article about the Refuge

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Alternachurch: a few new ways toward “the family of God”
by Dwight Ozard
Rethinking Church to Rescue the Gospel: A Tale of Three Churches (Originally published in PRISM, SEPT 97)
New Song Church is not what most of us imagine when we think of a church. Square in the middle of one of the most notorious blocks of Druillard Avenue, one of the roughest streets in Windsor, Ontario—Canada’s nearly as depressing answer to the Motor City—its awning still bears the name of the building’s previous tenant, a biker bar called Mongo Morph’s. Inside, stale beer still lingers in the air, and probably will for a long time; ambiance dies hard after 70-odd years as a blue-collar watering hole. The varnished oak bar—once Canada’s longest—remains down one side of the long, expansive room.
Above it, a sign that echoes Jesus’ promise that “anyone who drinks here will never thirst again.” The far end is covered with musical instruments that on Sunday mornings and most Saturday nights fill the room with what New Song’s pastor, Kevin Rogers, evoking Austin City Limits, calls Christian “roadhouse rock.”
The remainder of the week the bar—I mean church—is filled with music (playing continually from its sound system), welcoming curious passers-by and regular members alike to Bible studies, 12-step meetings, job-training classes, and a regular soup kitchen and pantry stocked with dry goods for the down and out (no shortage of them in post-NAFTA Windsor). Upstairs are four apartments being renovated to provide low-rent housing to needy parishioners.
New Song’s members are exactly those who would never feel welcome at most churches. “We’re a half-way church—a cross between an old-fashioned mission and a suburban church,” says Rogers, a 35-year-old who has been pastor of New Song for five years. “We reach out to the down and out, the despised and disillusioned.”
By all accounts, Rogers’ experiment is successful. The local Daily described him in this way: “There’s a rootedness to him, a quiet tolerance, but also a deep-set desire to put into action the words of the gospel…. (to) give people dignity, give them heart.”
Alternachurch No, it’s not the typical church, not yet at least. But it might be soon. After 50 years of mainline congregational malaise and 30 years of evangelicalism’s mall-like mega-churches, Sunday school bus programs, seeker-sensitive “church-lite” and demographically constructed, ethnically pure suburban congregations, it looks more and more like the church of the future will be quite similar to New Song. Not quite “un-church.” More like “alternachurch,” and they’re sprouting up all over North America at an astonishing pace.
Store-front churches are not a new idea. Many African-American, early holiness and Pentecostal churches were found in living rooms, warehouses or store-fronts. What sets these new alternachurches apart is that these growing congregations choose to go into storefronts, abandoned bars and second-floor warehouses. Without renouncing their more traditional church roots—most still celebrate the Lord’s Supper, baptize believers, marry and bury—the alternachurches have chosen their contexts, consciously setting out to subvert the notion of “church” for their post-modern neighbor, hoping to find a way to open those neighbors to the Gospel.
Slacker Heaven? Take, for example, center-city Philadelphia’s fast-growing Circle of Hope church. Three years ago Rod White was pastor of one of his denomination’s largest suburban congregations. But nagging in his spirit was a notion that the church could be much more—and much less—than it was. While his parishioners were happy, he was haunted by the growing numbers never reached by the traditional church. He needed to get out and start over. To, at least in a small way, reinvent the church.
He approached his denomination—the Brethren In Christ—with his vision, and with their support and to their credit, resigned his influential pastorate. In July, 1995 he moved his family to Philly to begin planting what he hoped would be a multi-racial alternative church. Their first service was in the spring of 1996.
Eighteen months later, Circle of Hope is a dynamic, growing community of nearly 200 that meets in a warehouse over a storefront in one of Philadelphia’s most cosmopolitan neighborhoods. His parishioners are made up of what marketing gurus call Gen Xers—the allegedly rootless, web-surfing, job-jumping, TV-addicted children of the Boomers, their average age perhaps 25, their tattoo average about two, and their pierced appendages well beyond the ears. Circle’s two Sunday night services are decidedly low-key. Worship is led by an unobtrusive and grunge-tinged rock band that freely mixes hymns and choruses from antiquity and the present day. White’s sermons are littered with pop culture references, but are unique for their disarming honesty and intimacy. He takes great pains to assure the young congregation that he is a fellow traveler —his sermons are often as confessional as they are exegetical.
White’s approach is not only biblical, it is necessary. Most of his parishioners are either refugees from the traditional church or the children of no religion whatsoever, all with little patience for the formal piety of traditional church forms. Quite simply, after childhoods of broken-homes and broken promises, and (with the exception of the computer geeks in their midst) facing an adulthood with little security, their brokenness is too close to them to pretend otherwise, and their B.S.-detectors are finely tuned.
“To make it matter here,” says White, “church must real. These kids can spot crap from a mile away. But it also has to be relational. This is harder, because while this generation is yearning for community in general, in specific they don’t want it. They want to be just as autonomous as their screwed-up parents. Our job is to be honest and open enough that we can make a place for them in this community, where they will discover their needs being met and find a place to serve.”
This commitment to community and mutual accountability is reinforced throughout the week at Circle, with the vast majority of the congregation’s activities taking place outside of their second story expanse. Circle’s ministry is anchored by several home “cell” groups, where all of the community’s members meet to study Scripture, share needs, pray together, and plan outreach. They recently decided to turn their meeting room into a coffee house and art gallery during the weekends.
But perhaps the most hopeful turn has been Circle’s commitment to expand its staff and programs to make the church more accessible to African Americans. When White moved to Philadelphia, he hoped to forge a multi-racial, ethnically diverse community. After two years he realizes that goal may have been naive, and that he may have under-estimated the cultural baggage that even his untraditional alternachurch model brought.
