When I felt a call from God to go to seminary, my perspective on the organized church caused me to hesitate. My primary image of the Church was the opening scene from the movie The Pirates of the Caribbean: a small ship is sinking, and Captain Jack Sparrow steps onto the dock as the sails of his boat sink into the waters. I knew the statistics told me the Church was dying. So how could God be calling me to seminary, and to ordained ministry? Who steps aboard a sinking ship?

I continue to have hope that God has called me to seminary to serve some sort of church because I have developed a deep love for community. I have always been a part of churches that refer to themselves as a “church community,” but I understood community in a totally different way by reading the Hebrew Bible through a new lens during my first year at Candler. I was so surprised to see how the community’s collective actions and communal health were central to the Israelite narrative. The Exodus story shaped their collective identity, and the prophets spoke to the community as a whole regarding their actions and fate. Israelite religion included sacrifices in a temple, but the prophets preached that our interactions in our homes and at our city gates matter too. The health of our society and communities matter. Do they matter to the churches that we serve? How can our faith communities address the American individualism and self-reliance that contradicts these collective, communal scriptures?   

Although classes such as United Methodist polity are designed to help me create positive and affirming experiences for people of faith within the institutionalized church, I have seen informal communities at Candler that look a lot like a different kind of church, too. When I was a chaplaincy intern at Lee Arrendale State Prison, a women’s prison, for my Contextual Education I placement, I saw women support each other through ongoing, daily conversations and hugs. I cooked dinners for some of my Candler friends because I simply wanted to offer them a good meal and a chance to be present together. My friends have shown up for each other when we found ourselves celebrating birthdays, addressing housing problems, and processing breakups. My experiences of Christian community at Candler have gone well beyond polity and church politics.           

This summer I am exploring this Church question by serving communities in the mountains. As a Candler Advantage intern, I am serving a church and non-profit co-working space this summer, as well as interacting with their partnering communities and churches. I have seen what happens when we are disconnected from others. I have heard folks who have just arrived in town say, “Man, it’s hard to make friends when all my work buddies live in another state.” I’ve heard elderly people who have seen Asheville change slowly for decades deeply desire a listening ear as their neighbors and families move away. But we have the potential to connect with others too. I have witnessed a small group of women gather together faithfully to check in and pray for each other each week. I have been blessed to worship at the Haywood Street Congregation with folks who care more about honesty and my attitude than my resume or career. We crave community, and sometimes we are blessed to find ourselves wrapped up in one.

I am grateful that my internship has included life in an intentional community because it has shown me how God can be present in our daily interactions. The Missional Wisdom Foundation, which shapes our community’s practices of intentional community through their Haw Creek Commons site, has structured their neo-monastic Rule of Life around the membership vows of The United Methodist Church. These are vows of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. We might not have stained glass or worship bulletins, but we take the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ seriously. The institution doesn’t offer me a cup of coffee in the morning, but God is certainly present when one of my housemates does. God is present in my community when my housemates pray for me as I face family conflicts. God was present when one of my housemates helped me replace my car battery. It is from this place of health that I walk to church on Sunday mornings to serve the organized, institutionalized church. I love all of the churches that I am interacting with here in Asheville, but I see how this experience of daily Christian community through an intentional community gives me hope that can overcome my sinking-ship fears. 

Will the organized, institutionalized church exist in 50 years? Maybe not as we know it. But I firmly believe that people will gather to pray, be present, give, serve, and witness to Jesus, who is always resurrecting the dead. That’s something I definitely want to be a part of.  I want my Candler experience to support me as I lead people of faith through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness that reflect the love of Jesus Christ. And I want my Candler experience to prepare me to do this, whether my faith community is gathered around a communion table or a kitchen counter.