Pray and wash: Finding church in unexpected places

Why We Wrote This

For many, worship has always been about much more than the edifice in which it occurs. Today, a new locus of spiritual growth is emerging around alternative settings that redefine “church.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A sign on the sidewalk welcomes people to Simple Church, which is held around a dinner table at a cafe in Worcester, Mass.

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“The laundromat is my church.” Those are the words of an Episcopal Church deacon. She’s not being flip. Neither are those who describe ritual and reflection in a state park – or over a Tuesday night potluck – as church. The lack of traditional packaging is by design. The idea: Having people gather in an informal setting instead of just under a steeple embodies the Gospel in a way that’s comfortable, especially at a time when many Americans remain leery of organized religion. 

Hundreds of such faith gatherings are springing up. Is it a fringe movement, or a glimpse of tomorrow? A lot of the momentum does come from mainline denominations seeking growth. About 20 percent of new United Methodist churches are nontraditional. Traditional churches offer advantages, such as institutional longevity, but alternative churches have advantages too. They are, for example, less costly to establish and maintain.

This much seems clear: For a social subset that includes the unchurched and the disaffected, a redefined church meets a need. “They’re looking for … more contemplation, for silence, reflection, and thought,” says Steve Blackmer, pastor of Church of the Woods in Canterbury, New Hampshire. “I discovered… That’s who this can serve.”

When Julie Butcher goes to church, she looks forward to giving thanks to God, lending a supportive hand, breaking bread with friends – and helping people wash a tub of clothes. 

“The laundromat is my church,” says Ms. Butcher, an Episcopal Church deacon, as children play and washers churn at Suds Up here in this city one hour west of Boston. “There’s no judgment. People come here and they’re welcomed and loved. It doesn’t matter what they look like or what their life is like.”

Butcher’s church happens here inside a noisy, family-owned laundromat that transforms once a month into something more akin to the kingdom of God. When it does, blessed are those overwhelmed by heaps of smelly socks and soiled T-shirts. Anyone who doesn’t have access to laundry facilities  at home gets an opportunity to wash, dry, and fold them here free of charge. 

Funded by area churches and other organizations, the monthly gathering is called Laundry Love. It has no formal worship service nor preplanned Bible talk. In fact, any visible signs of church are subtle enough to miss, except for the four women in clergy collars who on this day are keeping things running smoothly by shepherding kids and watching jeans tumble in front-load washers.

The lack of church packaging is by design. The idea is that having people gather around a practical project in an informal setting embodies the Gospel in a way that’s comfortable, especially at a time when secularism is on the rise and many Americans remain leery of organized religion. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Meredyth Ward chats with Jime Newton at her church’s Laundry Love project in Worcester, Mass. Free food and laundry services are provided to those who attend. The event has a short prayer session but no formal worship service.

“Whether they recognize it or not, they are growing in [their] relationship with God,” says Meredyth Ward, the Episcopal priest who started Worcester’s Laundry Love and is called “pastora” by her informal flock. “When they offer prayers themselves, they are claiming an identity in Christ. It doesn’t look like normal church. Some of them may never walk into a normal church. But church happens. God shows up.” 

Laundry Love attests to a trend that’s putting a new face on the religious establishment in the United States. More and more, gathering for church no longer means coming together for Sunday morning worship with hymns and preaching under a steeple. In mainline Protestant denominations, which trace roots in America to the Colonial period and are vying to reverse five decades of decline, church is increasingly centered around other days of the week, sharing different kinds of experiences, and meeting in community settings. Hundreds of these faith gatherings are springing up across the country in places more rustic than reverent. 

In Littleton, Colo., a Presbyterian clergyman leads “wild church gatherings” as part of his Church of Lost Walls. He guides people of all spiritual backgrounds through three hours of ritual and reflection in Roxborough State Park.

Near Grantsburg, Wis., Lutherans make church extra casual with Soup in the Coop – a light meal before 6 p.m. Wednesday worship in, yes, a chicken coop. In Los Angeles, Episcopalians and Lutherans encourage family farming alongside faith at the Abundant Table, a community-supported agriculture venture with an optional Sunday night church component. Other worshipers are gathering over dinner or in the outdoors where kids climb trees and romp with the family dog during services.

Underneath it all looms a fundamental question: Is this just a fringe movement, or is it what the mainstream churches of tomorrow will look like?

A lot of the momentum for the movement is, in fact, coming from mainline denominations as they try to find ways to start new churches.

