“The first duty of love is to listen.”—Paul Tillich
As part of our practices in this summer space in between, we’ve taken our conference staff meetings “to the margins”, which so far has meant meeting at Doylestown and Alpha congregations for an afternoon to eat, pray and learn alongside the pastors who work in those settings before engaging our regular conference staff agendas. We’ll go to Quakertown to learn about the work of Salem congregation’s engagement with partners and neighbors yet for our last of these meetings later this month.
These going to the margins meetings have felt like holy disruptions of our routine. We’ve received the gracious hospitality of Krista at Alpha, and Randy, KrisAnne and Sandy at Doylestown. We’ve had great ice cream and burritos. We’ve learned by listening to both the possibilities and struggles for ministry and life in one of the wealthiest communities in Bucks County, as well as what it feels like to work and hope just across the Delaware River.
I’m noticing some things that have been happening through our experiment. Some of these things might encourage our continued journey of “going to the margins” for the sake of the Good News. This is a small disruption, a monthly afternoon staff meeting. But breaking our routines invigorates our conversations and builds our relationships together, differently. We carpool. We talk differently and about different things because we are in different spaces. In navigating the logistics of simply going to a different location, we think differently rather than simply showing up in the same place. Our two meetings at the margins have been times when we’ve been highly engaged with one another, even when dealing with routine tasks and procedures (seriously). I look forward to what we’ll learn later this month. A few staff members have asked if we can continue this kind of meeting alongside congregations’ into the future.
Admittedly, it does cost us some extra time and mileage resources to get to these places, which I’d say is well worth the effort thus far. By eating together, we create a different rhythm of gathering that opens conversation differently. By listening and praying with the pastors in their settings, we’ve had opportunities to both bless and to learn. In going to the margins, we find what happens when we respond to Jesus’s declaration to go and then the transformation that happens when we listen to each other and in the midst, to sense the presence of God and discover our hearts are still strangely warmed together on the way in this time in between.
Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, France in November, and in San Bernardino, California in December, many have struggled with the question of how we should relate to our Muslim neighbors. Tensions have remained high, exacerbated by the election season, and the answer to this question has reared its head in the form of some ugly anti-Islamic sentiment, including harassment and acts of vandalism against mosques in the Philadelphia area and around the country. Several congregations in Franconia Conference have asked this question in a different way: How can we relate to our Muslim neighbors in a way that is Christ-like?
Philadelphia Praise Center (PPC) is one congregation that has a long history of interacting with its surrounding Muslim community. Shortly after PPC was first started in 2006, Pastor Aldo Siahaan, himself an immigrant from Indonesia, reached out to the Imam of a group of Indonesian Muslims and offered them the use of the church building for evening prayers during Ramadan. They didn’t accept his invitation that year, but called back the following year and asked to use the space, beginning a longstanding friendship between PPC and what is now Masjid Al Falah.
Lindy Backues, an elder at PPC, joined the church when he and his family were deported from Indonesia after living there for 18 years. “I’ve been ‘sent home’. I know what that feels like,” he says in response to national comments against Muslim immigrants. “I don’t want to send Muslims ‘home’. They’re my friends. So at PPC, we’re trying to be different—to reach out to visitors and guests and the sojourner in our midst. In the process of receiving the other, we become who we are, because God received us when we were the other.”
Salford Mennonite Church also has a longstanding relationship with its Muslim neighbors which began when Salford reached out to them in friendship after the events of 9/11. Out of that gesture began a close relationship with a family from Lebanon who lives nearby. And in turn, that family has walked alongside and assisted Salford as it has resettled Muslim refugees from Iraq and Iran.
After recent Islamophobic rhetoric hit national news, Salford contacted the Imam of North Penn Mosque. “We had a meeting to express that as Christians we desire to have a relationship with him and his community,” says Joe Hackman, Lead Pastor. “We want to let them know that we’re there for them to offer support in whatever form they might need. As Anabaptists, we know what it is to be persecuted because of our faith. So it makes sense that we would want to protect other religious minorities who are experiencing persecution.”
