The biennial church planting conference brings together an array of people with a passion for planting the church. The group is diverse, but also has a lot in common. Here are snapshots of several of the new groups growing in the Church of the Brethren.
Living Stream Church of the Brethren is the first and only entirely online Church of the Brethren. Its first webcast was held in December 2012. Initiated by planter and pastor Audrey deCoursey, with help from Pacific Northwest District, Living Stream currently is led by a pastoral team that includes Enten Eller, Monica Rice, and Mary Sue and Bruce Rosenberger.
Along with the unique nature of a church that meets online, Living Stream offers an entirely unique format for worship. “There are a number of churches that offer a stream of traditional services,” said Bruce Rosenberger, “but in terms of exclusively online, I am not aware of any others.” Living Stream webcasts worship, and there is no physical congregating. Discussion is encouraged during worship through the medium of a chat box running alongside the webcast video. According to Rosenberger, this offers something purely local churches cannot. “We are engaging a number of people who have been active in the Church of the Brethren but are currently in places with no physical church,” he said. “We also have people who are not engaged with the Church of the Brethren who find our message meaningful.”
Rosenberger says the church is growing. “I am quite excited with the statistics and degree of participation,” he said. “One thing that surprised me is the increased number of chats shared during the live worship.” During live streams, the church is seeing between 18 to 25 active devices, about one quarter of which are being viewed by more than one person, and 12 to 15 people engaged in the chat function.
The most exciting part, however, is that “people who cannot worship with us in the live broadcast follow up during the week in the archives,” Rosenberger said. Recordings (archives) of worship are posted online, and in views of recordings the church sees attendance of 80 to 150 per week. Connect at www.LivingStreamCoB.org.
According to planter Jeanne Davies, the logo of the Parables Community says it all: a red fish swimming in a sea of diversely colored fish—but seemingly against the current. It’s the image of a person with special needs swimming a different way, but not the “wrong” way.
Parables is a new faith community with children and adults who have special needs and their families. The vision is for a church where all contribute. “People with special needs also have special gifts,” Davies said. “It’s a ministry with, not for.” The community also welcomes “neuro-typical” families.
Hosted at York Center Church of the Brethren in Lombard, Ill., Parables receives support from Illinois and Wisconsin District. Its inaugural gathering was in mid-April. As the ministry gets going, worship services are planned for just one afternoon a month this summer.
Davies, who is new to church planting, had hoped to start in January. The delay was caused by the amount of behind-the-scenes work required to start a new church. “It actually takes a long time to get your organizational, legal, financial ducks in a row, which I had not expected,” she said. As a nonprofit organization, a new church needs a board, bylaws and a constitution, an accounting system, banking, insurance.
Collaborating on the vision for the church with other people who are involved also takes time, she said. Parables has a board of four members, and four consultants who work with Davies as the planter. Also required are extensive contacts in the community. Davies has worked to spread the word through visits to schools, libraries, park districts, places that serve families with special needs, and media outlets.
Parables Community is modeled after the Parables Worship Ministry in Wayzata, Minn., whose leader spoke at the Faith Forward conference in Chicago last year. Davies was also there, and was inspired. The vision struck her as uniquely respectful of people with special needs “as having wisdom, as having gifts, as being teachers,” she said. “Sometimes the lessons are difficult, but they kind of turn the world upside down, just like Jesus’ parables do.”
After just a few experiences of adults and youth with special needs leading in worship, Davies said, “they are teaching us how to worship, they are teaching us how to pray.” Find out more at www.ParablesCommunity.org.
The Church in Drive
A product of Michigan District’s “Standing in the Gap” campus ministry-based new church planting movement, the Church in Drive is on the verge of gaining official congregational status in the denomination. Leadership has come from planter and district executive minister Nathan D. Polzin.
In 1996, New Life Christian Fellowship, then Shepherd Church of the Brethren, called Polzin to begin an outreach to college students at Central Michigan University. That outreach became Standing in the Gap Christian Fellowship. More than a decade later, Polzin began a new chapter at Saginaw Valley State University, which became the Church in Drive.
