Evangelism parties

Innovative congregation helps churches reach unchurched generations
December 31, 2005

Still can’t operate that MP3 player your son-in-law gave you for Christmas? Ever wonder what your 17-year-old really does on her computer during homework time? Perhaps they feel equally left out by the doctrines and customs known as “church” that you adhere to.

The Church of the Apostles in Seattle is doing something about it. Thanks to a $90,000 grant from Trinity Church-St. Paul’s Chapel in New York, COTA is one year into its Ancient Future Common Prayer Project, a three-year outreach to share its wisdom and creativity with parishes seeking to reconnect longstanding traditions and beliefs with emerging cultures, communities and media.

An incarnation of the emerging church movement among several Protestant denominations, the COTA community began in a coffee shop and has since grown to include home church groups, theology pubs and other inclusive forms of worship. The church's ministry is based on welcoming and engaging seekers of all ages who have felt excluded from more familiar mainline Protestant practices. According to its website, COTA “shares a spiritual kinship with all those who affirm the most ancient Christian confession ‘Jesus is Lord’” and is part of the Anglican and Lutheran “tribes.”

Specifically, the church’s local judicatories are the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia and the Northwest Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. “We call the Lutheran Church ‘dad’ and the Episcopal Church ‘mom,’” says Pastor Karen Ward. “We embrace both traditions just as easily as a kid with a German father and English mum grows up speaking fluent German and English and loving to eat both bratwurst and crumpets!”

Worship at COTA begins by honoring each person's unique spiritual journey. Individuals are then invited to join micro churches, small groups that come together at mass gatherings Bible study, communion and celebration. The small groups are then sent out for evangelism, outreach and service.

The Ancient Future Common Prayer Project will produce music, prayer and liturgy resources that speak to today’s culture and the growing number of nonchurched and “de-churched postmoderns” who feel alienated by business as usual in many Episcopal and Lutheran churches, Ward says.

Through day-long Emerging Church Learning Parties, COTA leaders introduce dioceses to the post-denominational emerging-church movement. Sharing their own parish’s experiences and practices in liturgy, song, mission and service, the parties offer practical resources and ideas for fresh expressions of outreach, worship and spiritual formation that existing congregations can adapt for their local contexts.

COTA will produce and disseminate those resources to the wider church via print, CD, video, the web and experiential-learning events. They’re called parties rather than workshops because they are fun and enlightening for both leaders and participants, Ward says. The church also offers practitioner-based consulting with dioceses wanting to start new churches like COTA. Three parties were held in 2005, and three are scheduled so far for 2006 in Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; and Vancouver, B.C.

A learning party

The Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston recently hosted a learning party that drew more than 70 participants. “We saw the highest turnout of any diocesan event this fall,” says the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, Cox fellow and minister for radical welcome at the cathedral. “We had people of all ages and denominations, including Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists. We all share a common hope and are asking what God calls us to do next.

“We know we have ancient treasures from our traditions. Folks in the Evangelical community are looking for ancient treasures, and we said, ‘We have them.’ How do our treasures and traditions speak to the world around us?”

Both Spellers and Ward believe most churches have yet to address a postmodern cultural shift that began in the 1960s and continues full force in North America. “Our culture today is both pre- and post-Christian, steeped in new media technology, spiritual yet wary of organized religion, distrustful of institutions and hierarchy,” says Ward. Believers seek ways to share and reflect on their own spiritual experiences before they join a church and practical help in shaping their response to the call of God in Jesus Christ, she adds.

“Emerging generations are not impressed by technology (like baby boomers), or wary of it (like many in the silent generation), but are free to use it or not,” she continues. “At COTA, we are just as likely to worship unplugged, with chant and drums, without any technology as we are to use all kinds of technology.”

Notes Spellers who is writing a book on the emerging ministry of radical welcome – a practice of truly welcoming the gifts, presents, voices, and power of people on the margin of the Church, “It’s not just a question of doing church for young adults. We can’t assume we know what others want and then try to give it to them as if they are consumers. We must listen to and witness what God is doing in the world and respond fearlessly.”

Ward says she finds traditional churches quite receptive to ideas shared through the learning parties, which do not reject Anglican tradition but give it fresh expression for a new day. While within the Lutheran and Anglican tribes, COTA’s website says the church is also part of a “post-denominational worldwide movement to re-imagine church, with each group doing so from their own traditions yet finding a remarkable shared ethos across practices.”

COTA’s first music CD, Ordo, with songs and hymns for the Eucharist, is available at http://www.apostleschurch.org/. Parishes interested in being mission partners with COTA can contact Ward at Karen@apostleschurch.org.