For Doylestown Mennonite Church, which has recently become a co-sponsor for a Muslim refugee family from Afghanistan, the decision to reach out was simply an act of love, says KrisAnne Swartley, Minister for the Missional Journey. “This is just a way for us to live out faithfulness to Jesus.”
The Bible is full of verses regarding loving our neighbors. In Mark 12 as Jesus is questioned by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem they ask what the greatest commandment is, to which Jesus answers in verse 30-31, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” It is great to see Franconia Conference churches living their faith by loving their neighbors.
Esther Good is a member at Whitehall Mennonite Church.
As debate around human sexuality continues to leave many church leaders wondering what binds together people with diverse beliefs, at least four Franconia Conference congregations are partnering to advocate for basic human rights, declaring that human beings shouldn’t be abused, raped, and sold.
The four Pennsylvania congregations – Doylestown, Finland, Franconia, and Philadelphia Praise Center – independently of each other became aware of the issue of human trafficking, commonly defined as the illegal movement of people, often for the purposes of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation.
These congregations are each comprised of members with diverse theological perspectives, racial makeup, and socio-economic status, making their shared interest in addressing human trafficking unique and important at a time when conversations around homosexuality have polarized many churches.
Each congregation has taken its own steps toward becoming informed about the impact of human trafficking internationally, nationally, and locally, and toward advocating for victims of human trafficking everywhere. It wasn’t until recently, however, that leaders from the four churches realized their shared conviction at a seemingly surprising location: a delegate meeting.
In February, as Franconia Conference leaders conducted business and wrestled with questions related to homosexuality, Josh Meyer, associate pastor of Franconia congregation, stood up and appealed to church leaders, “What are the more important matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness that we can gather around?” For example, Meyer suggested, despite differing opinions about homosexuality, doesn’t everyone agree that human beings shouldn’t be abused, raped, and sold into slavery?
“That was the appeal that sparked a quick, on-the-spot poll of pastors and leaders present to ask, ‘which congregations want to be in conversation on this, want to get together to work on this?’” said Samantha Lioi, Franconia Conference minister of peace and justice.
After the delegate meeting, leaders from the four congregations, plus Lioi, formed an informal task force “to explore what it would look like to work together and make responding to human trafficking a priority in our Conference,” Meyer said. The task force organized a resourcing breakfast focused on human trafficking, held in September, and organized an anti-trafficking workshop to be held during Conference Assembly on November 15. The task force is planning a day of public witness, where people will be invited to gather and pray outside popular trafficking spots in southeastern Pennsylvania.
“Moving forward, we’re excited about making more congregations aware of the issue, and providing practical, tangible ways for churches to respond together,” Meyer said.
The Finland congregation has been addressing human trafficking for several years, hosting local speakers including Debbie Wright, an activist who is producing a documentary about sex trafficking in southeastern Pennsylvania. Pastor Kris Wint first encountered trafficking while in Cambodia. “To do nothing is to keep people enslaved and live contrary to the One we claim to follow,” Wint said.
Franconia congregation has focused a Sunday morning service on trafficking, hosted an awareness night, heard from guest speakers, and provided resources on how to get involved in combatting trafficking. “My sense is many congregations don’t even realize the extent to which human trafficking is a reality in our world,” Meyer said. “There are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in human history. Churches need to know about this … My other sense is that many churches are aware of the situation but don’t know what to do in response. It seems like such a big issue; it’s hard to know how to engage. If we can find ways to help churches act in practical, tangible ways, that would be a great thing.”
About three years ago, Doylestown staff members KrisAnne Swartley and Sandy Landes began prayer walking around Hilltown. As they walked, they became aware of area businesses that profit from the sex trade: adult bookstores, strip bars, massage parlors.
“It deeply troubled us, but we weren’t sure what we could do about it, other than continue to pray,” said Swartley, Doylestown’s minister for the missional journey.
Eventually, the Doylestown congregation connected with local advocates: Worthwhile Wear and The Well. With this kind of partnering, Swartley sees advocating for an end to human trafficking as missional.
“Individually, we can do very little to end modern day slavery,” she said. “As we partner together, we can accomplish so much more – each person and congregation offering different gifts as we have them, for this ministry.”