To rectify this, Circle has attained a grant to hire an African-American co-pastor, who will share White’s duties and leadership. White is also forging partnerships with some black congregations to broaden his accountability base and school his young congregation in cross-cultural urban outreach.
“We simply don’t know how to reach out to the restless black young adults in our communities,” says White. “We don’t know how to not be a white church. We need to unlearn that.”
On the Street in St. Petersburg In St. Petersburg, Florida, another alternachurch is struggling with a different kind of cross-cultural ministry. The Refuge is just a few blocks from the heart of downtown, on the main artery leading to the stadium that will host the city’s major league baseball team beginning next year, and only a few blocks from the site of last year’s race riots.
Reinventing church for the southern city’s street kids, skinheads, punks and skaters, the Refuge is known for its uncompromising commitment to social action and advocacy, as well as its old-fashioned evangelism.
Led by Bruce Wright, The Refuge has become one of the country’s most innovative and provocative alternachurches. Wright is a graduate of Liberty University (“Falwell would have a fit if he came here,” he says, smiling), who recently received his MA in social work and counseling. He started the church (and its coffee-house/ concert-venue incarnation, Joe Mocha’s), in the early ‘90s with hopes of reaching dropouts and St. Pete’s growing underclass.
He has.
Like Circle of Hope and New Song, the Refuge is a multi-faceted experiment. Wright’s Sunday afternoon worship services are not for the timid—the music is loud and edges close to hard-core metal, yet his congregation sings along heartily. His sermons are impassioned but not really preachy—his dynamic is not of the “charismatic” kind. Instead, he manages to be just rough enough around the edges to put his distinctly non-mainstream audience at ease. That is the most remarkable thing about Wright—these jaded, lonely, broken young people trust him.
And with good reason. The Refuge lives up to its name—anyone is welcome. It has thus become the gathering place for St. Pete’s punk and street scene, a place where on any given day you can find a wide community of runaways, anarchists, skinheads and the marginalized. For example, last year, one of Wright’s pastoral challenges was whether to disciple a post-operative transsexual AIDS sufferer as a man or a woman—a quandary your typical seminary education fails to address. When I visited there last March, I was amazed by sheer volume of activity, and the depth of need. In just a few afternoon hours Wright helped get one young woman emergency shelter and another into a drug rehab program, helped a young juvenile offender find community service work, sat with a recovering drug abuser, organized the restocking of the Refuge’s food pantry, helped map out plans for a new Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Joe Mocha’s, and made plans to speak at an upcoming meeting to discuss the city’s racial tension. I was exhausted; Wright was energized.
Early on, Wright and his board of directors (which includes lawyers, accountants, and pastors from the area’s evangelical, mainline and Catholic churches) made a decision to let Joe Mocha’s become a venue for both Christian and mainstream concerts, bringing unbelieving punk and hard core bands and fans into what is for all intents and purposes a church. While this creates some dissonance, it also has created some remarkable opportunities. One band, known for their violent anti-Christian vit-riol, was so taken aback by the warmth they received at The Refuge that they commented to their audience about the “true Christians” who ran the place, and most of the street kids who come into The Refuge’s ministry learn about it at Joe Mocha’s “secular” shows, after discovering people who care about them.
Wright has also made efforts to reach out to other communities usually ignored or vilified by Christian churches. He has worked with the American Indian Movement (AIM), local underground radicals (helping organize a “Keeping the Peace” festival that featured Noam Chomsky, among others), and, after last year’s race riots (which Wright insists were marked by the brutality of the St. Petersburg police and the commendable restraint of the city’s African American residents), the radical separatists Black Uhuru. Wright has consistently been one of the few white Christian leaders welcomed at their rallies.
For Wright, this kind of bridge building is crucial to faithful, fruitful outreach. “The reputation of evangelicals on the streets of central Florida is abysmal. They perceive us as at best unconcerned with their plight, and at worst as part of the system that ignores, exploits and abuses them. They need someone to tell them that Jesus is on their side.” The Refuge has had its share of run-ins with city authorities, who are anxious to rid the downtown of “undesirables” as baseball approaches, and have tried to prevent The Refuge from feeding the homeless on the street. (“They want to turn downtown St. Pete into one big sports bar,” Wright says, “hungry, homeless kids are bad for business.”) While most police are sympathetic to their ministry, a few have harassed the ministry’s clientele, occasionally breaking up concerts.
Other groups have targeted the Refuge’s work as well. Their involvement in the punk scene and with issues of racial justice has brought them face to face with the ugly neo-Nazi racism of skinheads and the Klan. After a recent David Duke rally in St. Petes, a gang of hate-mongers tried to crash a Christian punk show at Joe Mocha’s, an incident that nearly resulted in a riot.
Still, Wright remains upbeat. “We’ve established a beach-head for the Gospel where there wasn’t one before.”
Hope For the Future. New Song, Circle of Hope and The Refuge all point to an inescapable conclusion. In a world where a growing number of people are outside the influence and reach of the traditional church, we need to reinvent it, to rediscover what is central, and to jettison all that is peripheral to its mission. To hold on to the old for itself is selfish, and has no place in Christ’s kingdom. The world deserves better from the church, and these experiments are struggling to give it.
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Dwight Ozard is a writer, speaker and management consultant known across North America as a passionate advocate and agitator for relevant, redemptive, playful and frequently irreverent Christian cultural engagement and social “action.”
Copyright © 2004 Dwight Ozard