Church Planting: A Rollercoaster Ride
I am 32 years old and until this year I had never been on a rollercoaster in my entire life. Scared of heights with a sensitive stomach, I never much liked the feeling of falling quickly. I never saw the appeal of being deeply aware of how close you are to death as some pieces of metal and plastic are the only things keeping you from flying out into the sky. Things just seem so much better, firmer, more steady, down here on the ground.
Last fall my work at Beacon Church, an agile, scrappy PCUSA church plant near Philadelphia, Pa., was rocked by an unexpected pivot: a major programmatic shift. Barely a year after chartering as a congregation, and five years after beginning afterschool arts and weekly worship programming, Beacon’s community was changing rapidly. The gentrification that was slow in 2011 had begun to accelerate, and we were feeling its effects, with attendance dips and swells, different first-time participants, and long-term participants moving away to more affordable zip codes. In many ways we were growing, but in other ways we were experiencing new challenges for which we felt unequipped. We did another neighborhood assessment and met with our local elementary school principal and discovered that after school programs of various foci had sprung up all over the neighborhood. The need for in-classroom literacy-help became clear.
The questions were endless among the staff and board of Beacon. Could we meet that need? Would our dedicated volunteer team be able to change and commit to a morning program? Could our creative writing program be adapted to complement the teachers’ curriculum? How would our supporters and participants perceive such a shift? What if it didn’t work? The name “Beacon” has become synonymous with serving kids in Kensington. If we end up stopping children’s programming altogether, who are we? What will we do?
The Broader Mission
We came back to our broader mission: “Beacon strengthens our neighborhood, its children and neighbors, through art, storytelling, and faith” and asked one final, foundational question that has been the question all along: how are we being called to live out this mission right now? The staff and session bravely decided to pivot its programming. We adapted our creative writing curriculum and brought it into all three first-grade classrooms at our closest elementary school. We shifted our art programming from weekly after school programs to quarterly evening events that allowed parents to join their kids in these creative endeavors—painting pumpkins, building gingerbread houses, and decorating Mardi Gras masks.
Enjoy the Rollercoaster Ride
In the midst of all this transition, a very wise person told me to “try and enjoy the rollercoaster.” She is a pastor and a pilot, and somehow enjoys flying planes for fun. Feeling overwhelmed, I laughed out loud and told her that was impossible.
But her words really stuck with me, and as the opportunity arose in late January when my family and I were on vacation in Orlando, I decided to try a small-ish rollercoaster at Universal Studios.
I had all kinds of expectations: that I would get sick, or fall out of the car, or scream, or even faint. I screamed—a lot—but after the first 20 seconds or so I realized, with a shock, that I wasn’t dying. I was still alive. I was firmly in a seat with strong metal bars hugging me and I was flying around like crazy, but I was okay. A few seconds later I realized I was having fun. My step kids even convinced me to go on the Hulk—the biggest rollercoaster in the park. Every ride we tried had different loops, speeds, turns, but there was something constant in the midst of it all. I was safe, I was soaring, and after every sickening swoop in my stomach, I was flying high again. Once I realized how it was possible for me to be flung all around and yet be so safe at the same time, I was able to have fun, to even delight in the experience.
If we are engaging in faithful ministry, in work that makes a difference in people’s lives, whether or not they are Christians, we are necessarily going to be taking risks. If we are doing our best to be good stewards of the resources we have—money, people, time, buildings—that means that we will need to strive for efficiency and impact. That means we need to be evaluating and re-evaluating what success looks like for any given endeavor and if we are achieving it. It also usually means we need to try new things fairly regularly. Trying new things, taking those kinds of risks, is much like riding a rollercoaster for the first time: even if you know the concepts of how it goes up and down and twists and turns at high speeds, you have no idea how it’s going to feel, when the ups or downs will come, or if it’s actually going to be okay. But in ministry, if we are committed to our mission, if we are grounded in the belief in and experience of God as our provider, as a source of enough, then we can experience both the falling and the soaring as sources of delight, learning, and meaning. We can take risks, both big and small, because we know that God is working in and through all for good. No matter how intense the figurative rollercoaster, God is with us, reminding us that we are beloved even in our failures, even in our successes.
The Rev. Rebecca Blake is pastor and co-founder or Beacon, a PCUSA church plant near Philadelphia, Pa. Trained as a visual artist, writer, theologian, and pastor, she finds work at Beacon to be a challenging and life-giving environment where she’s able to cobble together those skills to facilitate transformation in the lives of individuals and communities.