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.”
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.”
A New Church Born from Two Dwindling Congregations
Last year, Durham Church rose from the grave of two Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations that had dwindled to fewer than 25 people between them. Renewal might not be strong enough a word. This was resurrection.
“Renewal feels like life after death,” says the Rev. Amanda Diekman D’10, co-pastor of Durham Church. “St. John’s already knew that we were going to die, so we were waiting to see new life.”
St. John’s Presbyterian had been the larger of the two congregations, with about 20 members left by the end of 2011. Diekman and St. John’s lead pastor, Franklin Golden D’08, had been helping that church toward its own renewal, which, perhaps ironically, had contributed to its decline in numbers. Diekman says St. John’s had taken some “faithful stances” in its 25-year history at the far northern edge of Durham: to support women in ministry and actively reach out to people with disabilities, for example. They lost some members over those decisions, she says, shrinking to fewer than 20.
“Renewal wasn’t something we could ignore,” says Diekman. “We needed new life. I think there’s something really precious about the small and weak and vulnerable church that knows it needs Jesus to survive.”
The congregation tried to figure out how to meet Durhamites where they are at. They started a community garden, where members and neighbors would work together, sometimes right before a worship service.
“At least we were starting to have conversations with our neighbors, which is a great source of renewal,” says Diekman. “We had something to do together during the week which was physical, emotional. The whole church smelled like basil. The smell of new life brought us new life.”
Renewal was also painful, though. Like in so many transitioning churches, members new and old fought over music.
“We learned to sing songs that some people had hated. Someone said, ‘That’s my favorite song,’ and we had to learn to sing it together,” she says. “The only one we all had in common was ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness.’ ”
What brought renewal was hearing others’ stories about why a particular song was meaningful to them. Where there had been conflict—some of it across racial lines in this aspiring multiethnic church—peace was made. “Those stories changed the way that we sang,” Diekman says.
Still, she says, the new members insisted on more change. Golden had already shed his collar and then his stole for more casual dress. The growing church wanted guitars, not organ. They wanted to meet in the round, not in rows of pews. They wanted weekly Communion. Diekman was still a student-pastor at Duke when she was the first to articulate what became the vision for Durham Church. She and other interested Duke students had gathered with members of St. John’s to brainstorm a plan for renewal.
“I said something that night that I had never said before. I said that I felt called to something that didn’t exist,” she says. “That language became a signpost that we might need to create something new together. The newness that was happening in our midst was too much for the structure that was there.”
If that was true at St. John’s, it might have been truer at the other merging congregation, Northgate Presbyterian. That church had just a handful of empty-nesters, mostly senior citizens. They needed new life but hadn’t gone through the same preparatory process of renewal that St. John’s had done.
“You’re not ready,” an elder at St. John’s told them. “It’s going to be more painful than you can imagine. You’re not going to make it unless you believe in life after death.”
The music, the skin tones, the Sunday dress all changed when Durham Church opened in the building that Northgate had called home. Just one middle-aged woman remained from the previous Northgate congregation.
“It was going to mean everything that they loved was going to have to die,” says Diekman. “For us, renewal was about mourning.”
But Durham Church also gained Iglesia Emanuel, a thriving Latino congregation of about 100 people that shares the building. While Emanuel and Durham Church remain distinct, the congregations try to participate in each other’s worship and mission and share what ministries they can, such as the youth program.
“I love speaking Spanish because I experience that humbling feeling of struggling through an unfamiliar language for the sake of friendship and community,” says Diekman. “Emanuel teaches me every day about the community life that we have together as Christians. The doors are always open— for the food pantry, prayer services, music lessons, and computer classes.”
Diekman and Golden now are co- pastors of Durham Church. Sometimes people assume that since he is a man, Golden is the lead pastor. “We smile and love and forgive,” Diekman says. “Our mutuality teaches us to give and receive correction, listen and learn constantly, and to have humility and dependence at the heart of our job description—all things that point us toward Jesus.”
Cross-ethnic partnership. Shared leadership. Casual dress. Contemporary music styles. Weekly eucharistic liturgy. All these things were new for the prior congregations. Diekman says planting a new church in place of two old ones created space to experiment.
“I don’t know that I could go back to an established church. I love the freedom of not being scared,” she says. “There can be a lot of energy spent worrying about keeping the ship sailing, and I don’t think that’s very energizing or renewing for the congregations or the pastors. Maybe new churches help their congregations live without that fear.”
