Feminism, Evangelism, and New Worshiping Communities
If you were going to create a church that fully lived into gender equality as one of the central values, what would that look like? Who would preach? What language would you use to represent God? Who would preside at the table? Who would make up your congregation? What might they look like? Where would you gather?
Creating a New Worshiping Community means having the opportunity to answer these questions as a congregation for the first time, to create a church with a new set of social norms. Community members come together with some idea of what church is supposed to be as well as their own desires for what authentic community feels like. Together, they weed through how this specific community will work together to follow God’s call. This process provides an exciting opportunity to recreate church norms about how men and women show up in church. It is a process full of innovation, idealism, and big ideas.
Twenty years ago, new church development looked quite different than it does now. Back then, the focus was around picking a prime location for a new church, choosing a charismatic leader – usually young and usually male – and investing serious funds to get things off the ground. The vast majority of these types of church plants did not create lasting communities of faith.
While the heart of the emergent movement seeks to live beyond the injustices based on race, class, and gender, the saying proved true that old habits die hard; most initial emergent new churches were created by male leadership.
However, as our culture started shifting to what we now call ‘postmodern’, the church began to shift as well. This new spirit of church has been described in many ways, as emergent, tribal, contextual, relational, and grassroots. This movement of New Worshiping Communities seeks to move beyond traditional boundaries of conservative and liberal as well as distinctions of professional vs. lay leadership. However, while the heart of the emergent movement seeks to live beyond the injustices based on race, class, and gender, the saying proved true that old habits die hard; most initial emergent new churches were created by male leadership.
The PC(USA) has been working to create space for this grassroots, contextual, and innovative communities through the 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement. Even as I am saddened by the recent missteps that have cast some suspicion on the movement, I still firmly believe that the 1001 initiative is a way in which we can use the structures of the denomination and the richness of the Reformed tradition to create a culture not only of innovation, but also of justice. 1001 invites passionate leaders (both lay and professional) to perceive their surroundings, to listen to the call of the Holy Spirit, and to create ‘church’ right where they are.
This has opened the door for a diverse leadership to grow. While female clergy still generally take longer to get a call through the traditional Presbyterian system, the number of women leading New Worshiping Communities is growing rapidly. Of the current 279 NWCs approximately 1/3 are led by women. This number may not seem significant, and of course justice requires greater equality, but remember that ten years ago it was difficult to find any new church developments led solely by female pastors. Additionally, about 1/3 of NWCs are geared toward new immigrants to the US.  This grassroots and more self-determinative model opens up enormous potential for diverse leadership to emerge organically in our denomination. Through NWC there are increasing leadership opportunities for women, immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ pastors.
Even as we as a denomination continue to launch, support, and explore new forms of church, it is important that we continue to ask questions about gender justice.
One example of a new community led by a female clergyperson is the Bare Bulb Coffee Project led by Rev. Nikki Collins MacMillan. Bare Bulb is both a coffee shop and a NWC in Warner Robbins, GA. The ministry offers hospitality to all of God’s people; members describe the coffee shop as a “shared living room” for the community. It is a place to share art and music, community and faith. The coffee shop itself doesn’t function like your average Starbucks; rather, revenue from the coffee shop supports the ministry itself as well as local and international mission. Only 6 years old, the coffee shop and the ministry are self-sustaining.
Another example of a NWC lead by a female pastor is Centro Familiar Cristiano lead by Pastora Claudia Lopez. While much of their framing and mission work focuses on meeting the needs of Hispanic Latino women in Alpharetta, GA, the community is quick to remind us that their focus first and foremost is to create disciples of Jesus Christ. As Sara Hayden says, “start with discipleship and you end up with a church.” I believe that this is because a discipleship-based vision can’t navel-gaze; it has to be larger than the community itself. Such a vision has to be oriented in God’s own call for justice and shalom. It is through this lens that the Centro Familiar Cristiano interprets the world around itself and impacts its community.
Several of the PC(USA)’s New Worshiping Communities have a central focus on creating safe space for LGBTQ people of faith. Even though the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has changed the Book of Order so that LGBTQ people can be ordained as teaching and ruling elders, it can still be extremely difficult for out queer candidates to find a call. In a culture where religious and political figures regularly hold abstract debates about the rights queer people, it is a gift that the church can foster safe sacred space to the full variety of God’s people. Churches like New Queer Faith Fellowship, led by Brian Symonds, Not-So-Churchy, led by Rev. Mieke Vandersall, and Judah Fellowship led by Shanea Leonard, all create Christian community with the foundational understanding that God loves and calls people of all sexual orientations and gender expressions.
The criticism has often been leveled that while women’s work in the church is commended and valued, it is often left unpaid. The question is now posed to the emergent church: Will you imitate an unjust status quo? Or will you be a part of breaking these chains?
Rev. Emily McGinley, co-pastor of Urban Village Chicago, describes her experience working with this United Methodist New Worshiping Community: “Because our community is very diverse, theologically, racially, and socioeconomically, it has been a fun challenge to draw and incorporate the meaning derived from a variety of spaces and traditions. Everyone is a little challenged and everyone has a space of familiarity when it comes to worship. Outside of worship, most folks are eager to connect and get to know people who are different from themselves. I love being able to create that space and enfold that into our DNA as a church.”
Even as we as a denomination continue to launch, support, and explore new forms of church, it is important that we continue to ask questions about gender justice. NWCs provide a multitude of opportunities for diverse leadership, and yet it is important to mention that they are usually led by bi-vocational or unpaid pastoral leadership. Thus, leaders of new faith communities lose some of the support systems woven into the personnel policies of our denomination. Benefits from the Board of Pensions are often more expensive than a small and budding faith community can afford. There are grants offered to help offset the cost of insurance for leaders of NWCs, but of course, not every community can receive a grant, and the money is not always enough.
The criticism has often been leveled, throughout the history of the church, that while women’s work in the church is commended and valued, it is often left unpaid. The question is now posed to the emergent church, to 1001, to New Worshiping Communities: how will you combine creativity and justice? Will you imitate an unjust status quo? Or will you be a part of breaking these chains?
 Data on NWCs from Vera White the Associate for Presbyterian Mission’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities
AUTHOR BIO: Rachel Parsons-Wells is the Director of Religious Life and Service at Presbyterian College. She is married to Jacob Parsons-Wells, who serves on the PC(USA) Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns (ACWC), and is the mom of adorable and feisty Dylan, who will be 2 in February. In her past life, she created a NWC for young adults in Louisville, KY, called Kinesis. Rachel holds degrees from Presbyterian College and Columbia Seminary. She likes folk music, good questions, and books on tape.
Read more articles from this issue, “Hearing the Voices of Peoples Long Silenced”: Gender Justice 2014!