Snapshots of the ‘New Ecumenism’: The Slate Project

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New Worshiping Communities in Traditional Denominations

Author Karen Gonzalez
Author Karen Gonzalez

One evening last spring, my brother and I were considering whether or not we wanted to go see Mad Max: Fury Road. It was opening that evening, and neither of us had heard much in terms of reviews, so I offered to check out what people were saying about it on Twitter.

The first tweet that came up when I checked the hashtag was from someone called @crazypastor, who loved it for its smashing of patriarchy and its strong female leads. I was intrigued. Jason Chesnut, the person behind the @crazypastor, had a link in his profile to The Slate Project, “a different kind of worshiping community both online and face-to-face.” Now I was doubly intrigued. I was a relatively new transplant to Maryland at the time, and I had really struggled to find a worshiping community. At that point, through sheer desperation, I was open to any fully-inclusive denomination.

The Slate Project is not non-denominational but rather is affiliated with three denominations: the Episcopal Church (TEC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA). It began as a ministry of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the ELCA financially supported by First English Lutheran Church, a local Baltimore ELCA congregation, but the Slate Project is now officially a ministry of the Delaware-Maryland Synod, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, and Baltimore Presbytery. There are three ministers, or as the website says, ‘co-conspirators’ that founded the Slate Project —Lutheran Jason Chesnut, Presbyterian Jenn DiFrancesco, and Episcopalian Sara Shisler-Goff. As such, it draws people from these three mainline denominations – and beyond.

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The Slate Project is not non-denominational but rather is affiliated with three denominations.
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When I visited, my intrigue turned to excitement. This community seemed like the place for me!

I soon discovered that the tweet that drew me to the Slate Project was one among many; online interaction is an important part of worship, community, and service at the Slate Project and contributes to its ecumenical flavor. Every week the community holds Twitter chats (#SlateSpeak) on a given topic related to our shared life in Christ. Past topics include Sabbath, prayer in the digital age, the spiritual discipline of reflection, and Pope Francis’ visit to the US. The Slate Project’s online presence also includes [You’re] Welcome Wednesdays (snarky but educational theological factoids), Throwback Thursdays (ancient/amazing wisdom from ancient/amazing sources), and Jesus Coffee Fridays (the ever-radical and ever-challenging Slate Project blog). Service is a bit tricky to practice online, but in one #SlateSpeak chat, we focused on how social media functions as a means to raise awareness about an issue — a way to recognize the problem we need to address, and then to organize ourselves to take action.

Photo Credit: The Slate Project
Photo Credit: The Slate Project

The Slate Project also holds face-to-face ecumenical meetings. Before I visited, I assumed that since the three founders were Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian, worship style at #BreakingBread (Monday evening dinner and worship) would likely depend on who led. On the day that Rev. Jenn DiFrancesco led, for example, it might look more Presbyterian. However, at my first visit, I happily discovered that rather than adopt a ‘denomination of the week’, worship at the Slate Project hearkens back to the ancient church, before traditions were rote and the church became an institution.

Worship on Monday evenings is a contemplative, candle-lit dinner with a short teaching that often includes stunning visual images produced digitally. The teaching focuses on the call of all who belong to the Jesus Movement and not to a particular denomination. For example, a recent worship service focused on tracing racism historically, and the problem of talking about racism as if it was something that happened long ago rather than an ongoing systemic problem that continues to plague us. Sara Shisler-Goff led us in a communal a cappella chorus, repeating, “Bring your best to their worst, bring your peace to their pain, God of love heal your people.”

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Online interaction is an important part of worship, community, and service at the Slate Project and contributes to its ecumenical flavor.
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Photo Credit: The Slate Project
Photo Credit: The Slate Project

Worship at the Slate Project does not end with these Monday night gatherings. Rather, these worship services prepare and support individuals to continue our worship as we serve in the community. Between its online presence and its face-to-face interactions, members of the Slate Project are in touch almost every day, helping to remind one another that following Jesus is something we do every day, not just on Sunday. Those involved serve the wider community in their jobs and in their civil lives. Some work 9-to-5 jobs in social services, while others give of their time, treasure, and talents to local causes, like the #BaltimoreUprising. Overall, the community encourages lives of social justice and compassion, the Jesus way.

People of all different denominations or none at all – even those who would not identify themselves as people of faith – participate in these online and face-to-face interactions. In fact, the online chat is a national and international discussion, as people from all over the nation and world can participate in that community.

We acknowledge that we have different beliefs and theologies, but rather than constantly delineating our differences, we choose to focus on the fact that God has called us to be in community with one another, to practice knowing God through one another. That is not to say that we don’t value our own denominations. We do. We appreciate our own denominational identities, but they are not the most important things to us. Above all, the Slate Project is a community committed to pursuing the way of Jesus, which transcends denominational affiliation.

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Valuing of the way of Jesus over denominational identity is an important aspect of the Slate Project that actually benefits all three denominations with which we are affiliated.
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And yet, this valuing of the way of Jesus over denominational identity is an important aspect of the Slate Project that actually benefits all three denominations with which we are affiliated. For one, we infuse age-old traditions with new life. Much in the same way that having a new baby causes a couple to critically reevaluate family life and not simply duplicate their own childhood, communities like the Slate Project can provoke thoughtful engagement in traditions rather than tradition for its own sake. Sometimes, as much as we might love them, our church traditions can be limiting rather than meaningful. The Slate Project’s blending of old and new challenges many preconceptions; for example, it uses social media as a way to engage community rather than a detriment as it is often portrayed.

Photo Credit: The Slate Project
Photo Credit: The Slate Project

Recently, Jenn encouraged her more traditional Sunday morning worshiping community to participate in Social Media Sunday 2015 and to tweet the sermon, as many Slate Project members do every Sunday. In doing so, she is encouraging a positive use of social media and a way to help engage the next generation, a major concern of mainline denominations.

Most importantly, communities benefit from a diversity of denominational voices. It’s easy to live in our own denomination-based silos and not risk stepping out of our comfort zones The Slate Project provides a forum where natural and meaningful theological conversations take place regularly.

In short, the Slate Project chooses to affiliate with multiple denominations because we believe that denominations need to be looking beyond themselves and partnering with other denominations to do ministry, working together to usher in the same Kingdom of God.

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Photo Credit: The Slate Project
Photo Credit: The Slate Project

AUTHOR BIO: Karen Gonzalez teaches ESL and English to refugees and immigrants in Baltimore, Maryland. She attended Fuller Theological Seminary, where she studied missiology and theology. She enjoys the community of The Slate Project, west coast Mexican food, and baseball (in that order). 

The Slate Project is one of the PC(USA)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities – Learn more!

Read more articles in this issue, “That They May be One”: Thinking Ecumenically for the 21st Century!

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