Adrian Suryajaya agrees. Some members of his congregation, Philadelphia Praise Center, have been victims of forced labor and wage theft.
“It is important that we work together on this issue because it is such a big, overwhelming issue to tackle alone,” he said. “We need a lot of resources and teamwork.”
The diversity of the Franconia Conference congregations partnering to end modern day slavery shows this teamwork is already happening. Lioi hopes more join in, and hopes the upcoming conference assembly will provide ample opportunity to do so.
“I don’t know why, but it seems this injustice, this oppression in particular, has drawn a more diverse group of leaders together than any other I have seen,” she said. “I believe we can be publicly present in standing against traffickers and standing with survivors, especially since we have information about places close to our congregations that have been centers for trafficking.”
I am grateful for Doylestown leadership’s blessing to travel March 24-29. My first stop was at Eastern Mennonite University for three days. I met with various campus leaders including President Loren Swartzentruber, athletic director Dave King and undergraduate campus pastor Lana Miller, as well as several professors in both the college and seminary. It was a privilege to hear them talk about the passion they have for creating a learning environment that includes high quality training for vocation as well as a solid foundation of faith.
The best part of my visit was meeting students who have a desire to pursue ministry. They asked questions like: How do you find time to refresh your own soul? What is the most difficult part of pastoring? What is the best part? I have great hope for the future of the church after meeting these young adults. I was privileged to speak in seminary chapel on Thursday about Ruth and Naomi and Boaz, and how making space for outsiders creates space for God to work miracles in our midst. I shared several stories of what that looks like for us at Doylestown as we continue on the missional journey.
The second part of my trip took me to Alexandria, Virginia where I attended the Fresh Expressions National Gathering. The group of 200+ was made up of Southern Baptists, Anglicans, Anabaptists, Presbyterians and more!
We discussed the rapidly changing culture in the USA and how to connect with people who don’t know Jesus and have no interest in attending a church on Sunday morning. We talked about the need for discipleship and the ways the Holy Spirit leads us to “improvise” in whatever local context we find ourselves, much like the early church in Acts. I heard stories of coffee houses, single parenting groups, married couples opening their homes for family-style meals with neighbors, after-school tutoring centers, a “messy church” built around doing crafts and science experiments and a “sweaty church” built around active games and sports. It affirmed much of what we are learning at Doylestown about the missional journey, and it also inspired me to continue to encourage the ideas and dreams that are bubbling up within our congregation.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the weekend:
When you choose to keep company with Jesus, you give up the right to choose the rest of the company around you. You keep company with whoever Jesus chooses.
“These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise and its mission to seek out new life and new civilization…to boldly go where no one has gone before.” That is for us, Church! And if you can’t boldly go, then for heaven’s sake, at least GO!
If you are comfortable more than 70% of the time, then there is a problem, because the church in Acts was hardly EVER comfortable. They were always racing to catch up to what the Spirit was doing next.
Grace engages the world as it is now. The fact is, the world has changed, though we never gave it permission to do so. Acting as if it hasn’t changed and continuing to do the same old things, simply is not faithful.
40% of new leaders in these new, creative ministries are LAY LEADERS–not clergy or professional ministers. These are courageous, everyday people.
God is into the multiplication of the small. You don’t have to lead a “mega”-anything.
On Sunday evening November 10th, a group of people from the community and from Doylestown congregation gathered to reflect on the painful parts of life and to seek hope in God’s Presence.
Chaplain George Lindsey of the local VFW, spoke honestly and with vulnerability about the depression he felt while deployed in Iraq, as well as the PTSD he struggled to overcome when he arrived back home. He also spoke with great confidence about God’s comfort and the many ways God has healed and continues to heal him. George led us in singing “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand!”
Ron and Robin Miller also spoke about the hope they find in Jesus as they continue to grieve the loss of their son, Brett. They read from Psalm 22, “from birth I was cast upon you, God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near.”
In the candlelight and silence, with broken pieces of slate in our hands to symbolize how broken we sometimes feel, we waited on God. We could hear one another weeping. And then we prayed that God in Jesus would make all things well, even in the midst of suffering.