Although New Life Christian Fellowship has chosen to leave the denomination, Standing in the Gap continues as a strong Brethren movement with a new chapter at Ferris State University and a new church plant, the Lost and Found Church in Big Rapids—led by Jake Davis, who came to Christ through Standing in the Gap at CMU. Polzin has an ambitious goal: to establish a Standing in the Gap chapter and a Church of the Brethren church plant in all Division I and II college towns in Michigan.
In the meantime, the Church in Drive has matured earlier than expected. He had hoped to reach congregational status in 10 years, but now “it appears we are a year ahead of schedule.”
Mostly made up of young adults and college students, the Church in Drive has begun to attract older people and has a growing children’s ministry. Most participants are new Christians, and “the faith and work of the Church of the Brethren has captured the hearts and minds,” Polzin said. “District and denominational interest and involvement is high. We’ve had over 30 people attend each of the last two district conferences, we have 5 people going to Annual Conference this year, and many have attended other denominational events. Several of our folks are serving at the district level.
Two of our members, Emily Woodruff and Kindra Krieslers, have been especially touched by the crisis EYN [the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria] is experiencing,” said Polzin. “In cooperation with the denominational staff, they have developed a unique fundraising and awarenessraising vehicle. Gallery One:1 is an artistic event whereby people come and learn together to paint a picture themselves, while hearing about the work of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria and the plight of our EYN brothers and sisters. The Church in Drive supports Gallery One:1 and the profits go to benefit EYN.”
The Church in Drive looks forward to new responsibilities once it gains congregational status. Its leaders early on put in place financial requirements within the constitution so that the congregation “would have mission beyond ourselves engrained in our church’s DNA,” Polzin explained. The church’s outreach includes support for Standing in the Gap at Saginaw Valley State University, two missionaries, a homeless shelter, and local ministries. Once it becomes a congregation there are several other requirements in place: setting aside 10 percent of income to support the next church plant/Standing in the Gap chapter; setting aside another 10 percent to be divided among the district, denomination, and Bethany Seminary; and paying pastoral staff according to denominational scale.
“We are a church mainly begun with college kids,” Polzin said, “and God has done an amazing thing among us!”
The Gathering Chicago
Its first meeting was a love feast complete with feetwashing and communion, on Pentecost Sunday on May 15, in an “upper room” on the 40th floor of a high rise south of the Loop, with a brilliant view of the Chicago skyline. A potluck of international food accompanied an extended evening of conversation and fellowship.
With this auspicious beginning, and aid from Illinois and Wisconsin District, LaDonna Sanders Nkosi is forming the Gathering Chicago into “a community of prayer and global/ local service.”
The Gathering Chicago won’t always meet in that same upper room, because it is not tied down to one location. Future meeting places may include a beachfront park on Lake Michigan, other venues in Lincoln Park or Hyde Park, perhaps a location at one of the city’s seminaries. There will be “Soul Food Sundays,” guest speakers including well-known seminary professors, presentations by activists in various movements, and testimonies from everyday people.
As she worked at the vision, Nkosi received a strong message through prayer: “God was saying, ‘I don’t want you to be one more church among all these churches.” She became convinced her mission is to form community with people who are feeling called to pray for the city, the nation, and the world, with the goals “to pray, to serve, and to encounter Christ.”
She envisions the Gathering Chicago as a circle of people in prayer. “In the circle, you take time to hear people, what brought them here. Everybody has a voice.” The circle of prayer empowers people to live out what God is calling them to do.
My call really is to nurture leaders,” she said, “and to provide a respite to justice workers, and people who have been discarded by the church or who are new to the city.” The Gathering Chicago is for “the person who says, ‘I’m looking for belonging.’”
Nkosi brings an international connection with South Africa, where she is involved with a Christian ministry. One of the goals of sharing between Chicago and the world is to network people together and foster common work by those who might not otherwise connect. “We are partnering in the gospel together,” Nkosi emphasized.
She is well aware that some participants do not want to be part of a Christian denomination, and have no interest in the Church of the Brethren. For most, the Pentecost Sunday love feast was their first. However, “it was a healing presence of the spirit of Jesus Christ, so heavy that we couldn’t really end [the feetwashing], and break to eat,” she said. “Everyone was in awe, it was really powerful.” See facebook.com/TheGatheringChicago/.
