‘Church where it is’: Forma celebrates 20 years of grassroots support for Episcopal and other Christian educators

New York Times best-selling author, church planter and Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speaks during the Jan. 25-27 Forma conference in Garden Grove, California. Photo: Sarah Yoe

[Episcopal News Service] Sustainability, “scrappy” churches, funeral home churches, even cave churches, and New York Times best-selling author and church planter Nadia Bolz-Weber were all part of the recent 20th-anniversary celebration of Forma in Garden Grove, California.

About 300 Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and other Christian educators from around the country joined the grassroots Episcopal-linked organization’s Jan. 25-27 celebration, unofficially themed “meeting the church where the church is,” according to Executive Director Bill Campbell.

“We are obviously closely tied to the Episcopal Church but consider it part of our mission to reach out in ecumenical fashion and offer resources for the Church,” said Campbell, who assumed his post in August. The organization has about 400 members in 60 dioceses. He said the theme emerged from a common concern of how to “get out beyond the walls of the church and encounter God’s people.”

The gathering offered a variety of workshops, networking opportunities, and a presentation by the Rev. Canon Eric Law, founder of the Los Angeles-based Kaleidoscope Institute. He described for conference-goers a “Stewardship-365” online curriculum to expand visions of yearly stewardship campaigns to include year-round explorations of, in addition to money, such currencies as relationships, truth, wellness, gracious leadership, time and place.

Guest speakers inspired the gathering with stories of “church in a funeral home” and “scrappy church” and Bolz-Weber, who offered a ‘don’t worry, be church’ message to the gathering.

Planting church in a funeral home: funeralhomechurch.com

Andrea McKellar told the gathering she lost her job at Old St. Andrew’s Parish and the building in Charleston, South Carolina, in a single vote, but rediscovered church in a funeral home and beyond.

McKellar, currently ministry developer for the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, had been volunteer director of Christian Formation when Old St. Andrew’s voted in 2013 to leave the Episcopal Church.

She and about 30 others opted to remain. “I chose to be an Episcopalian because the church accepts you for who you are right now,” she said. “What we do in the streets is as or more important than how we pray on Sunday morning” including standing up against racism, gun violence, discrimination and for environmentalism, she said.

Quickly, donations of money, hymnals, prayer books arrived and after meeting in living rooms, the newly-created St. Francis Episcopal Church “found our current location at Stuhr’s Funeral Home in Charleston. We began on Easter morning; it was quite fitting for a resurrection story,” she said.

St. Francis sets up and tears down every week. The altar is a folding table. Hymnals and prayer books reside on rolling carts and just about everybody has a job to do. McKellar, who blogs about the experience, said she jokes that she is the only church school director who deals with dead bodies on Sunday morning.

Church has evolved from worries about leaky roofs and mortgages to meetings in coffee shops, blessing animals at local dog parks, partnerships with other congregations and with the community.

“We adopted a school. We feed people. We do outreach projects with children and families and remember first responders and others on Christmas Eve and partner with other local churches to fight for justice,” she told the gathering. A traditional tithe, ten percent of the church’s income automatically is allocated for outreach “and then we do the rest of our budget,” she said.

One of the lessons learned was to embrace death and dying as part of life. “Now, it has been sterilized. We whisk the bodies away for others to prepare. We shield our children from these realities.”

Although not always easy, McKellar said the upside of founding St. Francis includes a deepened prayer life, a commitment to helping others, and that: “Every Sunday gets to be Youth Sunday” with a tenth to a third of the congregation typically being under age 18.

And one of the main lessons learned: “If you don’t exist for any reason than to serve those in your walls each Sunday, re-evaluate. Go into the community and find out what they think of you or if they know who you are.”

‘Scrappy,’ messy, chaotic but church all the same

Rather than incense or candles or holy oil, the Rev. Nancy Frausto told Forma conference-goers that her “scrappy” church smells like “the streets of New York City in the summer time.”

