To tell the truth, we didn’t think it went all that well.
Almost five years ago, four pastors from four different denominations came together to write a proposal for a grant from the Calvin Institute for Worship Renewal. The granting agency warned us that there was a high chance of failure. But they took a risk, and they funded us.
We spent the next year working on integrating the arts into special worship services at our respective congregations. Our vision would bring together members United Methodist Church (UMC), the Disciples of Christ (DOC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and Presbyterian (U.S.A.) for these special services of arts and ecumenism.
The services weren’t well attended; our congregations didn’t seem very interested. Even as we continued to gather in services for a Blue Christmas, Martin Luther King Day, and other similar events, we weren’t really working ecumenically the way we’d hoped. But God was at work among us.
Small town churches are known for being ‘behind the times’ – sleepy little places from which little good news or innovation comes. It was the same in Jesus’ time – Jesus’ own disciples asked what good could come out of a small town like Nazareth? (John 1:46) America’s small towns and the small-to-medium churches at their centers are remnants, people say, cherishing fading memories of days gone by. But perhaps, precisely because we are out of the way and out of the public eye, small town churches have the freedom and flexibility to venture into innovations that larger congregations might not.
You can get a lot done in Christ’s realm if you don’t care who gets the credit!
That has certainly been the case in Sterling, Illinois. Mainline congregations here have a long history of collaboration, dating at least back to the 1980s when several mainline congregations formed a community care group to aid people who had ‘slipped between the cracks’ of social support programs. Churches came together again in the 1990s when the steel mill closed, providing assistance to the hundreds of children who began to come to various locations for sack lunches throughout the summer. Now led by the United Way, that program provides over 30,000 sack lunches in this area every summer.
Most recently, our efforts to work together for God’s realm have grown into a wide range of activities that support clergy, encourage congregations, and reach out in love to Sterling. None of us remember who first broached the idea of a cooperative Vacation Bible School (VBS), but the real imagination and energy came from the educators, not the clergy. Five years, it’s just what we do: six churches join together to reach out to children each summer. These six congregations – Bethel Reformed, First Christian of Sterling, First Presbyterian, Grace Episcopal, St. John’s Lutheran, and St. Paul Lutheran – are committed partners to our ecumenical work and service to the town of Sterling. Together, these churches have created what we now call (appropriately, it seems) CommUNITY VBS.
The location of this annual VBS rotates among the congregations. Each night the opening prayer is led by one of the clergy; each night the supper is provided by one of the churches. Of course the more than 100 children who participate benefit from this ecumenical collaboration, but so do the hundred or so volunteers who work together in kitchen and classroom. The annual community worship service to celebrate VBS draws nearly 300 people, and we’ve even worked out how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a way that honors the traditions of the Reformed Church in America (RCA), the ELCA, the PC(USA), the Disciples of Christ and the Episcopal Church!
We believe that we are special, but we are not unique – any community can do what we have done.
Because we are a small town, most church folk know many people in other congregations. That enables us to partner with ministry in the community, no matter where it begins. First United Methodist offers a free breakfast every weekday – and in that kitchen, you’ll find people from many congregations. Last year several churches began a program providing weekend food bags for food insecure children; if you come to the Presbyterian church to see that program, you’ll see Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians and people with no church affiliation pitching in. This fall, the ELCA congregation in Rock Falls, just across the river from Sterling, began hosting a weekly respite program for older adults; the program is directed by a Presbyterian and a Lutheran, and supported by multiple churches. You can see it everywhere – at the Bear Necessities pantry that provides cleaning and hygiene items, at the National Night Out (a city-police partnership to build community), at Ashes-to-Go on Ash Wednesday, at the Grace Episcopal Kids Club.
We think there is a lot about our community in Sterling that is special. Because we’ve weathered economic downturns and job loss, we don’t take anything for granted. Because we face population decline and financial challenges, we can’t simply wait for ‘things to get better’. And because of the challenges we’ve faced, the congregations in Sterling have a strong community spirit, a desire to serve others, and the willingness to try and fail.
We believe that we are special, but we are not unique – any community can do what we have done. Here’s how it worked for us:
- Develop relationships. The friendships that exist among the clergy and lay leaders form the foundation of all our efforts. They foster the honesty and trust that is needed for a sustained ecumenical effort.
- Focus on commonalities. We are all working for the same cause: the cause of Jesus Christ. Early on, we emphasized our unity – VBS is called “CommUNITY VBS.” We hold fast to the words of Ephesians 4:5 – “…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God…”
- Celebrate distinctives. Several of our churches have strong youth programs, so rather than compete, we encourage our teens to participate in these already-existing programs. First Presbyterian created a three-week series on end-of life issues, and other churches sent participants and provided meals. Other congregations have gifts for feeding the hungry or caring for the elderly; we come together to support those unique programs. For three years, Grace Episcopal Church has held a monthly Kids Club even though their congregation has almost no children. Other churches help with donations, volunteers, and publicity.
- Pray and worship together. Since most of us worship at our own congregations on Sunday mornings, we have put real effort into creative and intentional ways of praying and worshiping together when we can. We share each other’s good news and bear one another’s burdens. We remember other congregations in prayer in our Sunday worship.
None of our churches would be considered ‘wealthy’. Several have experienced painful conflicts that have led to loss of members. All of us are experiencing a decline in membership and worship attendance. But we are not dying! We are working together as one church.
Some might say that our dabbling five years ago in worship renewal and ecumenical services that incorporate the arts were a failure. I think it’s fair to say that that project didn’t turn out the way we’d hoped. But that collaboration planted a seed in our midst. We thought we recognized a need for worship revitalization, but instead, the Spirit led us to a new kind of collaboration, one that truly listened for and engaged the needs of our community. Our ecumenical partnership has borne fruit we could never have imagined and that not one of our six congregations could have done on its own.
As one of our clergy leaders likes to say, “You can get a lot done in Christ’s realm if you don’t care who gets the credit!”
AUTHOR BIO: Christina Berry is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sterling, where she has served for six years. A second-career graduate of Austin Seminary, where she is nearing completion of her D. Min., Christina is passionate about preaching, writing, good coffee, good books, and community ministry partnerships. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.