After the service was over, many of us stayed to talk and pray with one another. It was a healing time of honesty and hope, this beautiful evening that broke down barriers between “church” and “community.”
Theological educators believe headfirst immersion into unfamiliar cultural terrain is a requirement for preparing church leaders in the context of the twenty-first century. For students at Biblical Theological Seminary (Hatfield, Pa.), a lifelong commitment to intercultural ministry begins at the second year mark of their LEAD Master of Divinity Program.
To meet the complex and unconventional demands of intercultural education, Biblical Seminary and Franconia Conference have partnered together to create the Intercultural Ministry Experience (IME). For the past five years, Franconia’s director of leadership cultivation, Steve Kriss, and Biblical’s director of the LEAD program, Derek Cooper, have led a total of seventy-five students on journeys far and wide, from Israel/Palestine to Italy to Cambodia and Vietnam.
For Dr. Derek Cooper, the ten-day trips abroad produce formative insights and questions that dwell with students well beyond their time in seminary. “It is my favorite component of the LEAD program, and students receive a very concentrated educational experience,” said Cooper. “Students always come away from the trip changed, challenged, and more culturally aware. It’s completely transformative.”
“We also talk a lot about contextualization, and we learn much about how the local Christian community addresses issues relating to history, culture, politics, and world religions,” Cooper added.
Josh Meyer, associate pastor of Franconia congregation (Telford, Pa.), participated in the 2011 trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. Meyer identified practices of learning and listening as the educational core of his experience. “This was not a mission trip where rich, white Americans did a service project and ‘brought Jesus’ to the forgotten corners of the globe,” he said. “Rather, this was a learning experience where we went as students, not saviors; as listeners, not experts; as those interested in exploring ways in which God was already living and moving and active in the culture, not as those bringing Jesus to a place where, prior to our arrival, God was not present…This approach to cross-cultural study resonated deeply with my own wariness of short-term missions and helped to shape my thinking on how we as people of faith engage with the rest of the world.”
The required IME provided Donna Merow her first opportunity to explore spaces beyond U.S. borders. Now pastor of Ambler (Pa.) congregation, Merow recalled how her trip to Israel/Palestine transformed both her understanding of ancient scripture as well as the present Israeli/Palestinian conflict. “The reality of walking where Jesus did, of visiting his birthplace, the village he called home, the Sea of Galilee, and the site of his death has changed the way I read the Bible,” Merow explained. “Seeing and touching the separation wall, staying in the homes of Palestinian Christians, and visiting one of the multigenerational refugee camps has made me ask hard questions about government policy and church practice.”
For many travelers, encountering weathered, historically nuanced places reveals how tender the balance is between the past and the future. This was one of the major lessons absorbed by KrisAnne Swartley, associate pastor of Doylestown (Pa.) congregation, on her trip to Italy. “I was struck by the history there, and how it is preserved and revered, and how that can be both a strength and a weakness,” Swartley reflected. “The strength is in remembering our story, remembering how the faithful who went before us worked through questions of faithfulness in the midst of change/struggle. The weakness can be that we are so trapped by traditions of the past that we become irrelevant in the present and into the future. I continue to think about this balance, to pray that I remember and learn from the church of the past but also [have courage] to walk into the future bravely, not afraid to let go of what was as the Spirit gives new wisdom.”
While this spring marks the end of the Biblical/Franconia IME partnership, its conclusion is cause for celebration, according to Kriss. “The model proved to be an effective partnership because both the seminary and the Conference benefitted,” he said. The Conference offered resources of intercultural education and global networking, he observed, while the seminary provided students who were positioned to deeply engage. “The surprising outcome,” Kriss said, “was to build relationships with Anabaptist students on campus which helped Conference congregations to have new connections with potential pastors. And these new potential pastors had already been shaped somewhat by Anabaptist ways of engaging the world. It was a fruitful endeavor, not without struggles at times, but one that represents effective and strategic partnering in healthy ways.”
