Rethink Church


Molly Edmonds and Claire Lennox
April 1, 2020

A sampling of Candler alumni demonstrate how we can creatively—and faithfully—reconsider the meaning of church.

Imagine you’re playing the game Pictionary, and you’re tasked with drawing “church.” To get your teammates to guess this word, you might draw a square, representing a building, with a pointed steeple on top. Perhaps you’d draw a cross, or a pulpit with a speaker behind it to represent a minister.

It’s doubtful that you’d draw an addict who’s never attended a church service sitting next to a young woman who just lost her son. Or a group of black and white people sitting together in a circle, their faces indicating deep and difficult conversation. Or a fruit tree. Or three connected spots on a map.

And yet, because of Candler alumni like Ben Floyd 17T, Karen Webster Parks 16T, Tyler Sit 14T, and Matt Miofsky 02T, the above scenarios are now part of valid descriptions of church. For these visionaries, “rethinking church” began with an observation of what was missing from church in its current form, and then grew as they imagined how to fill in the gaps.

We’re all recovering from something

Photo credit: Katie Bailey/Citizen Times-USA Today Network via IMAGN Content Services, LLC.

Photo credit: Katie Bailey/Citizen Times-USA Today Network via IMAGN Content Services, LLC

“There’s an expectation that we have to walk into church on Sunday morning and already be put together,” says Ben Floyd. “That’s the opposite of what church should be. I want to help people wrestle with how they’re hurting and how the church can help.”Before he began his studies at Candler in the fall of 2014, Floyd had already begun working on a new kind of church in Asheville, North Carolina. Called Daybreak Fellowship, it was conceived as a faith community that applies ideas from 12-step recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to help hurting people find community, comfort, healing, and hope.

The language of addiction recovery is familiar to Floyd, who is up front about his former alcohol and drug abuse. At typical recovery groups, he says, there is a mix of faith categories, with religious people working their 12 steps alongside atheists and agnostics. While the philosophy is based on the concept of a higher power, “some people need something that’s more Christian than the spirituality that AA offers,” says Floyd.

He’s not the first to notice: Saddleback Church in California has provided the Celebrate Recovery program since 1990. The program, a Christ-centered reworking of AA’s 12 steps, began to attract more than just people struggling with alcohol or drugs. People came to talk through the loss of a partner, a battle with depression, homelessness, a history of sexual abuse. As Floyd puts it, “people need recovery from life. People are hurting, and the church can offer more than just a meeting for addiction.”

“Christ’s ministry is a healing ministry, and we all require healing. Everyone is in recovery from something.”

– Ben Floyd 17T

For his first year, Floyd commuted to his classes at Candler while continuing to lead Daybreak as part of the Teaching Parish program. Meeting one evening a week, the congregation would share a meal together, have worship with a sermon and communion, and then break into small groups to talk.

“There are plenty of churches, and there are plenty of free meals in Asheville,” says Floyd. “It’s the small group component that made us different.”

The small group format allows for the confidential sharing of stories that can provide strength and support. Floyd relished seeing people who weren’t familiar with the power of the group dynamic work through their issues.

“People saw that it was OK to struggle with God, that the small group was a safe place where there wouldn’t be any strange looks. You could build a relationship with someone else who was struggling. There were men and women who were struggling with depression, or losing a child, who had never had the experience of being asked, ‘How is it with your soul?’ and having the freedom to say, ‘It’s terrible!’”

As Floyd was fostering these groups on the weekends, his weekdays were spent in classes on Methodism with Candler professors Kevin Watson and Rex Matthews, which he says reinforced his vision for Daybreak.

“Methodism started with small groups, where you’d be asked, ‘How have you fallen? If you have sinned, how can we help you?’ Wesley’s theology maps onto the 12 steps directly,” Floyd says. “The concepts of repentance, forgiveness, and sanctification—these are what we work on in our small groups.”

Floyd admits that marketing Daybreak was a struggle. “A lot of people are scared to come to something labeled ‘recovery’ for fear of what people will think,” he says. “But Christ’s ministry is a healing ministry, and we all require healing. Everyone is in recovery from something.”

Floyd is now pastor of Blackburn’s Chapel United Methodist Church and executive director of Blackburn Community Outreach in Todd, North Carolina. But he expects his experiences at Daybreak to shape his work for years to come.

“Small groups are part of any church’s needs, so the Daybreak model could work anywhere. I hope to take the lessons and theology of small groups and make them part of my ministry going forward.”

Breaking the color barrier

Small groups were also instrumental to the work of Karen Webster Parks, who was among the first to receive Candler’s master of religion and public life degree. Like Floyd, Parks’s work took root before she set foot at Candler, and came to fruition while she was a student.

