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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

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.The Rev. Amanda Diekman D'10

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.”