant a church, but one where I belonged. I couldn’t find a community that I felt a part of, where I could be myself. The Southern California Nevada Conference really offered me the opportunity. 

They essentially handed me the keys once we looked at the property. A congregation there had closed. Rev. Villanueva said, “You do what you feel God is calling you to do and just keep reporting to us. You’re part of our staff.” They’ve given us the freedom to really pursue this the way that we feel led. 

I am Mexican American. I’ve learned in being part of the immigrant community that you don’t look at what you don’t have. You look at what you do have and make the best of it. 

I had: an empty building, no people, no connections to the (local) community. So, I started looking at communities where I had connections.

I had just started seminary at Claremont School of Theology. I was meeting people who were passionate about several issues that overlapped with (the neighborhood’s) needs. (We discovered) an organic fit.

I happened to know Rev. Jacob through other regional work. She started our prison ministry.

I was introduced to Rev. Stephen Patten by the Disciples Seminary Foundation. Steven is our Community Wellness Minister, and in his role, he addresses drug abuse in our community.

My main focus is the Sunday morning congregation.

The three of us approach this planting of a new church as a team.

An UrbanMission worship service

This collaborative leadership model is one other new churches use. How has it helped you be successful?

Our congregation is in a community that’s financially challenged. So, we knew going into this that we needed to approach church planting in a very entrepreneurial way. We were not going to be looking at the income from the Sunday morning gatherings as the main revenue in order to sustain the ministry and all the other work that we do. That shapes our understanding of leadership and what each individual contributes. 

We recently had our very first church council meeting. It’s made up of people who had previously come to UrbanMission that had never even attended church, or had never been part of church leadership, or were against the thought of church. We’re playing into their strengths. 

It has been a learning curve, especially because this past year was particularly difficult for me on a personal level. I haven’t been able to do the kind of training that I wanted to do. But that’s the wonderful thing about church. When you empower people, they take the ball and run with it. 

So, they each bring their gifts — that has made us successful. The impact we’re having in our community has gone above and beyond what I ever thought possible.

How do you measure that impact?

We use some traditional metrics, such as: How many families are being fed? How many community groups are we housing in our Community Wellness Center? The more life-changing (measure) for me has been, how many lives have been transformed? 

This woman showed up at one of the nonprofit’s art shows, where we highlight art created by people who were formerly incarcerated. This woman looked very familiar. Eventually, Nora pulled me aside and said, “You need to hear her story.” 

We had her on camera sharing that she actually was one of our guests on Sundays. She was houseless and dealing with addiction, so the only reason why she was coming was because she was invited with no strings attached. Just welcomed. She took that and went from there, little by little. Now she is a counselor working with people that are still on the street. She’s completely turned her life around. She came back just to show her gratitude.

She said: “This is where my life changed because of the way that you greeted me and what you were providing.” 

Our first moderator is the very first person that I met when I started in Pomona. When he found out that I was a pastor, he said, “I don’t want to offend you, but I don’t trust pastors.” We spent about six months developing a relationship over coffee, over food, over imagining what could happen in that place. Eventually he told me, “I want to be the first member of your congregation.” 

He went from having some really serious legal issues that prevented him from working, to becoming a contractor, to owning his own company. He’s been very successful at it, giving great prices to a lot of our congregations in the area. His company was hired to remodel the Conference offices. 

All of that from a conversation that started with us being vulnerable with each other. Me saying, “Hey, I need help. I don’t know anything about property,” and him saying, “I don’t trust church. Here are all the things I don’t like about church.” And me saying, “Hey, here are all of the things that I don’t like about church, either. A lot of them match up. How can we change that?” 

Do you feel like being a hybrid church has helped you folks do ministry?

Both denominations have wonderful things going for them, and they both have their unique challenges. I think for those of us who are somewhere in between the Millennials and the Gen-Xers, we have the ability to be part of both worlds, speak both languages – think in both ways. It gives us freedom to not be shackled by some of the things that would hold others back. 

Case in point, I was asked, “What about baptism? What about communion?” Those two happened to be some of the contentious areas between both denominations. At that point, baptism was far into the future. But I said we will teach what both bodies believe, and then we will leave that up to the person to decide. 

Rev. Al Lopez baptizes a woman while Rev. Stephen Patten looks on.

Having the congregation be in community with other churches both within our denomination and outside helps them see the way that they’ve been growing up in their faith with us. Sometimes a congregation from a well-to-do area will drop off donations. In the conversations after, one of our people will say, “Did you notice that they kept saying that they’re helping us?” It’s a very transactional way of doing mission work. They are able to tell the difference between the way that we approach it and the way that some other churches do.

