Alternative worship ‘pops up’ in Portland, Oregon, for Advent

December 12, 2011

[Episcopal News Service] A new church has literally “popped up” in Portland, Oregon, offering alternative and movable worship, an Advent vespers here, an Advent Mass celebrated there – followed by pub conversations nearby.

PopUp Church,” also known as All Souls, debuted Dec. 1 at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Portland with a weekly series of Wednesday evening Advent vespers.

An “experimental outreach,” it has no fixed address or formal membership, but offers a way to stay centered during the harried Advent and pre-Christmas season, said its founder, the Rev. Karen Ward.

“It is a fresh expression of church that includes everybody game to show up, be present and participate. It is for the church-skeptical and church-curious,” added Ward, an associate priest at Sts. Peter and Paul.

She was inspired to develop the concept through British-based fresh expressions of church, and such popular culture icons as mobile food trucks, pop-up local restaurants and even flash mobs, she said.

“It is a new way to do church outreach, with a church that pops up and moves around a city,” she said. Its next scheduled stop is a Dec. 17 Advent Mass at St. David of Wales Church in Portland, and Ward is hoping to include additional offerings in new locations next year.

PopUp Church targets people who “are not sure about church, [who] think church is uncreative and culturally irrelevant, or are fearful of ‘vampire evangelism’ where churches try to grab people under 40 and give them pledge cards and try to rope them into serving on a committee as soon as they walk in the door,” she said.

“People need a safe space in which they can search for God and be found by God,” added Ward, during a recent telephone interview.

Deborah Aronson, a member of Sts. Peter and Paul for little more than a year, said the Dec. 1 startup vespers service became, for her, that safe space and much, much more. “If people knew about this, they would be flocking to it,” she said.

“It felt incredible,” said Aronson, who added that she’d be willing to follow the church to other locations.

“The church was very warm and lightly lit. There was a lot of incense. It was quiet, reverent, it felt like a monastery, very sacred, very quiet, full of reverence. I loved it. I’m going to go for the rest of my life.”

The 6:30 p.m. traditional vespers began in the darkened church chancel with a circle of chairs positioned around the Advent wreath. Candles, a small pot of incense and a Tibetan bell helped to make it “the Anglo-Catholic tradition, but in a more chilled-out, smaller way,” Ward said.

The group pulled the Book of Common Prayer out of the racks to read the psalms, she said. “It’s important to use the actual physical book. I wanted people to have a tactile experience with the tradition.”

The service alternates between silences and slow, deliberate, mindful prayer – “no bells or whistles,” Ward said. “We weren’t hurrying or rushing through the prayers. It’s like instead of gobbling up your food, you eat slowly so you can taste it. We punctuated everything with silence and pauses. We were trying to taste the prayers.”

She also hopes to pull in “tekkies” like herself who yearn to unplug and experience contemplative silence.

“I’m a technological geek — my family is me, my iPad, MacBook and iPhone,” she said. “That’s the family portrait at my house. I own 35 web addresses but when I go to church I don’t need technology. I’m looking for peace, a spiritual connection to God, mystery. The point is how can we have an authentic encounter with God and with one another.”

After the Dec. 8 vespers Julia Lake, 51, joined the conversation at a local pub, The Observatory. For Lake, a mid-week evening service has helped keep the focus on the reason for the season. But she hopes the PopUp offerings extend past Advent and into the new year “because they’re so creative. I’ve really enjoyed this.”

Ward hopes to build upon initial attendance at the vespers through word of mouth, adding that the ministry “will grow in its own time, by being faithful and being present,” she said. “We’re at week two. I’m happy with the progress so far. There are 30 people who’ve signed onto the website.”

The Rev. Kurt Neilson, rector of Sts. Peter and Paul said the concept “has got a lot of energy.” He compared it to local mobile Portland restaurants offering specialized meals, like Korean tacos, that develop a following, then tweet their various locations “and if you’re into it, you follow them.”

Similarly, it will take time for a core group of PopUp Church-goers to coalesce, he said during a recent telephone interview. “The intent is to create a worshipful atmosphere that is very open, inviting and utterly welcoming and nonthreatening, primarily to the unchurched or the de-churched, although we find that our members like these services too.”

Whenever Ward discusses PopUp church she is approached by two or three baby-boomer parents of grown children who invite her to talk to their children about fresh expressions of church, she said.

“What we tell our own people on our website and e-mail [listserv] is that, ‘hey, if your son or granddaughter or nephew hasn’t darkened the door for a long time, send their name over so we can send them an e-vite [electronic invitation]. It’s worked, to a modest extent.”

Ward said she decided to “take a leap of faith” and create the ministry after moving three months ago to Portland from Seattle, where in 2002 she founded Church of the Holy Apostles, a young Episcopal and Lutheran fresh-expressions congregation.

“I needed a place to be creative and to connect culture and God and the Gospel in new ways and find energy,” said Ward. She’d barely unpacked her U-Haul boxes when she put up a website, acquired a Facebook page and a Twitter account “and talked to folks I met, one at a time, about the new church, so hopefully it will grow by word of mouth and social media.”

She hopes to hold other PopUp services at other churches throughout the diocese and possibly to eventually host them in alternative locations.

St. David of Wales Church in Portland is the next stop for the PopUp Church, said the Rev. Sara Fischer, rector.

An Advent Mass is set for 5 p.m. Dec. 17 as “an experiment,” said Fischer. “We’re very excited to host the event,” she added.

“The liturgy is going to be very orthodox and lovely. It’s not going to be some kind of completely different out-there liturgy,” she said.

She hopes it will catch on. “It would be fun if what came out of it [the mass] is people saying ‘ooh, let me know when the next one is’ and … it spreads in a viral way.”

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