For the United Methodist Church, nontraditional strategies didn’t exist as recently as a decade ago, according to executive director of community engagement and church planting Bener Agtarap. Today about 20 percent of new churches are nontraditional – people gathering in places such as homes and on horseback trails. 

Of the 432 congregations started by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America since 2013, more than two-thirds are nontraditional, according to director for new congregational development Ruben Duran. Among the new venues: Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, a major rail hub.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is committed to launching 1,001 new worshiping communities between 2012 and 2022. Forty-two percent of these new churches so far are meeting in unconventional places. 

As the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) works to start “1000 new churches in 1000 different ways,” nontraditional will be increasingly common in years ahead, according to Terrell McTyer, minister of new church strategies. “Eventually the idea of doing things nontraditionally will become the tradition,” says Mr. McTyer. 

To be sure, churches have always convened in secular places. Early Christians worshiped in homes, and recent generations have followed suit by gathering in pastors’ living rooms or school auditoriums – at least until they could afford their own space for Sunday services. What’s different now is how many new churches often have no designs on going traditional no matter how established they become.

The movement is being driven by several factors. Denominations need to reverse or at least slow the decline in membership, and new churches tend to grow faster than long-established ones.

Nontraditional churches are also cheaper to set up. The venues are usually either donated or rented for only a few hours a week. The United Methodist Church aims to plant one church per day, in part to help reverse numerical decline, Mr. Agtarap says. But establishing a traditional church even in a dedicated rental space costs at least $500,000 for the first three years. “We don’t have that kind of money,” he says. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
People arrive for a Sunday service in a small barn at Church of the Woods in Canterbury, N.H. The Episcopal-based service emphasizes the importance of relating to nature at a time of environmental degradation.

Yet numbers are hardly the only thing propelling the movement. Scholars agree the new ventures are expanding the idea of church by bringing services to people in forms that are more accessible to them. 

“The aim is to reach people in new ways that are present where people are, rather than asking people to convert first to a kind of a culture before they’re even able to entertain what Christianity is about,” says Bryan Stone, a professor of evangelism at Boston University School of Theology who is studying the new movement.

Dr. Stone says it’s not uncommon for nontraditional churches to disband after six or seven years, especially if a charismatic leader moves on. But participants in the movement are determined to prove skeptics wrong, or at least to practice authentic Christianity for as long as possible. It’s a mission fraught with challenges but also loaded with possibilities.

“I don’t think [nontraditional churches] are necessarily an answer” to mainline decline, Stone says. “But I do think it’s a big enough wave ... to sit up and say, ‘Look, this reminds us of other sorts of reformations in church history....’ They’re doing church in ways that really need to happen.”

One mile north of Suds Up in downtown Worcester, Methodists are pioneering a new congregation just a thousand feet from a traditional United Methodist church. Here a worship service is the main event, but it’s aimed at those who wouldn’t attend an established church – at least not anymore. 

Simple Church Worcester, as it’s called, meets every Tuesday night at the Garden Fresh Courthouse Café, a quick-serve restaurant by day and sacred rental space by night. On a recent cold night, passersby pause to read a sandwich board and ponder the chalked question: “What if CHURCH was a dinner party?” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
LyAnna Johnson (c.) and congregants raise glasses of grape juice (Sacrament ‘wine’) during a church service at a cafe.

Inside, 15 participants happily answer the question. They share potluck dinner at one long table positioned by the front window for maximum visibility. At the head of the table in a black clergy shirt, blue jeans, and L.L. Bean boots sits the pastor, LyAnna Johnson, who came to Massachusetts from Texas to start a dinner church.

Ms. Johnson doles out spiritual questions for diners to discuss in groups of three or four. When all have been fed, one worshiper breaks out a guitar. Congregants sing a simple refrain – “breathe in hate/ breathe out love.” Having shared Communion bread before the meal, they now pass around the rest of the Sacrament  – a pitcher of “wine” (grape juice) – and hear a hopeful reminder from Johnson. “In every moment,” she assures her flock, “God offers a chance to choose a different way.”

Simple Church Worcester marks an attempt to expand a model launched in the nearby town of Grafton by its pastor, Zachary Kerzee. The formula is simple: Worship over dinner, let Bible-inspired conversation be the sermon, and engage in revenue-producing activities, such as website design for churches or bread baking, to help benefit communities and cover costs associated with the church.

