Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the door and see all the people. This well-known nursery rhyme, complete with hand motions, has likely been taught in Sunday school classes for generations. But it might be time to retire it.
As church membership across denominations continues to decline and the number of religiously unaffiliated increases, some leaders are thinking outside the box to find ways to reconnect congregations with their neighbors and bring back the emphasis that the church isn’t the building but the faithful who gather to share the good news.
Around 190 of the ELCA’s new congregations have thriving ministries that don’t involve any steeple—some don’t even involve doors.
Chicken Coop Church in Grantsburg, Wis., an ELCA synodically authorized worshiping community, is one of those nontraditional congregations—in more ways than just its unique name.
The “chicken coopers,” as mission developer Peter Johnson refers to them, worship in a converted chicken coop. Instead of a pew, chicken coopers take a seat on a sofa or recliner. For music, they sing contemporary Christian songs, but they’ve also been known to belt out the words of “Jesus Just Left Chicago” by ZZ Top.
While all of these components sound fun, and Johnson said they do have a lot of fun, make no mistake that this worshiping community is serious about keeping the focus on God and sharing the gospel with their community. “We live in mission with and for others who are beautifully broken, made new by the power of the Holy Spirit,” he said.
Most of the people who attend Chicken Coop Church, which started in 2014, are between their late 20s and early 40s with families and live at or below poverty level. Most are also in recovery or dealing with addiction and mental health issues, Johnson said.
“Our church is the unchurched and the marginalized, and that isn’t embellishing anything,” he said. “One could classify them as being some sort of statistic, but what you have is a faith community of survivors.”
“Community” isn’t a word Johnson uses lightly. The first-time mission developer begins every Sunday evening worship service by introducing everyone by name and sharing a story that all gathered are from the family of God through Jesus. Simply, worship services are “family reunions.”
Thomas Johnson began attending Chicken Coop Church on Easter Sunday this year and is now part of the leadership team. “I felt like I was in a big, beautiful family from the first service I attended,” he said. “I’m a recovering alcoholic and addict, 6 foot 3 inches and 330 pounds, covered in tattoos. Every church I checked out I felt like an outsider. Chicken Coop Church doesn’t judge. It’s inspired me to be a better person and my heart feels full and at ease.”
Mission is at the heart of Chicken Coop. One of its ministries is a food distribution program called “God’s People Serving,” a shared mission between 10 area Lutheran congregations.
“We have people who were at one time marginalized and felt not empowered who now feel bold enough to go into the community in the public eye with the power to share the gospel with people,” Peter Johnson said. “It’s beautiful.”
The mission developer thinks Chicken Coop is a reflection of the changing church of today. “This is a contextualized version of the Spirit at work. We need to make Jesus relevant and church applicable, and that involves empowering people,” he said. “It’s about the person who comes in and says they’ve been up for three days on meth and are looking for grace.
“The Spirit is at work in all people and we’ll become a vibrant and vital church by acknowledging the Spirit and allowing it to shape us.”
Finding God in a parking lot
One Sunday every month, Ignaki Unzaga goes to the parking lot of the Home Depot in Passaic, N.J., before services start at St. John Lutheran Church, where he is pastor. He isn’t going to buy home supplies—he’s there for worship.
Four years ago when St. John was looking for a way to become more integrated in its community, the congregation came up with the idea of a breakfast ministry. They put up signs advertising a free breakfast for anyone after worship one Sunday. But on the day of the breakfast, no one came.
Someone from St. John then suggested taking the food to the Home Depot parking lot, as there are always men there who could use a good breakfast.
“Sure enough,” Unzaga said. “There were men there who welcomed us. From that Sunday on, we haven’t stopped going there in four years and we feed hot breakfast to about 40 to 50 men every week.”
The men in the parking lot are day laborers who use Home Depot as their daily congregating spot to get picked up for jobs.
In addition to sharing breakfast together, worship is held once a month. “We do a holy service of word and sacrament in about 15 minutes right there in the parking lot,” Unzaga said. “It’s a beautiful ministry.”
They call the ministry Misión Pan de la Vida (Mission Bread of Life), but Unzaga said St. John’s members see it as part of themselves—a satellite congregation, so to speak.
The worship services are led in Spanish, and Unzaga always invites the men to take part by reading a lesson or helping serve communion.