My fingers and toes are still somewhat numb as I sit down to write this account of the prayer walk in Hilltown Township (Pa.). I also feel somewhat numb on the inside. I wonder how I got here… the associate pastor who was just interviewed by a local news station for walking and praying on a neighborhood street. This is weird.
Then I remember how I got here. I have been asking God to show me what it looks like to incarnate God’s love in the suburbs because it isn’t always obvious to me. My suburbs look beautiful and well-kept and peaceful when you drive around on the streets. What need is there here? It is hidden under the surface.
I got an email last Friday from my children’s school district office saying that there had been a home invasion and murder in my township and that their school would be increasing security. I quickly looked up the news story and read the report. My first instinct was to lock my doors, hunker down and pray. I felt violated and fearful.
My second instinct was to get outside and be present, to stand in the middle of the darkness and bring the light of hope and faith. I had been asking God what it looked like to do incarnational ministry in the suburbs and I felt in this moment that it meant going against any normal instinct to insulate myself or rationalize away what had happened.
A group of us from Line Lexington Mennonite, St. Peter’s Covenant, and Doylestown Mennonite have been meeting to pray once a month. We called an emergency meeting to pray specifically about this tragedy and discern a response. Lowell Delp, the pastor of Line Lexington congregation, Jim Fox, the pastor of St. Peter’s congregation, and Sandy Landes and I from Doylestown congregation decided that walking Swartley Road and praying for our neighbors there would be a faithful and redemptive way to incarnate Jesus. Lowell and Jim visited some of the residents the day before our prayer walk, to let them know what was happening and invite them to join us.
Today, a group of ten of us met in a parking lot on Route 309. One man who joined us there but could not brave the cold walk said, “I want to see our community come together after this. We can’t change anything by ourselves. Our community needs prayer and our churches need prayer.” I was sure I saw the hint of tears in his eyes and heard a tremble in his voice.
We carried candles in glass jars and sang songs of grace and God’s faithfulness. We walked against the freezing wind to “Amazing Grace” and “The Steadfast Love of the Lord Never Ceases.” We prayed for the woman and the teen boys who were traumatized by the violence, for the neighbors whose street was violated by this horrific incident. We prayed for beauty to come from these ashes, for God’s redeeming power to be at work.
I am tempted to look forward and ask “What’s next?” But maybe for now it is enough to be visible. To be present. In a community with no sidewalks and few places to be together as neighbors, maybe even that presence is miraculously transformative. I will keep choosing presence and incarnation over insulation. I will tell my first instincts to step aside in favor of what Jesus is prompting deep inside. And I find I am not numb anymore.
KrisAnne Swartley is pastor for the missional journey at Doylestown (Pa.) Mennonite Church. She wrote this reflection last Thursday (January 24th). Read the news report.
Thanksgiving dinner at the firehouse
by KrisAnne Swartley, Doylestown
After Hurricane Sandy, our congregation held “storm kitchens,” where we gathered to cook for those without power. After the initial crisis passed, we asked ourselves as a missional mentoring group, “What’s next?” One of the young women suggested thanking our local fire fighters. For many in our group, cooking and serving food is our passion and gift, a way that we express love and care for others. So on November 27th and 29th, we served Thanksgiving dinner at two firehouses in Roslyn and Hilltown (Pa).
It is important to us as a missional group to bless those who help our community thrive, and these volunteers (can you believe this is still done on a VOLUNTEER basis??) do just that. We wanted to bless them from our faith perspective, while recognizing they may not share our beliefs or practices. They were very open to that and were genuinely appreciative of the prayer of blessing we gave them and the time we spent with them that night… as well as the food, of course!
I served at the Hilltown firehouse. Although the meal was outside of our comfort zone, we soon discovered that humor unites. Within moments of arriving with my big roasting pans and all the food, they were teasing me gently and I gave it right back to them. The joking created a comfort level that made us all feel safe in each other’s presence.
It took conscious effort for those of us from Doylestown to not just talk to each other, but to break out of our “clique” and begin to visit with the firefighters and their families. Once we did that, however, we made connections and shared stories and the conversation flowed freely.
