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Coffee Shops, Guitars, and a Running Trail

Divinity School graduates plant new churches in North Carolina, sparking renewal in unexpected places

The challenge of church planting might be compared to the intensity of a physical battle, at least when it’s described by the Rev. Greg Moore. “When you’re in the trenches, you need friends,” he says.

A group of eight recent Duke Divinity alumni has offered Moore that kind of friendship. They’ve all planted new churches in the Triangle region, and they meet as often as they can to talk and encourage each other. Some are new missions from the big denominations—two United Methodist churches, one Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and a Nazarene community. The others are nondenominational evangelical or emergent churches.

These pastors describe church renewal as a sort of molting process. Often, they’re helping lifelong Christians to shed old skin—styles of Sunday dress and music, the 11 o’clock meeting time, even the comfort of having their own buildings. And while they may grow new skin—replacing a pipe organ with guitars, or penny loafers with running shoes—they remain at the core communities of faith centered around Word and Sacrament. In many cases, growing new skin means recovering old weekly Communion that had been discarded by previous generations.

Advising the group are Duke Divinity faculty Douglas Campbell, Curtis Freeman, and Will Willimon, the latter well-known for trying to preserve historic liturgy as central to Christian life. “They’re not simply planting missional communities and congregations but visible expressions of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” says Freeman. “All of them shared a common theological formation (at Duke), which focused their attention on the church as the locus of theological reflection and action. … For far too long ministers have been trained to be managers rather than missional leaders. Church planters can reconnect us with the apostolic mission of making disciples. My hope and prayer is that their ministries can become a catalyst for the programmatic churches to reclaim the missional mandate.” These church planters see themselves running spiritual laboratories of sorts, trying to identify new movements of the Holy Spirit and to join in.

Coffeeshops and a Clerical Collar
The Brier Creek area of northwest Raleigh, just past the Durham border, is named for a country club. At one time, the club was there and not much else. Now, Brier Creek is a burgeoning exurb of chain stores and megachurches a few miles from Raleigh-Durham International Airport. One congregation meets in a movie theater. There’s nothing you would call a downtown, nor any stately old churches. You could be anywhere in the country, and that’s sort of the point.

“The reason you buy in Brier Creek is you’re here for the airport,” says the Rev. Greg Moore D’03, who planted All Saints’ United Methodist Church there almost six years ago. “They’re all sales people. They’re all selling something—mostly their soul; that’s what they’re selling. We are here in exile. Release for the captives looks a lot different here.”

But, as Moore points out, he’s no different: he also came to Brier Creek for a job. When the former bishop of the North Carolina Conference, Al Gwinn, called him in 2006, Moore was an associate pastor at Christ UMC in Chapel Hill. It was a spired church at the center of Southern Village, a neo-urban development built to look like an old Main Street with locally owned businesses and walkable neighborhoods—a suburb without the suburbia.

“People move to that community planning to die there, to retire there; they want to put down deep, steady roots there,” says Moore. “Our people are here in Brier Creek because they work at IBM, and as soon as they get promoted, they’re gone. We’re here for a good time, not a long time.”The Rev. Greg Moore D'03

What does it mean to plant a church for a transient people? People who might be traveling for business over a lot of Sundays? People who won’t live in your town a year from now? People who buy their coffee at Starbucks and shop at Target and eat at Johnny Carino’s and will do the same when they move to Seattle or Chicago or Austin before their kids reach kindergarten?

When Gwinn sent him to Brier Creek, Moore thought he would start by forming a launch team of core members from nine nearby Methodist churches. While church planters will tell you that starting as a mission of an existing church is often crucial, most of the other churches weren’t willing to take the risk of losing some of their own. 

“It looked so good on paper. I don’t know how it didn’t work,” Moore laughs.  “What did work is I wore my collar to Caribou Coffee every day. I had the strangest conversations. People talk. Suburbia is wildly disorienting. You don’t know where you are. I mean, there’s Target and Bed Bath & Beyond, and you literally could be anywhere. There’s something about visible manifestations of faith that helps to orient them. That’s how I met people.”

Moore says attracting new members in the suburbs usually follows this formula: perfectly polished programs, simple self-help preaching, therapeutic worship experiences, and plenty of parking.

“That requires very little investment from the people involved,” says Moore. “I’m asked to show up, consume, and pay for my show. That formula works, and it sells. We’re not calling that the kingdom of God. The cancer that is killing us here is consumerism. I can’t offer salvation from that cancer while feeding the tumor. The lifespan of a mall is 30 years, and the lifespan of a megachurch is 30 years. I want to plant an oak tree, not a pine tree.”

Moore has found that exceedingly “churchy” things like his clerical collar, weekly Eucharist, piano or string-quartet music, and lectionary preaching have helped him to build a congregation of nearly 200 members in half a decade, mostly former Baptists and Catholics.

“We are a place where people kind of fall in love with God, maybe for the first time,” says Moore. “If you hang out at All Saints’ long enough, you not only learn the eucharistic prayer but you learn that you should be living it out day to day in community.”