RICHMOND, Va. — Lights strung from a sanctuary’s ceiling at Epiphany. Art galleries and exhibits. Bicycle repair seminars. Cafes and coffee houses. Worship gatherings in downtown music venues.
In meeting the challenges of revitalized urban neighborhoods across the country, urban churches are rethinking the ways they connect with their adjacent communities, combining an eclectic mix of edgy art and ancient Christian traditions.
For some 20 years, many of America’s cities have been seeing a trend toward reverse migration from the suburbs to increasingly vibrant downtowns. There, the new urban dwellers are finding an array of lofts and condominiums, restaurants and clubs, lively street festivals and vibrant art and music scenes. The urban neighborhoods are attracting artists, musicians and others of what sociologist Richard Florida calls the “creative class,” as well as professionals, students and retirees — all seeking the energy and spontaneity often missing in the suburbs.
It’s new territory for many Christian congregations that fled deteriorating downtowns in the 1960s for more fruitful fields of harvest in the burgeoning suburbs — and now see a growing and culturally influential class of creative people populating inner cities.
“I wouldn’t say we’re going after a niche market,” says Winn Collier, pastor of the newly planted All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Va. The congregation — affiliated with the Baptist General Association of Virginia — ministers in Charlottesville’s lively downtown area, not far from the University of Virginia. “We want to be a church for the whole city. But one of the cultures that we have a deep resonance with and in which we want to see the gospel take root is the artistic, progressive urbanite.”
“These people have an incredible cultural, as well as social and economic, influence,” said Pastor Jonathan Dodson of Austin City Life, a Baptist church in the Texas capital’s downtown. “They can help renew the social fabric of the city, and if they are brought to redemption, they can apply those redemptive elements to the city as well.”
To connect with the new urbanites, churches in their midst reflect a potent blend of artistic integrity, authentic community and groundedness — a sense of place that might surprise suburban dwellers — while also navigating the tricky terrain of increased diversity and tolerance.
“The creative class moves around a lot, and so they’re attracted by the idea of being rooted,” said Chris Backert, co-pastor of Imago Dei, a new church gathering people from the Fan and Museum districts in Richmond, Va. “That’s why you find them in older, renovated urban neighborhoods, because they find there a sense of rootedness.”
That rootedness often is expressed in worship that closely follows ancient Christian traditions — with a contemporary twist. “We need to be in touch with the broader church,” said Collier, whose Charlottesville church follows Celtic Christian patterns of worship.
“We cross geographic lines, and we need to cross historical lines as well. We’re asking less and less what radical new things must be done (in worship), but asking what have God’s people, when they have been faithful, done to incarnate the gospel in worship time and time again? What are the common themes and strands?”
“We are drawn to the traditions of the ancient church and the teachings of St. Benedict and the Desert Fathers,” said Don Vanderslice, pastor of Mosaic, another Austin church with Texas Baptist ties. “There is a strong contemplative and liturgical strain that informs our worship, and we follow the Christian calendar and the lectionary.”
A sense of community, especially across social and economic barriers, also is key, Dodson added. “I think the idea of the new urbanism, apart from making it a more attractive city to live in, is to create more community within the city. The church has a big part to play in that.”
At Ecclesia, a Baptist congregation in Houston’s trendy Montrose district, Pastor Chris Seay has tried to create community by finding the places where “people naturally connect.” Identifying those places is “the postmodern equivalent of knocking on doors,” he said. It also led Ecclesia to operate Taft Street Coffee.
“When you create space for people to talk and drink coffee, allow a place for people to converse, it creates community,” Seay says. “We really believe that to be salt in our society, we need to begin the conversation.”
That led Seay, when Ecclesia was first gathering a congregation, to “office” at a local coffee house and bar with a regular supply of tickets to Houston Astros games in his pocket — and invite people he met to join him at the stadium.
“Baseball’s slow pace is beautiful. It allows for conversation and eating in a relaxed atmosphere,” he explained.
The result was a number of additions to the church’s faith community, including two bartenders who invited friends from their extensive network.
Community often comes out of churches’ artistic endeavors, said Sterling Severns, pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church, a 118-year-old congregation in Richmond’s Fan District. Last year before Pentecost, the church printed photographs of items from its history and of current ministries and church members, cut the photographs into the shapes of doves and asked members to write prayer requests on the back. For Pentecost Sunday, dozens of the doves hung on strings from the sanctuary’s ceiling. “That creative exercise took a group of people who didn’t really know each other and helped transform them into the community that people are longing for,” said Severns. “By finding a creative way for people to express themselves, it facilitated people getting to know each other.”
An artistic vision drives worship at Austin City Life as well. “We very much reflect our surroundings of music,” says Dodson, whose church meets in a music venue in Austin’s Sixth Street entertainment district.
“We have three worship leaders, all remarkable musicians, all write their own music. We delight in seeing these musicians growing in their faith and seeing how it influences their art, and that way it influences the community.”
At Mosaic, which maintains an art gallery, “We had to make a conscious decision about how to use limited space, which is valuable,” said Vanderslice. “To dedicate space to an art gallery is a strong statement.”
The diversity and tolerance that allows art to flourish also stretches churches seeking to engage those who practice and value that art.
“We believe the church doesn’t exist to be anti-culture,” said Dodson. “Some churches begin with sin; we try to begin with the gospel, which of course addresses sin. But it’s a hopeful beginning, not a condemning one. We’re trying to take the redemptive approach, though we don’t run away from issues.”
“The foundation we stand on is respect,” Tabernacle’s Severns said. “It’s not that we’re opening the doors to encourage diversity but that whoever walks through the doors deserves respect. It’s not diversity for diversity’s sake; all God’s people deserve respect — period.”
“Diversity is a tough question and stretches us in ways that are messy,” All Souls’ Collier said. “It comes down to authenticity. If we are a community of faith living out a believer’s lifestyle, then a lot of things happen in the context of relationships, and acceptance comes bottom-up, not top-down.”
Vanderslice agreed authenticity is critical. “In our worship (at Mosaic) we’re not very smooth…. But we’re OK with mistakes, with the fact that it’s not an air of professionalism but of genuine authenticity. There’s a draw there for artists because they know the creative process is not a smooth process. There are lots of mistakes, lots of do-overs…. I think that the liturgy rings true for our people because the liturgy seems creative. It can be messy, but in the end, something beautiful has been created.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Dilday is associate editor of the Virginia Baptist Religious Herald.)