On this night, visitors from another United Methodist congregation in suburban Charlton, Mass., have come downtown to eat and learn how to connect, as Simple Church does every week, with a table mostly filled with 20- and 30-somethings. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Pastor Johnson breaks bread at the beginning of her church service. The congregation meets every Tuesday night over a potluck meal.

“What intrigued me was their ability to reach unchurched people that are not, for whatever reasons, attracted or called or interested in a Sunday morning kind of church,” says Wanda Santos-Perez, pastor of Charlton City United Methodist Church. She says her church wants to adapt the model in Charlton and see if a dinner church format might draw local young adults.

But those gathered at Simple Church aren’t unfamiliar with traditional services. Many had attended established churches in their younger years and left hurt, disillusioned, or both. The nontraditional space at Simple Church, where authority to preach is dispersed around the table, has become a refuge where the alienated find affirmation. 

Anna, who asked that her last name be omitted, says her conservative evangelical upbringing had been a big part of her life. She left in part because “politics had sort of infected the evangelical church.” She also felt she couldn’t be her true self there.

“Here I can express my doubts and not be so judged,” Anna says. “We’re all allowed to disagree. We don’t all have to believe the exact same thing.... Often I’ll go away with a new perspective on a Bible story or want to do more research. It really has given my faith a new lease on life.”

Others share similar stories of being turned off by church, but also feeling something was missing when they left.

“I attended another church and it wasn’t working out,” says Ellen Kurtz, who describes herself as shy and therefore more comfortable in a small church environment. Simple Church “is less judgmental. No one here has batted an eyelash if I say I have a chronic illness so I can’t show up some weeks, or I’m not straight. No one has a problem with that. They just want me here.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Stephen Blackmer, an Episcopal priest, conducts a service at the Church of the Woods that he founded, in Canterbury, N.H.

Many people showing up at the new churches, in fact, are so-called dones – those who consider themselves done with more established churches. Very few are new to religious services altogether.  

Church of the Woods, for instance, is a place where 15 to 20 people gather on average over two Sunday services on a woodsy parcel in Canterbury, N.H. There’s no doubt it’s church, whether attendees are sharing the Sacrament in a field on a brilliant fall morning or chanting Psalms in a small candlelit barn. But it’s also earthy. No matter the weather, attendees venture outside for at least part of the service to reflect on a particular question or topic among the trees, streams, deer, and countless other creatures. Afterward, they listen to each other’s reflections before sharing from the chalice. 

Church founder Steve Blackmer, an Episcopal priest, says he felt called by God to establish the church on this site. He aims to reconnect church with nature in a time of environmental crisis. Pastor Blackmer expected the church might draw those who say they find God in a garden or on a mountaintop, not behind stained-glass windows.

Early on, he invited 40 friends, all of whom had spiritual practices of some type and interest in conservation, to take part but to no avail. Those uninterested in organized religion, even if they regard themselves as spiritual, haven’t been drawn to his church, he says.

 “They come and they get freaked out,” Blackmer says, sitting in the barn as the sun fades, candles flicker in the windows, and mice rustle audibly nearby. “There’s too much Jesus. The liturgy is too formal. Communion freaks them out. And these are friends of mine. Not a single one of my friends has joined Church of the Woods.” 

Instead, Church of the Woods has built a community of about 60 people, most of whom travel substantial distances – in one case, five hours each way – to join like-minded people for a unique worship experience. They don’t all attend weekly or even monthly. They bring a range of church backgrounds: Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Unitarian, and Quaker, among others. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Rev. Blackmer calls parishioners back to the barn during a service at Church of the Woods.

“They’re looking for something with more contemplation, for silence, reflection, and thought, not always this stimulus coming at you,” Blackmer says. Or they’ve left the Catholic Church, he says, after being disillusioned.

When Blackmer rings a cowbell and a Tibetan yak bell, calling his flock back together after 20 minutes of wandering to the sounds of crunching snow and cracking branches, the stories they share reveal another layer of who they are: people finding their way back to the fold after often rocky relationships with established churches.

“There was a latent demand that I didn’t know of,” Blackmer says. “I discovered after the fact: That’s who this can serve.” 

Scholars say what’s happening in Worcester and Canterbury is typical of nontraditional churches. The approach resonates with a younger generation in particular that wants to participate in a creative way, not just consume what a religious leader has packaged for their consumption. That’s according to Casper ter Kuile, a ministry innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School and coauthor of “Something More,” a study of faith groups that claim ancient traditions in new ways.