Courtesy of Karen Webster Parks

Courtesy of Karen Webster Parks

Parks read Breaking the Color Barrier: A Vision for Church Growth through Racial Reconciliation, by Kevin Murriel 11T, senior pastor at Cascade United Methodist Church in southwest Atlanta, where Parks is a member. As she was reading, she thought of news headlines about police shootings of unarmed black men. She also thought of all the United Methodist churches she passed on her drive to Cascade, and wondered what was going on with the congregations inside of them. Were they concerned, too?“I didn’t see the church playing a role in what was going on,” she says. “There were no opportunities for the congregations to work together, because we didn’t talk. If we’re not talking to each other, then when a crisis comes, we won’t be ready to move forward.”

Parks envisioned a cross-congregational study of Murriel’s book, intentionally targeting five churches that were diverse in size and background. She approached Tom Elliott, associate professor in the practice of practical theology and Methodist studies and director of ministry internships, who suggested that her work take the form of a two-semester internship. Elliott also recommended that Woodie White, then Candler’s bishop-in-residence, serve as her faculty advisor.

“We told Bishop White that his involvement would be three meetings with me over the course of a semester, but we had three meetings before we even finished the curriculum,” says Parks. “It was amazing to have an icon, a legend, agreeing to be my faculty advisor.”

“We have to understand these issues as a family. We all have to look at ourselves and think about what we can do.”

– Karen Webster Parks 16T

Parks was not only conscious of the import of having Bishop White as a mentor; she was also aware that she was a member of the laity working with five senior pastors who had agreed to let her take on the task of facilitating conversations about race relations.

“We all knew it would be a tough subject to talk about, and we all knew it needed to be done,” says Parks. “It’s like breathing, though—people know they are supposed to breathe, but how do you teach someone to do it?”

With the help of Trace Haythorn, who taught Parks’s first semester religious education class, Parks designed a program to take place over the seven Saturdays of Lent. The sessions would open with a relevant video clip, followed by worship led by one of the participating church’s ministers. Following the service, the large group would break into smaller groups to talk before reconvening briefly at the end.

Courtesy of Karen Webster Parks

Courtesy of Karen Webster Parks

Parks and her mentors set a goal of registering 50 to 60 people, but more than 100 people from the five churches registered, and weekly attendance remained steady at 70 to 80.“So many people told us this would never happen,” says Parks. “It’s a tough topic, and folks are busy. But I felt God. Even when I had those moments that were like, ‘why me, God?’ When God is in it, it’s going to happen.”

That doesn’t mean the conversations were easy. “At the first meeting, there were some fears,” Parks says. “People don’t want to be blamed. But Bishop White laid down the ground rules and ensured that the conversations weren’t accusatory. We have to understand these issues as a family. We all have to look at ourselves and think about what we can do. We had to tell people that we didn’t have the answers, because everyone’s answer would be different.”

There were tears, laughter, discomfort, and acceptance in the small groups, and people wanted to continue the conversation longer than the time allotted. And when Lent was over, Parks heard from other churches and groups who wanted to use the curriculum she had developed.

“God is not finished with me,” she says. “I feel called to work on these issues of racial justice and reconciliation. I can’t just go back to my pew.”

Planting justice

Courtesy of Tyler Sit

Courtesy of Tyler Sit

Tyler Sit also felt a call to work for justice—both racial and environmental justice. After graduating from Candler, he worked in Chicago for nine months as part of a United Methodist church planting residency, then returned to his home state of Minnesota to plant what he thought would be known as an “eco-church.”“Climate change has been called the greatest challenge of our lifetime,” Sit says. “I felt that this church plant should take on that issue. The church has to show up to work on this.”

Prayerfully walking through Minneapolis led Sit to the Powderhorn, Phillips, and Central neighborhoods in the southern part of the city. He was drawn to the racial diversity there and the ecological work the area had already taken on, such as fighting for the removal of a factory that was causing asthma in local children and planting community gardens. Sit quickly found out, though, that the term “eco-church” did not resonate with his new neighbors, who swiftly told him it sounded like something “expensive” and “white.”

But the people were concerned about racial, economic, and environmental issues as they related to gentrification. The black and Mexican families who had worked so hard to improve the area were now being priced out of living there as more affluent—and usually white—families arrived.

“So many times I hear, ‘I guess I’m too poor to live in a nice neighborhood,’” says Sit. “But God wants a place where all tribes live together—that’s what we read in Revelation 21. There’s no violence, and the earth is renewed. It’s a new city that has come to earth.” And so, in biblical fashion, Sit’s church plant received its name—New City Church—and its mission: environmental justice, the idea that God wants diverse groups of people to live together peacefully in a safe and green space.

Sit acknowledges that many churches do good work for the environment through recycling programs, energy efficiency initiatives, and community gardens, but he didn’t want these things to be just one part of his church’s work. “The church can be pulled in so many different ways. I had an image of what environmental justice could be if a church just owned it. A church plant allows us to establish the values and traditions from the ground up, and we could have a laser focus on the transformation we expected from God.”