Jenni Garrido, who organized the dinner at Roslyn, said the folks at the firehouse couldn’t believe someone from their neighborhood would take the time and effort to bring them a meal… they were floored by the generosity.
This felt like only a beginning. The firefighters are looking for connections and relationships within the community and are very open to more conversation and time together. A few of us are gathering to pray there on Friday morning. Who knows what more may come?!
A Thanksgiving Retreat
by Aldo Siahaan, Philadelphia Praise Center
On a beautiful Thursday morning around 8 o’clock sounds of laughter and excitement could be heard from Philadelphia Praise Center’s building in South Philly. About 100 congregation members were anxious to depart for Quakertown Christian School, where we held a one-day Thanksgiving Retreat filled with sermons, games, fellowship, and other fun activities.
At this year’s retreat, PPC was fortunate to host not one, but two special guests from Indonesia. The guest speaker was Rev. Daniel Alexander, a well-known preacher in Indonesia who has been ministering in Nabire, Papua since the 1980s. In addition, Rev. Alexander also brought along Stevano Wowiling, one of the finalists from a recent Indonesian Idol, who led the congregation in ardent worship sessions.
Halfway through the day, members of Nations Worship Center joined us after spending Thanksgiving morning at Salford Mennonite Church. The Thanksgiving Retreat ended with dinner at a nearby Chinese buffet.
Pastors’ children tend to have two reputations: rebellion or following in the footsteps of their parents (never mind all the kids in between). From the time I was young, I fell into the latter category, strongly drawn to my father’s calling and work. My connection to God was real and tangible to me, very much alive in my interior world. I followed that inner leading readily, preaching my first sermon as a teenager and studying ministry in college.
As a fresh college graduate, with all the energy and optimism that implies, I began my first professional ministry position. And I made mistakes. I began to wonder if I had heard God’s call correctly. Were my weaknesses too obvious? Was I too passionate? Too opinionated? Too feminine or not feminine enough?
I sat with these questions for quite a while without resolving them completely, and then one day my phone rang. It was my father. My mother had been diagnosed with cancer. They came to stay with us during her treatment, and as I struggled to companion her and my father in their journey—saw the way the cancer ate away at her body and mind—I felt my soul sinking into a deep, dark, silent place I had never known before.
And when she died, it felt like part of me died as well.
Not only did I question if I was called to ministry in the first place, but I questioned the character of the God who called me. Is God really good? Is God active in our lives? Does God work miracles to heal the sick? I tried to hold all of these questions and doubts honestly. I tried to wait patiently for answers. I went to seminary and got my MDiv in the hope that some book or professor or passage of scripture would clear the fog for me. It did not.
Over time, however, something got under my skin. Maybe it was the touch and smell of my baby’s skin, the faithful companionship of my husband, or the food that friends brought as we grieved. Maybe it was the miracle that there was still laughter at all after so many tears. Maybe it was the simple act of loved ones praying for me when I could not pray at all. Maybe it was music or simply the passage of time… or a combination of all these things. But slowly and steadily faith came back to me, like a dear friend who had been holding my hand all the time and I had not noticed.
God’s call to serve as a pastor also came back to me. I found congregations and leaders who received my passion and vulnerability, who readily acknowleged my humanity and still dared to call me “minister.” To my surprise, I discovered that on the other side of loss is gift and great joy. And being a pastor does not mean having all the answers. For me, it means bringing all of myself–doubts, fears, anger, passion, joy—to the moment and choosing to trust God’s Presence among us.
KrisAnne Swartley is on the pastoral staff at Doylestown Mennonite Church for the Missional Journey. She lives in Hilltown Township with her husband Jon and two children, Heidi and Benjamin.
The congregation in Doylestown was about at the end of their rope, struggling to find ways to engage their community after years of declining attendance.
Pastor Randy Heacock knew the future didn’t look good: if the congregation continued to do things as they always had, within ten years they could easily die out.
Or, they could try something new and see what happened.
The leadership team began a process of discernment, asking “What does it mean for us, Doylestown Mennonite Church, to lose our life to find the greater life God desires for us?” said Heacock. After six months, they invited the congregation into further prayer and discernment. Heacock began conversations with the congregation’s LEADership Minister, Steve Kriss, and other young and emerging leaders in Franconia Conference.