By rekindling interest among the disaffected, nontraditional churches arguably cater to a growing market. The number of people claiming affiliation with mainline denominations dropped from 18.1 percent to 14.7 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to Pew Research Center. Meanwhile those with no religious affiliation jumped from 16.1 to 22.8 percent over the same period. But only those who once embraced church life and want to try it in a fresh way seem likely to respond. 

“Often who it appeals to is people who grew up with church, who have kind of moved away from it or rejected it,” says Mr. Ter Kuile. “It’s not often extremely resonant with people who have never had any experience of church life....”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Paul Doolittle speaks about the branch he picked up in the woods during a service at Church of the Woods. The congregation spends time outdoors during every meeting.

As nontraditional churches work to become more secure long-term places of worship, they face pressure to avoid turning into something else – a traditional church. 

In Dripping Springs, Texas, where ranchland has given way to new homes for commuters to Austin, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America bought a subdivided parcel in 2010 with plans to put up a building and minister to the fast-growing population. But after local Lutherans held Easter services outside on the undeveloped plot, worshipers said they wanted to hold more services there in the sun, shade, and breeze of Texas’ Hill Country. 

That led to what’s become New Life Lutheran Church, an outdoor congregation with an average attendance of 70. No building means no office, so the pastor, Carmen Retzlaff, has meetings in coffee shops or on hiking trails. A trailer stores a portable sound system, blankets for cold days when they huddle under a tent, and everything else they might need for a comfortable outdoor experience. 

When worship begins, an old horse trough serves as the altar. Attendees bring dogs. Kids are free to climb trees and dig holes during the liturgy. The uniqueness of the experience drew the Coburn family when they were trying to find a church home a few years ago. “It felt like we were killing two birds with one stone,” says Katie Coburn, a New Life parishioner and mother of boys ages 10, 8, and 5. “We could be a part of a faith community and be outside” on Sunday mornings.

New Life is part of the Wild Church Network, a fellowship of about 40 US and Canadian congregations that worship outdoors or will launch as outdoor churches this year. But maintaining New Life’s quirky status requires diplomacy. Some in the church are growing tired of putting up with inhospitable weather and all the weekly work that goes into setting up sound systems and laying out hymnals and other materials that would be ready to go if they had a normal building. They’d like a permanent indoor church, but others insist the alfresco service is essential to who they are as a community.

“There’s been a bit of a push and pull between the people who say ‘we’re just waiting around until we raise enough money to build a building’ and the other people who say ‘we never want a building, what are you talking about?’ ” Ms. Coburn says. A compromise is in the works, she adds: The congregation has a long-term plan to erect an open pavilion to house services and put in a kitchen and bathroom. 

Pressures to conform to church conventions have weighed on other congregations as well. New Creation Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., built up momentum with an unusual formula: Worship on a weeknight and spend Sunday mornings on athletic fields, where so many parents and kids gather. By offering cold drinks and face painting as a form of outreach at the sporting events, the Presbyterian-affiliated congregation became a model for how to grow a flock. 

But the church shifted once it grew enough to relocate from a home to a storefront site. Churchgoers now meet on Sunday mornings, though the church still does outreach at sporting events at other times and retains a conversational-style worship.

While congregations that remain nontraditional aren’t likely to last more than a few years, says Stone, the Boston University scholar, longevity isn’t the main point. Authentic Christianity is. And denominations are showing they’re not afraid to try.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Participants hold hands during a prayer circle at Laundry Love, a monthly gathering that takes place in a laundromat in Worcester, Mass.

Take Laundry Love. It’s not an official congregation of the Episcopal Church. Some regulars argue it’s just an outreach, not a church, because it has no choir, no open Bibles, no doctrinal teaching. But others believe this is exactly how churches launch effectively in the 21st century. First comes mission activity to reveal God’s love. The rest comes later.

Either way, people find it’s comfortable –and meaningful. On Valentine’s Day, upbeat music and free pizza create a festive atmosphere for first-time participants, including Tee Hall, who stays at a nearby homeless shelter with her two kids. When Ms. Ward invites anyone interested in prayer to join hands in a circle, Ms. Hall stands off to the side with her kids but absorbs every word. 

“It’s a laundromat, so the last thing I would expect is to have a priest here,” Hall says. “But knowing that it’s church people [behind the event] makes people feel good. Who doesn’t want to come to a place that has a lot of church people and even a priest?”

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