Divergent Church: The Bright Promise of Alternative Faith Communities

Divergent Church: The Bright Promise of Alternative Faith Communities

by Tim Shapiro


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New faith communities are appearing across the U.S.. Many of them bear little resemblance--on the surface--to 'church' in its conventional form. But when we look a little deeper we see striking continuity with the most deeply rooted practices of the Christian faith in community.

What are those practices? What do these unconventional, alternative faith communities look like? How are they, perhaps, indicators of a hopeful new future for the church? And what can we learn from them?

Authors Kara Brinkerhoff and Tim Shapiro spent more than a year researching and exploring these questions, closely examining the life of a dozen alternative faith communities across the country. They include new monastic communities, food-oriented communities, affinity group communities, house churches, hybrid churches and others. They are creative, ingenious, innovative, clever, dynamic and transformative. But they represent human expressions of activities that have always been part of human religious congregations: hospitality, learning, storytelling, care, leadership, worship and honoring place.

This fascinating book goes beyond simply analyzing current trends. It reveals how innovative Christians are engaging in time-honored practices, creating new types of communities, which will shape the church to come. Further, it shows us how we too might innovate while holding true to the essential practices of our gathered faith. This is an instructive picture of Christian community, past, present and future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501842597
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 08/22/2017
Pages: 158
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Tim Shapiro is President of the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis. He previously served Presbyterian churches in Indiana and Ohio. He studied family systems theory under Edwin Friedman.

Kara Faris is the resource grants director at the Center for Congregations, as well as a resource consultant to congregations. She previously served for eight years as the Center's education director.
Before working at the Center, Kara served First Friends Meeting of Indianapolis as associate pastor. With a degree in marketing from Butler University's College of Business Administration and a master of divinity degree from Christian Theological Seminary, Kara brings a blend of pragmatism, intuition and passion for lifelong learning to the Center.

Read an Excerpt



A tapestry hangs on the wall of a church narthex. A member of the congregation brought the tapestry back from a trip to Europe, and the tapestry has been in the narthex since 1982. Near the center of the tapestry is a church building made of light-colored brick, similar to the church building that now holds the tapestry. The tapestry depicts green trees, rolling hills, and village life: Two men talk on a bridge, a horse draws a carriage, and chickens roam the streets. Homes surround the church.

In 1873, twenty charter members founded the church where the tapestry hangs. Between then and now, babies have been baptized, marriages blessed, and saints buried. In the 1970s, four hundred people attended worship on Sunday, but today attendance has dwindled to about fifty people. Recently at board meetings, people worry about how long the money will last. Is there enough for a full-time pastor? What if the church has to close? These questions carry a sense of loss, and the church community, like an old tapestry, seems to be unraveling. No one is to blame. It is more like nothing lasts forever — even our most cherished human connections.

On Wednesday afternoon at another church, a room called the Incubation Center is full of people. You try to count them, but people are moving too much. (Are there thirty people in this room?) The pastor points out four groups that occupy the space. The groups are all nonprofits. One nonprofit is working on reducing human trafficking. Another group represents a program for the arts in local schools. The other two businesses produce art sold for local causes. The pastor says, "We worship on Sundays, but our focus the rest of the week is all about entrepreneurship."

This congregation is a divergent church. The congregation worships God. Like most other congregations, people who participate in its life sing, break bread together, and talk about important matters. They participate in spiritual disciplines; they pray for one another and for the world. Yet, this congregation is different from the congregation with the tapestry in the narthex and other established congregations.

This church with its Incubation Center diverges from more established forms of congregating through innovation. This congregation that is a home for entrepreneurship represents a growing number of creative faith communities with a steadfast focus on another subject that doesn't just augment their spiritual focus but is fully integrated into a way of being the church. The reality of what might be called "church plus another essential element of life" is the key innovation of the divergent church. There are other creative realities of divergent churches. For example, this congregation does not own its building. It rents. There is a governing board, but there are no committees. On Sunday, people gather for worship around tables, not in pews. Some weeks, more people are involved in the Incubation Center than in worship, which the pastor sees as a positive characteristic of congregational life. "I feel like I'm a chaplain or pastor for a much larger community than our Sunday gathering." There are many creative aspects to what we are calling divergent churches, but the primary innovation is a special focus on another aspect of life that shapes the practices of congregational life.

The concentration of divergent churches on another aspect of life (social justice, entrepreneurship, theatre, a particular culture like cowboy or Appalachian culture) naturally leads such congregations to innovative expressions of historically rooted faith practices. In our entrepreneurial church example above, congregants participate in many practices that members of established churches do, but this community expresses practices in highly creative, contextualized ways. In this particular case, the community is made up of textures that retain the feel of the local community, not a denominational book of discipline. In fact, the characteristic texture of the interwoven threads of the community is unique. This is not a human gathering that could be represented in another setting. The essential thread has an immediacy. It could not be woven into another community without losing its essence. It cannot be duplicated.