Slowly they began to develop a plan. Less than a plan, actually, according to Scott Hackman and KrisAnne Swartley, who, along with founding team member Derek Cooper, were hired in April of 2011 to give leadership to this new congregational direction. “KrisAnne and I are organizing on the fly,” said Hackman, “we’re cultivating as we go!”
The new missional team was given flexibility and the support of the congregation as they plunged into the world of their Doylestown community, a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia that rarely allows its deeper needs to show above its suburban chic surface. They took prayer walks, hung out at coffee shops, developed relationships with the church’s neighbors.
Around the same time, a member of the community approached the leadership at Doylestown to ask if they were open to allowing unused land behind their facility to be cultivated as a community garden. Out of that partnership, the Sandy Ridge Community Garden was born.
As the missional team watched the congregation enthusiastically join the gardening project, they began to wonder what it would be like to create a Christian community with a variety of entry points, where people could belong even if they didn’t connect with or commit to Sunday morning attendance.
They were particularly inspired by the life cycle of the garden—every season has life and death, and that’s ok, they realized. Acknowledging those cycles allowed the congregation to join in where they wanted to, to back off when they needed to, to connect and release. They decided to call their new ministry “The Garden.”
By September, The Garden was ready for its first official experiment: a peace walk through Doylestown to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and proclaim a counter-cultural witness.
Only one community family joined them.
Since this family had been 30-year residents of Doylestown, Swartley asked them to lead the prayer walk. The family guided the missional team around town, eventually leading them to the cemetery where their daughter was buried. In tears, they told the story of their daughter’s murder and shared how much it meant to them that someone was working in the community to build hope.
It was a turning point for The Garden. Although numbers were small, the missional team caught a glimpse of the importance of The Garden’s presence and ministry in Doylestown. “We need to reimagine what failure is in post-Christendom witness,” Hackman explained.
The “failures” have also opened up doors of connection with members of the congregation as the missional team shared their stories on Sunday mornings or through their blog. Members could participate in Garden Groups—home gatherings over food and conversation—or partner with the community garden and other Garden initiatives without pressure or expectations.
Some of the expectations they have surrendered have been formed by years of stories about what “mission” really is, like “we need more young people or a better worship band or a more charismatic pastor,” said Hackman. They came to realize these stories aren’t true. “What we need is to be more of what we are in spaces where people are already,” he added.
As a result of this developing culture, the Doylestown congregation is experiencing new life and vitality. For years, there was a sense of low self-esteem at the church, a sense of failure, said Swartley. “Now there’s a renewing of their identity as loved people of God. And that makes room for other people!” It’s been inspiring to watch, she added. “They’re awaking once again to what they are and how beautiful they are and their potential.”
Doylestown has not seen a dramatic growth in their Sunday morning attendance, but they have seen an increase in the number of people who call the church their own. From community gardeners at Sandy Ridge to men and women who attend AA meetings in the church’s fellowship hall, members of the Doylestown community will say, “That’s my church!” even if they have never entered the sanctuary on a Sunday morning.
“The agenda is creating space for people to belong to each other and God,” said Hackman. It’s not a church growth plan. “And how does that result in more people coming to your church? I have no idea. But we have more people coming to Doylestown.”
The Doylestown congregation committed to a minimum of three years for this new initiative; Hackman and Swartley have high hopes for the next two years and beyond. “[My dream is] that more than half of the present congregation would try at least one experiment in the next year in their neighborhood. Any experiment,” said Swartley. “That would be super fun and then we’d get together and tell those stories—what we’ve learned, who we’ve met, how we’ve seen God at work.”
And Hackman hopes for growth, but not in the traditional sense. “Whether that growth is Sunday morning, through groups, events, I don’t care,” he said. “Our identity as Christians keeps growing and that creates more room for people looking for God.”
It’s been three years since Heacock realized that something needed to change. And something has. “While I certainly don’t know where all this is heading, I do know God is present, people are open, and lives are being transformed,” he reflected. “That is good enough for me.”