Finding Hope in the Church on the Ground
Next week I'm headed to Seattle for Inhabit 2023, the annual conference hosted by the Parish Collective, the nonprofit org that I work for doing communications and content. The impending trip stirred some reflection on my journey...
I walk into a sanctuary and my heart starts beating fast. I find a friend in the rows of pews and claim a seat next to her. I quietly look around and notice a variety of emotions and physical sensations as I take in the stained glass windows, painted ceiling, and sacred art.
It has been 5 years since I stopped attending my nondenominational Evangelical church, and on the rare occasion I find myself inside of a sanctuary, it feels like my heart is breaking. I grew up a certified megachurch girl, often at church 3 times a week throughout my childhood. Church was always my main place of belonging–until at age 26 it suddenly wasn’t.
Like so many others in my generation, I unintentionally began a bewildering deconstruction journey in 2014 that unwound over years and left me clinging to Christ while letting go of many beliefs that used to anchor me. I continued to participate in Christian community throughout that time, as a part of a small, intentional neighborhood community that meets in living rooms and backyards, coffee shops and playgrounds. This group of friends and neighbors has kept me rooted in my faith tradition and offered me unconditional belonging while also giving me space to explore my beliefs. Deconstruction for me was not apostasy; quite the opposite.
Deconstruction for me was not apostasy; quite the opposite.
So here I find myself back inside a church sanctuary for an event called Cultivate–a regional gathering in San Diego produced by the Parish Collective, an ecumenical organization that connects people to be the church in the neighborhood. I’m intrigued by this organization, and deeply distrustful of my ability to feel safe in church environments and with church people. It feels safer to continue to work on belonging to myself than to try and seek belonging with anyone in the Christian world.
The weekend is emotional for me. I spill over with tears when we sing corporately. I am inspired by the work of people in and beyond this room working to be a hopeful presence of Christ in their neighborhood. I jot down a quote from urban revitalizer Majora Carter: “I don’t want to be a part of a club that doesn’t want me.” She’s talking about venture capitalists and community developers–I’m thinking about the Church. I leave the weekend feeling encouraged and cautiously optimistic about finding a place of belonging among a theologically and ethnically diverse group of Christ-followers finding unity in loving God and loving neighbors.
I jot down a quote from urban revitalizer Majora Carter: “I don’t want to be a part of a club that doesn’t want me.” She’s talking about venture capitalists and community developers–I’m thinking about the Church.
Fast forward 4 years. I began working with Parish Collective in 2021 because I had a sense that God had more to teach me here. Recently I met up with my coworker who architects the in-person gatherings for our organization. She told me that our annual conference, Inhabit, will be hosted April 21-22 in a new location this year: Quest Church in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle.
I hadn’t heard of Quest Church, but a quick web search told me three important facts. First, it’s co-pastored by a diverse group of people with a female BIPOC Lead Pastor. Second, this church is fully LGBTQ affirming. Third, this church has its home in the building that used to house Mars Hill. Yes, that Mars Hill.
Third, this church has its home in the building that used to house Mars Hill. Yes, that Mars Hill.
I laughed out loud at the layers of redemption. As an organization, Parish Collective recognizes that people attending the conference may hold varying theological stances. Our main point of unity lies in collaborating to be the church in each of our unique neighborhoods. This means we may not agree on everything, but we ask for a mutual commitment to love and respect, especially protecting those on the margins of our differences. We hold space for the value of connecting across places and our differences–and as we do so, we find the power of God’s love to be healing and transformative.
We also strongly believe in the future of the Church, particularly in the United States. This is new for me; for many years I wasn’t sure if I even cared if the Church survived these tumultuous times. I confess at times I wanted to see the whole messy thing crumble to the ground.
Part of my role in working with Parish Collective is collecting and sharing stories from neighborhood church practitioners. The closer I get to real people on the ground, the more I see reasons for hope. At our very best, the Church can join God to fight the forces of evil in the world–systemic oppression, injustice of every kind, corporate greed, despair, isolation. We believe that if we can organize and connect the Church at the neighborhood level, there is literally nothing that could not be transformed, liberated, and reimagined. This is our mission, and we take it on faith that this is what God is actually doing.
I have caught a new vision for what it could mean to be the church in the neighborhood, and I’ve begun to believe again that I might find some corner of belonging for myself and my neighbors under the wide umbrella of Christendom.