It is shocking to me that this post is happening during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the other hurricanes to come. The devastation in Texas is overwhelming. After re-listening to my conversation with my uncle, I was so thankful that Northwoods Presbyterian is there to help, not only their congregation but also the community at large. Please take a moment to check out the different ways you can support this community: Presbyterian Disaster Relief and Northwoods Presbyterian Church. The work of rebuilding the community physically and emotionally will take decades. Every dollar helps! Please consider sending support.
The big question that most mainline denominations are asking is how do you help an older church transition into a new cultural paradigm. For decades, the church was a central part of a town. People would flock to the church building for community, connection, and service.
Yet, now we live in a time when the church is no longer central to the everyday living of a community. For far too long the church has been able to sit back and let the people come to them. Now the church has to get out of their favorite pew and go to the people.
Biblically, this seems as though it should not be a hard transition. God consistently sends God’s people out into the world. However, this shift in reality has thrown many churches for a loop. These churches have been so isolated within their church walls, they don’t know how to relate to those outside of them.
The big question for most pastors has been… WHAT DO WE DO NOW?!
Rev. Dr. Paul Nazarian, pastor of Northwoods Presbyterian Church in Spring, TX, has been wondering the same question for the last 20 some-odd years. His curiosity for the future of the church as led him to the understanding that if a church really wants to change they will make actual steps towards change.
Nazarian cleverly stated, “We do all of our planning for church members and then we wonder why other people don’t come to church.” A church will intentionally ask the hard questions that will push the members of a church community to really embody the fullness of the Gospel in ways that greatly impact those around them.
Nazarian understands the complexity of this task. You have to take care of the members you have, while simultaneously nudge them to think outside themselves. You much Bless & Add.
Leading his community through a process of discernment, Nazarian has helped his church have a new lens for the purpose of the church. They recognize they are not a neighborhood church but they are called to serve the neighborhood. Meaning they have to start thinking about what the neighborhood actually looks like and not assume it looks like them.
As they looked at the demographics of those living in Spring and realized that most of the people that live there do not look like those that attend Northwoods. The church had some work do. They had some questions to ask:
How do you set up a congregation well to be ok with difference?
How do we start to dream differently?
What can we do now to connect with a huge population that is right here that are radically different from most of the congregation.
What would a truly integrated bilingual service look like?
First things first: If we want to attract different people then let’s hire different people.
After they started thinking of staffing they hired a spanish speaking pastor from Cuba. What was really lovely about this hire, is not only would he be able to bring a new perspective to the church, but also the church already has a connection missionally with their new pastor’s community in Cuba. Yes, they hired someone very different than them, but they also hired someone in the family.
This new staff hire has been an important addition to the church community, but has not come without criticism. Frustrations with the thickness of his accent or the way he chooses to conduct a portion of the worship service have been prevalent. Yet, Nazarian sees these moments as opportunity to walk alongside patrons as they come to grips with their own struggles with difference.
When asked about the challenges ahead, Nazarian discussed the hard work of actually having an integrated church and how the Northwoods congregation would need to grow into learning how to embrace the spanish speaking people in their community. They don’t simply want a church in a church. They seek to create a space where they all can worship together.
Yet, they don’t want those new people because those new people would have new ideas and new ways of doing things that would threaten the old way of being. Which then leads them to question if their home church will still be their home.
The work of a mainline denominational pastor is a complicated work. We live in a time and culture that look so different than it did in the past, pastors have to start thinking differently about what it means to be apart of a church.
Nazarian understands that, to many young adults, the idea of being apart of a community does not mean that you need to “become a member.” It also means that people today consider themselves a part of the church community even if they only attend Sunday mornings once a month. Which begs the question: Are Sundays the point? Can the church be the church without Sundays being the epicenter?
I agree with Nazarian when he explained that the fear that people have stems from the idea that, “Everyone needs an extended family.” The questions are: what does family look like now vs then? Will I still be able to belong here if things change?”
The goal is:
Bless and add.
Honor and shift.
Affirm who we are and keep going, but you have to be willing to let go of things.
Let’s keep being innovative instead of remaining stagnant.
How are you setting up your congregations for success with change? How is the Holy Spirit nudging you into something new? How can you simultaneously honor your community for the goodness that they already exude?
Northwood’s vision statement is “We are Christ’s disciples celebrating God’s grace, creating community, making a difference.” It's clear that Nazarian seeks to lean on the Holy Spirit’s guidance as they continue to partner where God is already at work in their community. It sure looks like they have their work cut out for them, but it seems like they are up for the challenge.
Listen to the podcast HERE!