I confess a hint of envy as I walked into the little Disciples church, a narrow sanctuary of hardwood and brick tucked into downtown Lake Worth, Florida. The little building had nowhere to grow, with barely an alley separating it from the commercial development crowding in around it. I imagined it could be a welcome refuge to downtowners seeking a moment of solice.
I was there to meet the regional minister for our first discussion of licensed ministry. He was there for a church transformation meeting. The elderly congregation no longer matched the demographics of its neighborhood. I saw a low-overhead oasis; the congregation saw shrinking coffers, rising power bills and nowhere to park.
How sad it was to learn of that church’s closing. They eventually settled on a vision, selling the building and setting up trust funds to support Disciples missions from now on. And the building is once again a thriving little church — though not a Disciples church.
Another Disciples church had offered refuge for a group of musicians who simply wanted to praise God without rehearsals, agendas or collection plates. They let us use their Log Cabin youth building on Saturday nights. When I finally sat through a Sunday morning service, I found the unfettered Gospel, a kindly pastor and a small but welcoming congregation. I joined, got my license, spent five years assisting the kindly pastor, and became senior pastor when he retired four years ago.
I’ve always had a thing for storefront churches. I remember jamming at a storefront church gathering where 25 people raised the roof and broke firecode capacity. It was an urban translation of the little country churches scattered around my small hometown. I had friends having storefront church in a bar. But when their pastor became unaffordable, I was already committed to a church, and grateful for the oversight, accountability and benefits package.
The Log Cabin gospel jam appealed to my storefront church sensibilities. I still think the out-of-business church could have thrived as a storefront church, welcoming in the passers-by alongside the retired commuters who were its last members.
That storefront church in a bar tired of going without a pastor, had trouble paying the rent and grew weary of the weekly setup/breakdown routine. I invited them to join our church, but they were already serving people who had rejected traditional church.
There was no way I could change worship styles at our church. Our mark of distinction was preserving the organ/choir worship style in a community where one by one, many churches were hitching up the rock-n-roll horse, trying to keep up with the megachurches.
So, we started a second service with a worship combo instead of the choir, collection boxes instead of the plate and intinction instead of little cups and trays. It’s not that simple, but those differences illustrate the direction of the service. Now the little storefront/bar church congregation happily worships in a worship-ready building as members of our church. The traditional members who once wondered about “those people” now see them as fellow members, volunteers, supporters and good Christian friends.
How sad that one group would struggle to keep a building while another struggles to find for affordable worship space. Isn’t the sanctuary empty most of the time? Oh sure, you could rent the space to some other denomination, but wouldn’t you rather share the freedom of Discipleship and diversify the church? Wouldn’t you rather share your sanctuary with people who also share the burdens of maintenance, missions and ministerial salaries?
My advice to all those closet emergents toughing it out in the established church: Talk to your pastor, deacons and elders. Let them know that there are new tribes of believers who would love the freedom of a Disciples church — if only it weren’t so “churchy”! Tell them those tribes love the Lord and have a passion to share Christ in new and vibrant ways.
I think every church, especially every Disciples church, should host one or more services featuring the kind of music “we don’t like.” Those that no longer match the demographics of their neighborhood should conduct a service that does. Encourage your youth to conduct their own service. Then, encourage cross-service attendance and talent sharing, so everyone can discover what we have in common.
That “mainstream” church I serve was established 52 years ago in a trailer park rec hall. Members still speak fondly of sweeping up beer cans and mopping the floors to prepare for service. They can relate to tales of transforming a bar into a church and back week after week. They can relate to running from church “their” way and trying it “our own” way because that’s exactly how they started 52 years ago.
God’s church — give it away! Give it to your children, your neighbors, your friends. But stick around to share as needed what you’ve learned. One Lord, One Table, and in this case, one pastor and one building. One Body, many parts.
By Joel Tucker
Joel Tucker is senior pastor at Tropical Sands Christian Church. He served as associate pastor five years and became senior pastor in 2006. Currently, he also serves as moderator of the Southern District, Florida Region. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Auburn University. He enters ministry after 20 years in corporate communications and five years of computer programming. In worship, he plays sax, bass, uke, squeezebox and bass fiddle.