“At first I’d go as the pastor and preach and lead everything, but I wanted to make the service more theirs than ours,” Unzaga said. “Now we ask for volunteers to help. Imagine how hard it is to get a reader out of a parking lot when most of them didn’t go past elementary school. But the Holy Spirit always provides and these men do it for the glory of God.”
Holding worship in a parking lot brings an array of variables that can’t be controlled—whether it be interruptions when a van approaches to pick up some workers or store security asks the group to move.
“To be part of such a church (St. John) and then go to a parking lot and claim that as the house of the Lord is powerful and beautiful, especially in the dead of winter,” Unzaga said. “To share the cup of salvation with our immigrant neighbors in the snow is just a humbling and beautiful sight.”
Unzaga said Misión Pan de la Vida helped reawaken the spirits of the people at St. John and deepen community relationships. “When I started as a pastor I had zero experience in nontraditional ministries and zero expectations I would start one,” he said. “But we were looking for the Spirit to lead the way and change the church. It’s about where you are, knowing who lives among you and learning how you can be in relationship with those people. Opportunities are right next to you.”
Faith in nature
New Life Lutheran Church in Dripping Springs, Texas, might fall into the category of a nontraditional church, but Carmen Retzlaff, pastor, would make the point that this outdoor worshiping community is actually a return to ancient times when everyone worshiped outside.
In 2010, the ELCA Mission Investment Fund purchased land and was holding it for this budding congregation until members had enough money to erect a building on the site. But after a few years of using a rental property, the congregation decided that it had fallen in love with the land but no longer had the dream of having a church building.
On Maundy Thursday two years ago, they committed to using the great outdoors as their church.
“I can only credit the Holy Spirit that they were so willing to know that our mission was to reach out to people with the good news of God’s love and not to build ourselves a church like the one we came from,” Retzlaff said.
Being in central Texas, the climate lends itself for outdoor worship year-round, but New Life also has a large event tent and outdoor heaters to use when it’s cold or raining.
The main worship area consists of three giant, century-old live oak trees and a horse trough as an altar. There is a labyrinth on the 12-acre property that is open for anyone, and its walking paths are scriptural stations of the cross. A bird blind is available for observing wildlife, and its roof is structured to collect rainwater.
New Life has Bible study and worship every Sunday. Emphasizing their priority of caring for creation, they use a chalkboard to list song numbers so they can limit their use of paper and their sound system is solar powered. They also leverage social media, which allows them to share updates without mailings.
Most of the people who attend New Life are young retirees and professionals with families. The congregation is active in the community, serving coffee and fruit to day laborers weekly, hosting a Godly Play Montessori-based children’s program and donating food from their community garden to a pantry.
New Life also has community service Sundays, which has found the congregation in the middle of cleaning up a portion of a highway and pausing for communion at the site to make their work part of the liturgy.
Jenni Peterson and her husband moved to Texas nine years ago and have always attended a Lutheran church. When they moved, they planned to attend church and keep a low profile to give themselves a break after having been very active in their past congregation.
“God had other plans for us,” Peterson said. “What we found at New Life was the same grace in another setting. We all work together to care for our beautiful piece of land, and through monthly service projects, care for our community.”
Retzlaff thinks worshiping communities like New Life are a reflection of the larger changes happening in the church. Nontraditional churches also reflect a return to the basics, which she said resonates with people.
“This idea of church in different spaces and different ways is a return to diversity of the original church,” she said. “We got into a fairly narrow place of defining what church is and what church looks like, and when that stopped working for everyone, we’ve had to revisit being flexible and creative. I think it’s just more acknowledgment that church is a community and is where the Holy Spirit is.”
Ruben Duran, ELCA director for new congregations, said ministries like Chicken Coop Church, Misión Pan de la Vida and New Life offer important exploration for the church as it’s facing a difficult situation with decline over the past decade.
“Churches like these are reconnecting with their communities,” Duran said. “We’ve been doing ministry for years but now we need a laboratory where we can explore a little bit and see where we can best connect the church into the world again.
“People aren’t coming directly to the church like they used to, and these nontraditional churches are connecting first with people, building relationships, listening and then getting a sense for how we can build the churches of the future and reconnect with our communities.”