A Steadfast Focus

A steadfast focus on a special topic, often related to the surrounding community, defines the life of divergent churches. This life is then shaped by highly contextualized practices that relate to the steadfast focus (more on practice in chapter 3). Whereas established congregations are frequently identifiable by location, religious worldview, denomination, or a leader, divergent congregations are set apart by immersion in some aspect of life that is in addition to and enhances their faith life together. This immersion might be about food, dance, gender orientation, social justice, or production of a good. The point is that advancing the spiritual search for God occurs in association with at least one other important aspect of life. The focus on some other life reality is then expressed through unique expressions of practice. Divergent congregations represent highly contextualized practices and a steadfast focus on a special topic.

The often-singular focus on a special issue or topic represents a fundamental shift in the way people participate in spiritual community. In divergent churches participants encounter what Paul Tillich calls ultimate concern, or the human quest for furthermost meaning. Almost all the divergent churches we learned from attend to God, scripture, and practices of faith. Additionally, almost all the divergent churches we learned from attend to some singular, integrated emphasis that represents what matters most to the leaders and participants.

Simple Church, located in Grafton, Massachusetts, is an example of this steadfast focus. Like so many other congregations, the people of Simple Church gather for worship. They pray. They sing songs together. Scripture is studied. Yet, there's more. Much like a local restaurant in your town might state about itself, Simple Church describes itself as a farm-to-table community. The Rev. Zach Kerzee works at the nearby Potter Hill Farm. Potter Hill grows heirloom vegetables including acorn squash and black Spanish radishes. The farm produces grass-fed beef. On Thursday evenings at 6:00, some of this produce makes its way to Simple Church for a Thanksgiving-like dinner. Freshly baked bread is a central feature of that weekly dinner. That bread sustains the community as food and as a source of revenue. Zach notes, "We started baking bread just for the Eucharist at church and then people kept saying, 'Oh this is really good. We should sell it.'"

Another example of a steadfast focus is Wild Goose Christian Community in Indian Valley, Virginia. The town is in Floyd County, known for its celebration of Appalachian culture. When you visit Wild Goose Christian Community for worship, you will be immersed in the Gospel, yes, but also in Appalachian culture. What are the hallmarks of this culture? Rev. Edwin Lacy says, "The music, the crafts, the story-telling. And, when I say crafts, I mean quilting and furniture making, things that aren't necessarily just Appalachian, but in this setting have an Appalachian twist to them." Once a month the participants at Wild Goose move the chairs back against the wall, after ending the service with the hymn "We Are One in the Spirit," and they have a square dance. The Gospel is celebrated alongside rich expressions of the Appalachian ethos.

Divergent congregations juxtapose their expression of the Gospel with some aspect of their culture that matters deeply to the faith community. Such a juxtaposition represents the congregation's pursuit of an ultimate concern. The ultimate concern, whether it be the production of food or the celebration of a culture, is integrated into the faith community's search for the Divine.

In addition to a steadfast focus, divergent churches innovate in other ways. Now we will explore other aspects of innovation in divergent churches. These aspects include attention to a social good, being a home for those who have not previously experienced church as hospitable, and creative ways to explore meaning. Let's move next to social innovation.

Social Good and Innovation

In Gregory Jones's framework of social innovation, he writes, "Social innovation involves the discovery and development of strategies to build, renew, and transform institutions in order to foster human flourishing." In other words, the reason for innovation is to achieve a social good, such as reducing suffering or creating opportunities for self-expression.

One congregation that represents social innovation is Convergence of Alexandria, Virginia. As an arts community that also worships (or is it a congregation that is also an arts community?), Convergence supports artists in Alexandria and beyond. If you visit, you will see a sanctuary. You will also learn how the sanctuary is used for concerts and rehearsals. In addition, Convergence hosts a black box theatre, a gallery, visual arts classroom space, and a recording studio used by a range of musicians, including opera singers, punk bands, and a cappella harmonizers. Art is supported as a natural expression of faith and as a social good. Convergence is an example of a church that is a social innovation.

Some divergent churches are comprehensively innovative. In these divergent churches, it is not a single program that is innovative. It is the form and function of the church itself that represents a discipline of creativity. The creativity is part of the personality of the congregation. It is temperamentally inventive.

In these divergent churches, the innovation is paired with the reality of disruption: disruptive innovation. Clayton Christensen and colleagues describe factors that make an innovation disruptive. Innovation that is disruptive attracts new participants to the product sector, not just to the company. Innovators often sustain their work with business models that are different from existing creators.

This kind of disruptive innovation is evident in divergent churches as they attract people who have not previously been part of a worship community. In some cases, this means that people who identify as part of the LGBTQ population find a Christian community via a divergent church. Later in the book you will meet the Cowboy Church in Indiana. Its adherents include people who, by their own admission, would otherwise not participate in congregational life. When this happens among people who have experienced being marginalized by faith communities, the divergent church is functioning as a disruptive innovator, bringing new participants to congregations.

Harvard Business Review defines innovation as "the difficult discipline of newness." It is difficult because developing something truly new is rare. The words of the Teacher, son of David, still hold true: "People may say about something: 'Look at this! It's new!' But it was already around for ages before us" (Eccles 1:10).