How is UrbanMission responding to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Our leadership struggled to find an appropriate response that would honor our commitment to our community, while also ensuring the safety of our volunteers. We decided to continue supporting our community via an “Outdoor Open Table.” This includes distributing dinner in to-go containers and limiting contact as much as possible. Our food pantry continues to work with our partners to provide emergency food services during this time.

Volunteers of an organization that partners with UrbanMission on its Open Pantry.

What do you see in UrbanMission’s future?

We’re just about to start talking with both denominations about the UrbanMission Training Center. We have learned lessons that can help a lot of churches, both established and new churches, even nonprofits. Several of us are trained coaches now, so we would do some coaching. And that’s actually really transformed the way I approach ministry, by just asking deep questions and just doing a lot of listening. It’s very much walking with, instead of trying to lead. I think that’s one of the things that the Church really needs to own.

Is there anything you want to add?

The importance of vulnerability. I mean, we follow a man that, depending on where your Christology is, made himself, time after time, vulnerable with those that he was with. It’s something that we’re trying to emulate. I think that has been part of UrbanMission’s success. We don’t see ourselves as an institution, but as part of a community.


UrbanMission, and the 1,034+ new churches–and counting–that have formed or become affiliated with the Disciples since 2001, are supported by the Pentecost Offering. Half of this Special Day Offering is used by New Church Ministry to coach and train new church leaders, and the other half is used by local Regions to sustain new churches. Join us in celebrating the 2020 Vision by making a gift online or through your congregation when this Special Day Offering is received on May 31 and June 7.

Amie Vanderford, the pastor of The LabOratory Church, a new faith community that provides healing for those with mental illness in Indianapolis.

The LabOratory Church provides a safe space for health, healing, and hope in Indianapolis

Rev. Amie Vanderford has experienced trauma.

She knows what it’s like to distrust others; how damaging isolation can be to recovery. That’s why she and her husband, Thaddeus Shelton, launched The LabOratory Church. This new Indianapolis church offers safe space for those with mental illness to worship, cultivate strong connections and seek healing.

New Church Ministry spoke with Pastor Amie about The LabOratory Church, one of the 1,034 congregations (and counting!) that have formed or become affiliated with the Disciples since they adopted the 2020 Vision in 2001. 

Tell us about your new church’s name: LabOratory.

It’s a play on words. It’s a lab. But it’s also oratory, like preaching. We’re a new church with a focus on mental health and building community in new ways.

We really want to reach people who have been hurt by the church, people who are afraid of others. They isolate because they’re like, “I just can’t deal with humanity anymore.” We’re trying to create a brave space where people can be fully real. If they want to come in sad or angry or frustrated, or happy or joyful, they could bring their whole selves. We’ll still work with them, no matter what feelings or problems they’re having. I feel like too many churches try to be positive all the time. It has its place to be positive, right? But we can’t really minister to people if we don’t also name what is wrong, and name what we’re struggling with and have support in our struggling times. So, really, it’s a place to be whole and do relational healing.

Trauma psychologist Judith Herman talks about the three stages of healing. The first is about naming the trauma. You work through it in the second stage, like in the therapist’s office. The third stage is relational healing, being in relationship with each other. That was the stage where I had stalled. I felt like if I was fully myself, people would reject me. We want to be the place where people find healing in relationship.

We understand from what you were saying that this was a personal journey of yours because you’ve dealt with mental health issues and your partner is trained in therapy. Are these issues particular to the neighborhood that you’re in? Or are you addressing a local context of a wider problem?

It’s definitely a wider problem. I think it’s cultural. You have to start with yourself and the people around you. It’s a concentric circle sort of thing. We name individualism as the problem. That’s what damages relationships. All the sins that break our relationships are based out of our culture saying that individualism and competition is the only way to survive. But that’s actually the only way to make sure that no one survives. We are created to be relational. So, we have to learn how to be in relationship with each other, despite the cultural norms telling us, “You can’t trust anyone, they’re always your competition. They’re gonna’ steal your stuff, they’re gonna’ steal your glory.” It’s a scarcity mentality, right? We’re trying to emphasize an abundance mentality, a mentality of mutuality, a mentality of generosity, compassion and, shocking, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Is your team-leadership style a response to individualism? 

Absolutely. We’re really focusing on training people to internalize (the values of the community) before we give them more power over decision making. Most of the people on our launch team get it. But we’re in the early stages. We’re being very intentional about making sure that the values are the most important thing. We’re open to suggestions on how we do worship, on who we serve, all of that. But what we’re teaching people is that every question has to go through the lens of, is this supporting individualism or cooperation? Is this supporting everyone? Or is it self-serving? We ask those questions every time we decide to do something.

Pastor Amie and Thaddeus, on the right, pose with a local painter and artwork that he created at The LabOratory Church’s first worship service.

