by Rev. Kerry Greenhill
This post was written for RethinkChurch.org, where it was published on March 26, 2019.
Where do you go to find community? Your school or workplace? A yoga class or happy hour gathering? The local diner or recovery meeting? For much of the 20th century, churches were a center of community life in many American cities, towns, and suburbs. But over the last few decades, as people’s trust in and respect for religious institutions have declined significantly, the need for connection, relationships, and belonging – which churches used to help meet – persists. So one Denver pastor looked for a way to breathe new life into the church and the community.
Rev. Lauren Chance Boyd was appointed to Montclair Community United Methodist Church in 2016 to provide “hospice care,” end-of-life pastoral leadership, to a congregation that had dwindled to just a couple dozen people. At the same time, she had a vision for a new congregation that looked very different from the Sunday morning traditional worship service, with its pews, organ, choir, and formal liturgy.
NEW LIFE IN OLD CHURCH SPACE
Be3 Dinner Church began from two observations. First, gathering for a meal has always been part of the Christian tradition, all the way back to Jesus himself. And second, in Denver, Colorado, the call of the outdoor life and the desire to spend weekend time in the mountains is always going to be in conflict with a conventional Sunday morning church service.
So learning from the example of Simple Church in Grafton, Massachusetts, Rev. Boyd and her core team launched a Thursday night dinner church, where a meal around communal tables – with some of the old pews repurposed as dining benches – is followed by song, prayer, and a message, with ample time for conversations and building relationships. The name, Be3, is short for “Believe. Belong. Become,” inviting participants to believe in something more than themselves, a God who is always with us; to know that they belong in this community, regardless of identity or background; and to keep trying to become more like Jesus, loving unconditionally, forgiving and caring for one another.
When the Montclair congregation officially closed in 2017, the Be3 team set about cleaning out the building. In the process, they found photographs of the church in the 1950s and 1960s, when the sanctuary and Sunday school were overflowing with people. Rev. Boyd realized, “We had a building and a space in a wonderful neighborhood that we could utilize to bring community life back to it like it was in its heyday, in the best ways.” Since summer 2018, the building has become known as Newport Street Retreat, a center to “nourish that which nourishes community.”
Unlike 50 years ago, most people seeking community today aren’t looking for religious activities like Bible studies or prayer breakfasts. Rev. Boyd explains, “There are so many people that are spiritual but not religious… So when we developed Newport Street Retreat, we developed a separate model that would reach out to the local community and beyond to provide really a modern community life… Which might be a meditation class in the morning, followed by co-working space in the sanctuary, followed by yoga class at noon and getting something nourishing to eat in our café, and then hearing a lecture about how we can impact our community or our country in a positive way.” Newport Street Retreat also has four beehives on the property, and will soon have six eight-foot-long garden boxes, where volunteers and community partners will grow vegetables for the Dinner Church, the café, the local food bank, and Colfax Community Network.
Some of these partnerships provide an income stream that helps offset the costs of the building and Rev. Boyd’s salary. She describes this arrangement as an intentional choice to allow her role as pastor to be not only bi-vocational, but co-vocational, weaving together the management of Newport Street Retreat as a place of community with pastoral leadership of Be3 Dinner Church. “Having Be3 as a part of Newport Street Retreat is also intentional: that there is a faith community that is a part of the larger nourishing community… And each day, I have conversations with people that come to Newport Street Retreat for yoga or co-working or a class of some sort, and have ministry conversations with them.”
Rev. Boyd’s ministry of presence and spiritual witness springs from her own deep Christian faith, but she doesn’t actively proselytize. “My hope is that some people will want to come to Be3 United Methodist Dinner Church, because of the connections they have with us, and that God is stirring in their heart… [But] I’m not imposing that faith on them, because God isn’t in the box. God is outside of the box, and we’ve tried for so many years to put God in this box and say you have to come to the four walls of this church, you have to come sit in a pew and be baptized, and listen to a sermon and be in the choir, for God to love you, for your faith to grow and to be a good human. I think now more than ever, God is showing us that there isn’t a box that we’re trying to put people in, or put faith in.”