In other words, “the smell is not always pleasant,” according to Frausto, who serves the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual Trinity and St. Mary’s churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

“Trust me, we have tried to clean up and beautify the outside and the inside but every time we try to plant some pretty flowers and rosebushes, the next day they get stolen and the empty holes are used as trash cans and/or urinals,” she told the gathering.

Rather than meditative silence or bells, her church sounds “like the emergency room at the county hospital,” she said. “It’s chaotic. It’s messy. There is so much suffering and not enough nurses or doctors to tend to all the patients that come in with shattered hearts and broken spirits and yet even with all the noise, if you are lucky enough to be paying attention, you can also hear the sighs of relief of all those who are being healed within its walls.”

Frausto described scrappy as “being the underdog, the unwanted, the discarded, the neglected, knocked down at every turn but refusing to give up.

“Being scrappy means that the world thinks that you don’t stand a chance and yet you defy the odds and you not only make it — oh no, baby, you thrive. Pushed down, stepped on, broken off, left bleeding in the streets and when the world tells you to stay down, you get up swinging,” she said.

For many congregations in struggling communities, church is much more than well-organized liturgy; but a testament to faith.

“When you serve a scrappy church, you know this might be the month where you might have to close up shop because the bills have been piling up for too long,” she said. “And yet somehow you make it through. I believe you make it through because of the scrappy people in your church with faith and love for God, who are so strong and amazing.”

Scrappy churches survive and thrive “thanks to the love and dedication of all the immigrant families who work so hard to save their church,” she added. “Scrappy churches are made up of a bunch of oddballs that … have been told by society and even by other churches they don’t belong. They have been dealt a crappy hand by an unjust society but they are not victims. They are survivors. They are warriors.”

She described a “God, slapping me back to reality” encounter after spending early Sunday morning worrying about the number of people who’d show up, and the shape of the worship. A visitor entered during worship, lit every candle in the back “and she danced.”

Afterward, “Shakida” told Frausto she was sleeping outside in the alley “and heard this beautiful music. I knew I had to put on my Sunday best and come in.”

Like a lot of transgender women of color, Shakida “had been living on the streets for many years,” Frausto said. “She makes an appearance every so often and every time she comes in, she reminds me that God doesn’t need a perfect choreographed performance. God just needs you to show up and share your joy.”

Scrappy church can teach “the big C” church so much, Frausto added.

“Lately everyone has been going crazy with this whole the church is dying and, yeah, the numbers are going down, but the population is not going down. People are around. And maybe where churches are dying, we are too afraid to venture outside our doors and come face to face with scrappiness,” she said.

While most people just need and want a place to love and be loved, those deemed less desirable, less worthy by society are often outcast. Scrappy churches, she said, are the product of benign neglect and the values of institutional racism and classism that plague the institutional church.

While churches often excel at applauding themselves for all their great works, “if the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, the mentally unstable, the person of color, the LGBTQ person, were seen as worthy as middle-class churches, the one I serve would never have been allowed to happen.”

Sometimes, when angry or weary she considers throwing in the towel but scrappiness won’t let her, she added. “We are called to action. We are called to speak out against injustice and stand up against the indignity to all people,” she said. “A lot of work has to be done. So much work that you are going to want to give up. But don’t. Find your scrappiness, change the church … change the world.”

Bolz-Weber to the church: ‘Don’t worry, be church’

Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor,  told the gathering the church she founded while in seminary, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, initially met at an Episcopal Church. It now has a full-time Episcopal priest as pastor, as she spends much of her time traveling and speaking to groups like Forma.

House for All Sinners and Saints has about 250 members, mostly aged 22 to 42, single, Lutheran, post-Evangelical, Methodist, agnostic, Reformed, Episcopalian and with no denominational affiliation. Experiences from that church inspired Bolz-Weber to pen two best-selling memoirs,  “Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint” (Jericho Books: 2014), and “Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People” (Convergent Books: 2016).