“Everyone knows we should do church differently, but its important to actually see someone do it. When the Holy Spirit moves in the world, it breathes new life into the church in every creative way we can imagine.”

– Tyler Sit 14T

On the other side of the coin, the need for God in this project kept it from becoming just another nonprofit or community organization working in the area. “Environmental justice depends on Jesus Christ. There must be an interior practice of worship to match our exterior practice of action,” Sit says.

In starting New City Church, Sit went to a lot of community meetings and local hearings on environmental issues to meet people who already valued environmentalism. From that common ground, he’d explain what he was hoping to accomplish. It didn’t take long for him to find like-minded people—and it didn’t take long for others to find him. “We are attracting people who are diverse, progressive, and not particularly religious, as well as people who have gone to church for 50 years,” he says.

New City uses some fresh new language to signal that it’s a fresh take on church. Weekly worship is called “Community Table,” a time of gathering and refreshments followed by a service that includes a post-sermon discussion time. “Gospel Living Classes” replace Sunday school. And small groups are an essential part of the community here as well. Called “Life Together” (or “Convivencia” for the Spanish version), the groups are intentionally diverse—at least 50 percent people of color—so members have an opportunity to connect across differences.

It seems that everything at New City is growing. A director of community outreach joined the staff in 2016, then came a minister of public witness, a director of worship, a project manager, plus interns. And programs have grown, too. The fruit tree ministry has blossomed into a backyard farms ministry where New City works with residents to plant organic gardens using permaculture design principles. This experiment in urban micro-farming gives families access to healthy food and possibly a new revenue stream through selling produce at farmers’ markets or to local restaurants.

There is much to do, but Sit is already proud of the example the church is setting.

“Our biggest success is providing inspiration for people to consider the kingdom of God’s imagination,” he says. “Everyone knows we should do church differently, but it’s important to actually see someone do it. When the Holy Spirit moves in the world, it breathes new life into the church in every creative way we can imagine.”

Go forth and multiply

Echoing Toni Morrison’s advice to writers to write the book they wanted to read, Matt Miofsky created the church he wanted to attend.

Courtesy of The Gathering

Courtesy of The Gathering

After graduating from Candler, Miofsky was appointed to a mid-sized United Methodist church in a St. Louis suburb. “While the church had all the markers of what we would consider a ‘healthy church,’ it wasn’t a place that my non-churched friends were interested in going,” he remembers. “And so I found myself with this weird tension of working at a church that I wouldn’t attend unless I worked there.”What Miofsky’s friends did attend, though, was a small group he hosted in his living room. The group contemplated what “church” meant to them, and how to bring in new people who wanted to follow Christ but hadn’t found a church home. With the support of his bishop and annual conference, Miofsky’s growing group became The Gathering, which held its first worship service in 2006 in a historic Methodist sanctuary. In the years since, additional locations have opened: one in a school, one in a newly built worship center, and online.

Each physical location has its own staff, including a site pastor and worship coordinator, and small group learning is still a central practice at the church, keeping it authentic to its roots and allowing for growth at the same time. And it’s intentional that no matter which site you worship in, you’ll get the look and feel of a small- to mid-size church.

Miofksy says the multiple sites were due to organic growth, but also a response to the strength of various neighborhoods in St. Louis. “There’s a movement here to invest in the neighborhood you live in. Eat local, shop local, and to some extent, go to church local. We also thought it was very Wesleyan, since that’s how the movement started—small sites growing and multiplying.”

“Our job is not to maintain something cool that was started ten years ago. Christ invited us and Christ shapes us and Christ sends us out to be witnesses to new people.

– Matt Miofsky 02T

While The Gathering attracts people who have never attended church before, it does so with traditional United Methodist elements, including the format of the worship service. Miofsky attributes his Candler education to his ability to strike the right balance: “I came to Candler not certain that I wanted to be a pastor, but excited about what the gospel could mean in the lives of people who have never experienced it. Candler gave me a way to think about Christianity that was both deeply rooted in our tradition but also innovatively practiced. It gave me permission to think about things in a new way.”

It’s been more than a decade since The Gathering started, and in the years since, Miofsky says his role has shifted dramatically. “Every year it changes. Now, my role is largely teaching, preaching, leadership development, and managing the vision for our multi-site church. I’m responsible for equipping and mentoring our other pastors”—including Yvi Martin 07T 09T, another Candler alum.

Two core challenges include ensuring that the “feel” of The Gathering remains the same from site to site, and helping those who fell in love with a small group format to understand growth.

Of the latter goal, Miofsky says, “As churches get comfortable, it becomes really easy to say, ‘Hey, this looks pretty good. Let’s just maintain what we’ve got.’ I don’t want The Gathering to become like that. I feel like one of my jobs is to constantly remind people of our purpose, that we exist for more than ourselves. Our job is not to maintain something cool that was started ten years ago. Christ invited us and Christ shapes us and Christ sends us out to be witnesses to new people.”