Chris Waldron reflects on the start of Praxis UCC, a new church in Atlanta, GA,
which held its first worship service on Sunday, October 17.
After sweeping up the crumbs off the floor, and shutting the door to the borrowed sanctuary, my wife Leah and I took a breath after our first service. Just before getting into our car, we realized that we had just witnessed the birthday of Praxis UCC, the church we had set out to start. It had taken a year to get to this point, and, through that time, we've continually returned to the idea that the growth of a church is much like the growth and development of a human being. In this instance, we've just been a part of a 13-month pregnancy.
The process was kicked off when we moved to Atlanta so that Leah could start her studies at Candler School of Theology. With few connections in Atlanta, it took some time to lay the groundwork for this new church. We started by opening up our home on Thursday nights for dinner, Bible study and prayer. We spilled wine on the carpet, plowed our way through unfamiliar gluten-free recipes, scrambled to find makeshift toys for small children, and listened to each other's life stories unfolding. Our Thursday discussions became the backbone of the vision for the church, and the relationships that have grown out of these gatherings have sparked the life of the church more than anything we could have done during one worship service. Last Sunday, we felt those relationships carrying us through our first service as that core group invited friends, made food, videotaped the service, read scripture, greeted, taught Sunday school, and helped clean up. I think those who came to visit were able to grab hold of that sense of community warmth as well.
Approaching the first service, my biggest anxiety was that it would fall flat and people wouldn't feel like they were taking part. The night before the service I had a dream that everyone walked out before the service was over! We knew that we had to do some things really well in order to create a space for people to feel truly welcomed into worship.
One of the most important ways to do that is through music, so we created a Craigslist ad looking for musicians who were excited to stretch their legs musically and experiment with different styles. We specified that all people were welcome to play in the church, inclusive of sexual orientation and faith journey, which enticed some musicians that have typically felt uncomfortable playing in church. Not having a lot of money to offer, we compromised on doing rehearsals right before the service; the musicians met each other and began playing for the first time only an hour-and-a-half before the service started. This was nerve-wracking in the preceding days, and during the service, music didn't start and stop exactly on time. However, the group gelled, and the spirit in the music ended up being a highlight for everyone there, including the musicians. You could hear it in their playfulness as they worked out a version of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" that riffed on "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5—a joyfully unexpected move!
We also wanted people to involve themselves in the service through the message. We opened with the theme "images of God," and I used a variety of stories and illustrations accompanied by slides of pictures and artwork during the sermon. Following the message, we opened up a talkback time for people to respond to the message and add to it. This was the highlight of the service for me, hearing how the images and stories I had chosen resonated with other people. An adult shared that our retelling of the parable of the sower inspired in him an image of guerrilla gardening; a teenager talked about how the image of God as an artist creating helped to inspire his creative work.
There were several less-than-perfect moments. Following the service, for instance, we had a community meal to get to know one another. Volunteers put together a simple meal of soup, bread, and salad, but, as we went to serve it, we realized that the soup had been left cold during the service. Folks ate salad while we tried to jumpstart heating up the soup, which led to a nicely burned main course! Even so, fellowship happened; we'll sweat the little things next service.
Praxis UCC is now this infant of a church, only days old. While we've taken a year to get to this point, we know that we've only just begun. We're excited to continue our weekly discussion group and plan our next monthly worship service while we plug into service opportunities around Atlanta and build a core community group that will lead us into our next phase. In the meantime, we'll be praying as the church lumbers about, taking its first steps, learning its first words, and growing into the body of Christ.