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.”
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
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.”
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
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.”