Light of the Gospel
Perhaps the Church of the Brethren’s only Arabic-speaking fellowship, the Light of the Gospel has emerged as a leading church plant in Atlantic Northeast District. Don Mitchell and Sandy Christophel of the district’s commission on church development described the church and told the story of how it developed, in an interview during the 2016 new church planting conference.
The Light of the Gospel was begun by First Church of the Brethren in Brooklyn, N.Y., which has a history of birthing new congregations. Now it has moved to Staten Island, and has its own building, with about 130 people attending worship. The group includes a variety of Arabic-speaking national backgrounds and ethnicities, including Egyptian, Syrian, Israeli, Lebanese, and people from other parts of the Middle East. Pastor Milad Samaan is of Egyptian heritage. The congregation already has a preaching point in New Jersey, where the pastor goes to preach to an Arabic-speaking group of about 80 or 90 people from a Syrian background.
This success has been “accomplished by hard work,” Mitchell emphasized, both by the congregation and its leaders, and by leaders and friends in the district. Atlantic Northeast congregations have partnered with the new church, and many individuals in the district have given it support. For example, when the church purchased a building on Staten Island that had been abandoned for a decade and required a lot of renovation, the volunteer efforts of many people in the church and in the district made it into “a nice worship space,” Mitchell said. Christophel said it was the need for volunteer work like painting and refurbishing that brought many district people to visit the new Staten Island location.
Christophel helped introduce the new congregation to experiences that are uniquely Brethren, including a 2013 love feast held with Coventry Church of the Brethren, Providence Church of the Brethren, and district leaders. He noted that the visits by district leaders to the congregation continue, and this year on Memorial Day Weekend a carpool of district leaders was planning to drive to Staten Island to join in worship with Light of the Gospel.
Atlantic Northeast has a motto for this kind of intensive work, Mitchell said: “All In: Going, Glowing, Growing, and Godly.” Being “all in” means strengthening each congregation through interchurch connections, and partnering with each other to do more effective ministry, Mitchell said. The district’s goal is to “reverse the trend of being stuck” as a church of old ways and old problems, and to move forward together.
Wild Wood Gathering
Hosting a church plant in her living room in Olympia, Wash., is a new experience for Elizabeth Ullery Swenson. “We had a group of people who were ready, eager, and interested,” she said, and so WildWood Gathering was born.
The group meets once a week, on Thursday evenings. Her living room is not as accessible a location as desired, so she is on the lookout for better—a location in the downtown area, perhaps hosted at an art gallery or a community multipurpose space.
Location is important because the gathering is “a place to heal and reclaim spiritual practice” for “spiritual refugees,” she said. The gathering is meant for those who “have found church irrelevant, painful, exclusive, inhospitable,” and for whom a traditional church “doesn’t meet their worldview.” Locations that pose difficult physical or emotional boundaries to cross, will not be considered safe space.
“My generation really struggles with the concept of church,” she explained. Her generation—the millennials— are not the only ones she hopes to gather, however. She hopes WildWood will be intergenerational as well as a church for LGBTQ individuals. “They’ve had the hardest time in finding safe communities,” she said.
WildWood Gathering started meeting earlier this year, in March. Prior to that, Ullery Swenson spent four to five months preparing the ground for the plant, with help from the district. Her training at Bethany Seminary, where she is working on a master of divinity with a focus on evangelism and missional ministry, gave her the impetus for going into church planting. Her involvement in leadership of the Open Table Cooperative, a progressive Brethren organization, also helped prepare her. She continues to see the Open Table Cooperative as part of her pastoral ministry.
For Ullery Swenson, WildWood Gathering is a way of reaching a new generation without upsetting the relationships, security, and safe space of the existing congregations. However, existing congregations have an important role to play, she said: they must empower and support new churches. It’s a “both/and” for her: both existing congregations and new church plants are needed, both tradition and innovation are important in the body of Christ. More information is at www.WildWoodGathering.org.
Tyler Roebuck assisted with this set of stories. A student at Manchester University, he is a Ministry Summer Service intern with Messenger and the Church of the Brethren communication team.
Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren, and associate editor for Messenger. She also is an ordained minister and a graduate of Bethany Seminary and the University of La Verne, Calif.
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