Sustaining Grace: Innovative Ecosystems for New Faith Communities, Edited by Scott J. Hagley, Karen Rohrer, Michael Gehrling Forward by Nikki Collins
This book was put together by an amazing group of people working with New Worshiping Communities (NWCs) in the PCUSA (I’m seriously fan-girl-ing and want all of the autographs). Even though this book has been reviewed by numerous people and is featured on the PCUSA website, I wanted to put in my two cents. This book was dreamt of and written prior to COVID-19 but is even more important as we adapt to pandemic life.
In general, there is a lot to learn from NWCs, especially when it comes to community involvement, adaptable worship, and equipping lay people for ministry. In the short couple of years I’ve been on Pittsburgh Presbytery’s New Worshipping Community Commission (NWCC), which functions as a governing board and support system for NWCs, I find that I am constantly being inspired by the creative work of church planters and those in their communities. NWCs are experimental on some level and have been “doing church” differently for some time, and currently have an even more important role in guiding traditional churches that have largely been thrust into “doing differently” recently. This book has much to offer all of us navigating this new season of church work. Church (in a broad sense) must adapt or die with dignity. This has been true for decades but some of us are feeling this need increasingly and some who haven’t seen the need for change are seeing now that the pandemic has drastically changed the way we “do church”. Buy this book.
A note about the structure, the book is divided into three sections, each section divided into chapters that are no more than a dozen pages, a perfect length to have session (or church governing board) read and discuss. The chapters are also perfect if you thought the zoom meeting started on the hour and found out after you sign in that it starts at half past the hour… what are you going to do for 20 minutes but worry about the impending doom that seems to be all around us… read a chapter instead. Each chapter is a little shot of hope for the future.
If you are unfamiliar with NWCs or church planting and why they are important to the overall health of the church, Scott Hagley outlines that in the opening chapter. I have my sticky note on page 3, “American Mainline denominational systems need pioneering, adaptive leaders to experiment with new forms of Christian community, to dream a new shape for Christian identity in our present context. So also, pioneering, adaptive leaders need mainline denominational systems to provide the support act might make their work sustainable our the long haul. A creative space is opened by this contradiction: those setting aside the nostalgic covering of legacy congregations need the continuity and security these congregations provide, at the same time, legacy congregations need to learn to dream new dreams.” We need each other. I know some of you are reading this thinking, of course that makes sense, we know we need each other. But the thing is, we often don’t know how to negotiate the dynamics of these relationships well. This is of course, is what the book addresses from the perspective of stewardship and sustainability, not just for individual communities (old or new) but also for the entire systems (for example, PCUSA) because “sustainable, faithful work in church planting requires a holistic approach, imagining congregations as imaging God’s sustaining grace to one another.” (p. 4)
Karen Rohrer offers a small shift toward sharing all things in common, as she tells the story of Ananias and Sapphira, relating it to a model of church that sounds frighteningly familiar. It is easy to fall into the habit of catering to individual shareholders or members of a congregation (consumers) to the detriment of the work of the broader church in the world in an inherited congregation. In a NWC, the church planter is hired by the denomination and answers to a presbytery committee, so the interest of the broader community is at the center instead of the desires of individuals. NWCs can be more flexible and experimental in living out the mission of the broader church, and while established congregations can learn from this work, it is important not to treat NWCs as tools to benefit the established church and later be disposed of, but as partners in mission. My summary doesn’t do justice to the in-depth description of these dynamics she presents that includes how stewardship, finances, and pastors’ compensation all factor into this small shift. Don’t miss her footnotes, she drops a powerful feminist statement about how differently pastors are treated on the basis of sex. I have her footnote on page 27 marked hoping that I can look into her source, Living the Gospel, which is a guide to structuring the minister’s terms of call (PCUSA). The study shows a clear distinction exists between average salaries for men and women across all pastoral positions and congregation sizes. I hope she writes an essay tackling that subject too, obviously there wasn’t space for it in this one.
Michael Gehrling highlights the importance of truth-telling and truth-hearing relationships. Spiritually and emotionally healthy leaders will plant and sustain healthy communities. “The ongoing health and vitality of their community depends on the leader’s willingness to hear others point out her blind spots and to receive their council” (p. 63). He goes on to outline spiritual friendship and debriefing practices that he uses and teaches. This is brave and vulnerable stuff.
Aisha Brooks-Lytle describes how both play and prayer are important for ministry. “The same imaginative mind that God gives us for play is the same one we can use to imagine God’s presence in the sacred moments of prayer” (p. 71). She describes four modes of prayer (strategic, sighing, spiritual warfare, and silence) and affirms that there isn’t one right way to pray (I know that, you know that, but isn’t it nice to hear it again and again). I have a sticky note in her chapter for that quote and this one, “In many ways, prayer can be an organic outpouring of our ongoing relationship with God as we seek to lead others and serve the world” (p. 71). Prayer is a mystery and she makes it sound easy (and fun) to participate in that mystery.
David Loleng’s essay on Forming Generous Disciples makes me want to rewrite my stewardship sermon for the millionth time. Just when I thought I was making progress on leaving behind scarcity thinking and moving to a model of abundance, he makes the case for thinking about sufficiency instead of abundance. Abundance is about having more than we need (which isn’t always a good thing), while sufficiency is about having exactly enough. If there is an abundance, it is given to those who do not have enough. Sufficiency and living simply “free us to be generous with our money and resources, and allows us to be more missionally focused” (p. 95). He also encourages creating margins, which means leaving space in our schedules instead of being busy so “we can be more generous with our time, talents, and relationships ” (p.97). We live in a world where being busy and having stuff is are status symbols that make us feel important. Simplifying our material possessions and our schedules would be truly transformative.
Michael Moynagh talks about stewarding the church’s resources so that the church survives not by self preservation but by creating new communities around the church, that connect back to the church if and when they run their natural course and end. He sort of approaches the church planting model on a congregational level. In the church, the lay leaders, use their gifts and talents to start these new ministries (or NWCs) that then connect back to the church. The church is sustained by generating these communities. He ends his essay with “Let the church give itself away. By doing so, it will be faithful to its foundational meal. A piece of the congregation is broken off, and offered as the body of Christ to people outside the church. As they gather round, they receive the gift, consume it in their own way, and are transformed. Then they repeat the process. Thus, Holy Communion-like, the body is passed from one context to another, and from one generation to the next. A new community achieves longevity through its ongoing life in the community it begets. Sustainability occurs through the church’s self-donation” (p. 112). I love that image. I have a sticky note there to remind me to add that image to a sermon or a new way of thinking about how Third Church relates to Days for Girls or how we might think of starting whatever is next.
Seriously, buy this book and allow it to transform you and the church that we all serve. Amen.