Runners Become Worshippers
In 2008, the North Carolina diocese of the Episcopal Church had more aspiring priests than it had need for ordained clergy. The Rev. George Linney D’08 had planned to pursue ordination but realized he would need another job after graduation. An avid runner, he took a job at Bull City Running, a high-end sneaker store at the south end of the American Tobacco Trail, about seven miles from downtown Durham.
“As I would commute via bike and the American Tobacco Trail, God spoke clearly: ‘Gather out here and pray,’ ” Linney says. “So a few months later, despite my sense that this could not possibly be what God wanted for me to do in south Durham, we started. I was filled with visions, heard affirmations, was laughed at—all the sort of biblical stuff I had read about for those who are a part of something different.”
Durham, like many creative-class cities, has a large running community, and running had been a big part of Linney’s spiritual life for years. As a Duke student, he ran six laps (nearly a marathon) around Raleigh’s Central Prison in prayerful protest of an execution happening there. This summer, he led runs around the North Carolina State Legislative Building to protest budget cuts to programs helping the poor and minorities. Linney says it’s the church’s job to help its people see how God is already at work in their own particular gifts, careers, and passions. For his Tobacco Trail Community (TTC) church plant, it’s running, but it could be almost anything.
“They know that this other thing that they do (outside church) has something to do with God,” he says. “This is not just about physical fitness. Gardening could be your prayer life. Computer programming matters in the life of God. A life well-lived is when you start to recognize, hey, God is in all of this.”
Runners commune with God because they commune with creation—the air, the trees, the dirt, the animals, and especially their own bodies. But not every runner articulates it that way, and Linney feels called to help them do that. Some seem to think it’s all about beating the other guys or topping your best race time.
“You’re dangerously in an idolatrous, narcissistic world,” says Linney. “Most of the people you run with think that running is their god. If they lose and they don’t run well, there’s nothing left.”
Running doesn’t have much to do with TTC’s liturgy; it’s just that the congregants happen to be runners. Linney has met many of them as the store manager at Bull City Running.
“There’s ordained clergy in their running store. That validates their running,” says Linney, whose childhood church, Myers Park Baptist in Charlotte, ordained him to ministry. “Most days I really enjoy my job. I help people find great running shoes every day. Helping people to run leads to conversations about Jesus that are more interesting. You quickly—as you’re tying someone’s shoes—get to the nuts and bolts of their life. I do a lot of counseling.”
What appeals to runners is that the church meets outdoors, in revolving open spaces adjacent to the trail. If you want to attend worship with them, TTC’s website tells you to go “between 5 and 5.25 mile marker” or “just north of Woodcroft Parkway.” Linney sounds almost like St. Francis of Assisi when he talks about children chasing rabbits or birds chirping praise as part of his church’s worship. “There’s music being played and Scripture being spoken without anyone opening a Bible or strumming a guitar.”
Linney says incarnational ministry goes beyond just preaching to runners in the great outdoors. The idea is to name God in all the good things already going on in people’s lives.
“These people need to listen to Thelonious Monk in worship. Why? Because their context for worship is in central North Carolina,” he says. “We go to Nana Tacos afterward. We have some margaritas. You get to hold the baby you didn’t get to hold during worship.”
Linney, who recently self-published his own book of poetry, says TTC caters to an educated, creative demographic in Durham and Chapel Hill, people who might have left the church after adolescence because they found traditional worship boring.
“We are for the poets and the artists,” Linney says. “We can teach you how to take your liberal arts degree and really think not just about how to make more money with it but how to serve the poor with it.”
“I’m not sure that people will come. I’m not sure that we’ll get rich. I want to be the suffering church,” says Linney. “It’s not really what some people might call successful. I’ve been at this project for three years and it brings in $17,000 a year. But the Word says that God is in our suffering. That’s not always a popular message. It often leads to small churches.”
Linney says it’s hard for some people to take a runner’s church seriously. “I can always tell they’re kind of making fun of us, but I like that because people were always kind of making fun of Jesus, to his death,” says Linney, whose gathering often totals as few as 10 people.
“Being understood immediately is highly overrated,” he says. “Folks outside your particular context do not need to understand all of what you are in one quick tagline. I think TTC can be a catalyst for wider church renewal by its simplicity. We are low cost and low tech. There is no reason we can’t be doing a version of what we are doing today a decade from now. TTC is in a fourth year of steady, slow growth. We do count on stability and patience, but I don’t plan to go anywhere, and there are other folks who seem to feel the same way about practicing their faith in Durham.”