She said encouraged the church to tell its own positive stories of faith in the midst of “this other narrative being that is being told around us about what’s happening. Not that it isn’t true, but other things are also true.”

“It sounds as if, at this point in time, it is our holy responsibility to tell these stories of the beautiful redemptive things that God is still doing among us, sot hat we cannot be pulled into despair and fear. We can’t afford it; the world can’t afford it.”

Addressing worries about dying churches, Bolz-Weber described a trip to Cappadocia, Turkey, several years ago, and witnessing Byzantine Christian iconography carved in caves formed by volcanic rock in what is now a Muslim country.

“That is to say we are not the first group of Christians to worry about the decline of Christianity,” she said, amid laughter. “The big, impressive, successful Byzantine Empire fell and yet the church of Christ did not die.”

Seeing the iconography prompted her to break into song the song “Christ is Risen,” “a song that, no matter what, will continue to be sung. Because worry or not, the tomb is empty and God will be praised.”

Of the worry about declining mainline churches, born of fear in a scarcity-driven society and economy, she said: “The thing is, is that buildings, numbers, money and power and other aspects of worldly success may be signs of a kingdom … but not necessarily signs of the kingdom.”

Instead, she suggested the church focus on its true mission.

“Society will still have Fortune 500s for profits and nonprofits for services and day care centers for children and Elks Clubs for socializing and Starbucks for over-priced coffee and many other things we may never be … but you know what the culture around us will never do? Preach the Gospel. Administer the sacraments. Proclaim forgiveness of sins. Ever. You know why? That’s our job, our main job. No one else is going to do it.”

A parishioner’s Facebook post about finding a way not “to mentally eviscerate” tailgaters and the irritating and challenging people he encountered every day offered a perspective. His struggle ended “when I served somebody communion at House of All,” she paraphrased the Facebook post. “I looked at you and said, ‘Child of God, the body of Christ, broken for you.’”

He, “like so many of us, is changed by the word of grace he hears in church,” she said. “He has a frame of grace through which to see even the people he can’t stand. I argue this wouldn’t happen alone. This is why we have Christian community, so we can stand together under the cross and point to the Gospel, a gospel that Bonhoeffer said is hard for the pious to understand.”

The gospel, she said, confronts us with the truth: “You are a sinner, a great desperate sinner. Now, come as the sinner you are, so that God can bless you. God wants you and your imperfect shimmering glory. We have to hear again and again who God is for us and what God has done on our behalf.”

Offering a way to measure success she said: “If at your church the word is preached and Eucharist shared and water poured and forgiveness of sins is received, then congratulations, your congregation is a success.”

The church will only die when “we forget what the definition of church is and when we forget whose the church is.”

She added that “no matter what happens, people will still continue to gather in the name of the triune God, and to talk about the night Jesus was betrayed, to hold up bread and say it is his body, for forgiveness for you and give it to their friends.”

She is a Christian, she said, because the gospel helps her to see herself differently, to see the world differently and to see others differently.

“At House for All Saints and Sinners, the absolution we all use in the liturgy is, ‘God who is gracious and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, loves you as you are … and by his authority, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins.’

“No one says that — to me in yoga class. I need to hear it.”

And secondly, “I’m Christian because I need the gospel so I can see the world differently … and because I have seen the way God makes us into agents of what we’ve received.

“In the same way that hurt people hurt people, it is also true that forgiven people forgive people, loved people love people and grateful people are generous people. To be receivers of God’s grace and mercy is to see the world differently and I need this desperately.”

Thirdly, “Grace is a double-edged sword. It pushes me to places I don’t want to go. A place where grace and mercy are true for me and for those I can’t stand. You know, those who don’t deserve it. Which means God’s grace is for me and everyone who’s ever hurt me and I hate that and I resist that and yet how could it be true for me if it’s not true for them?”

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.

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