I’m the main person because Thaddeus has a second job as a therapist, but he is in charge of the mental health aspects. I am in charge of pastoral care and worship. But we talk everything through together. When I figure out what scripture to preach on, for example, we’ll sit and say, “What is going on in the world right now? What sort of mental health challenge fits what people are dealing with? And how does that tie to the scripture? And how does that tie to our mission?” I’ll read through his stuff and he’ll read through mine, and we’ll give each other feedback. 

How is your community responding to the soul searching and in-depth questions you’re asking them?

They love it so far. I think they’re really understanding how it helps the healing. People have been drawn to us, to be in our launch team. They may have associations with other churches even. But they really like the fact that we’re going so deep, it’s not a surface level thing, and that we’re creating a safe environment. We’ve had some conflict already, but I preached on conflict resolution because I wanted, from the beginning, the bar to be set, that we are still human. We are not going to agree on everything. We’re going to misunderstand each other sometimes.

The key to building this type of community is that we have to be brave enough to be honest, and really deal with conflicts as they arise instead of the traditional way of just pretending like it didn’t happen, pushing it down, and developing all of these intense feelings that come out in other ways later.

Who are the current members of The LabOratory Church, or are you not at that point yet?

We have a solid group of people, but I haven’t called them members yet, because we’re still figuring out how we want to name that and what that looks like. A lot of the people that we’re reaching, in addition to the unchurched people, are fellow ministers. We have one minister who’s very active, and she’s a chaplain, and she also serves at another church, but she comes to our church and Bible study as well. We have two elders from another church where I used to serve who are not members because they’re members of another church, but they’re still very instrumental in our programming. So, we’re still figuring out membership.

I’d say if we counted the people who were regular worshipers, we probably have a list between 15 and 20. So that’s a pretty good number for us. We’re not in it for high numbers, we’re just getting to the people that need it and want it. It’s a good mix of people too – younger, older, middle-aged, single families, gay, straight, Black, white.

Because you’re an interracial couple, do you think that people of color consider The LabOratory Church a safe space to worship?

We did a statement of values, which I posted on our website and is in every single bulletin. I usually go over it every single service. We are very clear about everybody being welcome. We named the inclusivity across economic statuses, races, genders, sexualities. We name that we want honesty. We want you to be fully who you are, and we will accept you. In addition to us being interracial, I think, having that constantly represented, stated explicitly, helps people know where they stand.

Eight months ago, you planned to lease a storefront by January, meet on Saturday nights, and have a New Church Ministry coach. Have you met those goals? 

The storefront required way too much work. So, we’re planted inside another church that hosts five congregations. I love that. That’s part of what we loved about being there. Emerson Avenue Baptist Church is right on the border of our neighborhoods. But it also meant that we could only use certain time slots. We now have worship online once a month. But we’re thinking about increasing (the frequency of worship) online to twice a month, (eventually alternating between) once a month online and once a month in person. I’ve also been meeting with a coach. It’s Steven Smith. I’ve been meeting with him for three months. He’s helping us address our bylaw and constitution questions. We’re slowly working toward our goals.

Pastor Amie now conducts her worship services, office hours, Bible studies, and more on Zoom.

You’d been having in-person gatherings in the neighborhood coffee shop, right? 

We did Bible study and my office hours at the coffee shop. The coffee shop that we used, Rabble Coffee, they have just an incredible group of people. They’re very concerned about the neighborhood, they let homeless people come in there without buying anything. They will give them food and they’ll give them clothing and they’re like a church. They’re perfect. They’re not religious, but they do the work that religious people should be doing. So, it’s a really great fit.

Both Thaddeus and you attended Leadership Academy. How did that event impact your ministry?

The packet on demographics that we received confirmed that we had picked the right neighborhood. I liked that we went over budgeting processes. That was very helpful. One of the best things was the relationships we made with fellow church planters. Being a church planter can be lonely. Bouncing ideas off of others going through the same thing was awesome.

What do you see in The LabOratory Church’s future?

I personally have connections with people all over the world, because I was a traveling photographer before I started doing this. I like the idea of us being a dual-type of church, where we do serve our local Indiana neighborhood, but that we really focus on our online ministry to reach people who don’t want to attend (traditional) church who still have questions. We’ve got our Givelify link, YouTube channel, and social media up. We’ve got our messaging out there so that people looking for a place where they can be themselves will find us. We could go global because we’re trying to do life in a new way. It’s not just about church, it’s about how can we live together better as humans.

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New faith communities like The LabOratory Church are supported by the Pentecost Offering. Each year, half of what you give stays in your Region to support and sustain new churches near you. The second half helps train, equip, assist, and nurture leaders across the United States and Canada through New Church Ministry programs. Join us in celebrating the 2020 Vision by making a gift through your congregation or the Disciples Mission Fund website. This Special Day Offering is received on May 31 and June 7.