What makes something new is the juxtaposition of two or more things in a new way. Punk bands are not new. Recording studios are not new. The existence of congregations isn't new. Yet the combination of punk bands, recording studios, and a church, as is the case at Convergence, does signify an innovation representing the discipline of newness

We've learned that innovation in congregational life has a longer history in some communities. Innovation isn't a new concept in every setting. For example, we learned that innovation among African American congregations has long been both a gift and a necessity. Dr. Felicia LaBoy taught us that because African American congregations represent a socially marginalized community, the leaders of African American congregations have had to be innovative. Clergy have had to figure out how to be bivocational. The community engagement of such congregations involves providing for social services, and additionally African American congregations have been leading innovators when it comes to social justice. It is becoming more common for congregations of all kinds (including divergent churches) to create community development corporations. The forerunners of this option are congregations in the African American community. So innovation is not a new phenomenon. In some congregational worlds, innovation — the discipline of newness for social good — has been a creative necessity.

As the challenges of contemporary life are experienced in new ways by different people, innovation, or at least the language of innovation, has become more evident. We are at a juncture where disruptive innovation and social innovation create disciplines of newness in many sectors. Innovation is occurring in medicine, business, the social services, and education. Montessori charter schools are housed in public schools that previously focused on traditional pedagogy. Public health officials address the decline in the number of family physicians and the high cost of emergency room visits by training nurses and physician assistants to make house calls on the chronically ill. It turns out that the presence of a person is a powerful prescription for health. Those trying to address difficult community challenges are using new ways of problem-solving including design thinking and positive deviance.

The realm of religion is not exempt from the cultural moment of innovation. Religious life is experiencing fundamental shifts in the way people participate in spiritual community and the way people understand their relationship with ultimate concerns. People are experimenting with new ways of organizing the church. Bible studies in bars, online worship, gatherings with no designated clergy, sermons on the street, are just a few representations of emerging forms of congregating.

Focusing on Life

Divergent churches change the focus. Remember the tapestry of the church in the town. Imagine the tapestry animated. In this animation, at first, you see the church. From the church, you track the town's activity. People travel to and from their homes, past trees and rolling hills. Such sites signify families, relationships, vocation, commerce, and even care of the earth. Then the field of vision moves back to the church building. The bricks need tuck-pointing. The stained-glass window is damaged. The front door is closed. You want to go inside but the animation doesn't move through the closed front door. The focus is on the building. The longer the focus holds, the less things are animated. The focus has moved from vibrant life to a sealed door.

The image of the sealed door symbolizes the congregation functioning as a closed system. Church comes to refer to the inner functioning of the community and the need to sustain its current form. Church members focus on taking care of the building, arranging the committee schedule, creating the worship bulletin, paying the denominational dues, cleaning the carpets, and so forth. These housekeeping chores block the church from an essential existential function. The obstructed view deprives the church of a primary discipline related to innovation: the discipline of making meaning out of life. Perhaps it is inevitable, but many more established churches focus on maintaining the institution called church. The divergent churches we learned from innovate so as to focus, not on the church itself, but on life and meaning.

Divergent churches innovate in order to deepen meaning-making, which is a fundamental human impulse. Connecting with or understanding God is part of the quest for meaning-making, as is gathering with others to experience God. Therefore, communal religious experiences, or congregating, are foundational elements in human experience. However, without the discipline of newness, patterns and practices that used to be life-giving disengage from purpose. Ultimately, the tapestry unwinds. New threads creating new textures need to appear.

Divergent churches renew traditional congregational practices in order to deepen the meaning-making experience. For example, consider the practice of confession. Many congregations have a corporate confession of sin as part of the liturgy. A community confession of sin (said in unison) acknowledges that we, all of us, have fallen short of God's intentions. As a community act, reciting a confession of sin together reminds us that a group of people can impose damage on another group. Some faith communities have ancient practices of personal confession, such as a parishioner meeting privately with a priest for an examination of conscience, to ask for forgiveness, and to receive pardon.

It is less common for a group to consider confession together, face-to-face, and not from a pre-prepared prayer. At Simple Church, during an evening discussion about confession, Pastor Zach asks his congregation two questions. Zach says to the congregants, "Consider the function of confession, how publicly speaking your sins has an ability to hasten reconciliation and to move you into a better relationship. Are you recognizing your potential for sin? What was your view of confession as a child, and how has it grown?"


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: What Is a Divergent Church? ix

Chapter 1 Innovation 1

Chapter 2 What Constitutes a Church? 11

Chapter 3 Practices 19

Chapter 4 The Practice of Shaping Community 31

Chapter 5 The Practice of Conversation 47

Chapter 6 The Practice of Artistic Expression 63

Chapter 7 The Practice of Breaking Bread 75

Chapter 8 The Practice of Community Engagement 87

Chapter 9 The Practice of Hospitality 105

Chapter 10 The Voices of Divergent Church Leaders 119

Chapter 11 Conclusion 131

Notes 137

Bibliography 143

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