Presbyterians Today

FEB-MAR 2018

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6 FEBRUARY/MARCH 2018 | Pr e s by te r i a n s To d ay EXPLORING OUR DIFFERENCES | Richard Hong Idolizing our worship spaces Fire forces congregation into a future full of hope I t shouldn't take a pastoral transition or a financial emer- gency — or a fire — to compel us to ask hard questions about what we can do now to improve our ministries. Too often, though, we don't confront the possibilities for change until we are forced to. On March 22, 2016, five days before Easter, a three- alarm fire tore through the historic sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Englewood in New Jersey. For the next few months, we worshiped at a local Reform synagogue and in the auditorium of a private school. By August 2016, we had remediated the smoke and water damage that had permeated every inch of the remainder of our facility. We returned "home" to worship in what used to be our church's gym. Today, we are still in the gym and have noticed some- thing interesting. In all of this time that we have not been in our traditional sanctuary, we have been growing. Worship attendance was up 6 percent in 2017. Plans are underway for building a new sanctuary that will probably be completed in 2020. We are mindful, though, that as we rebuild, we need to confront three critical questions: What are we about? Our values statements are: Live boldly. Share boundlessly. Grow community. Build God's world. The biggest danger that I felt we faced was that rebuilding would distract us from our core mission. We were determined to stay focused on being the church, not building one. We named our fire recovery effort "Spark Hope" — for the fire would propel us forward. We con- tinued mission trips and mission giving. We refused to believe that we could not continue to grow in the meantime. We act (almost) as if nothing happened. We continue to attract newcomers who sometimes don't even know there had been a fire. What is the sanctuary's role? Our previous sanctu- ary was beautiful, but so beautiful it was imposing. As the first church in our town, founded in 1860, our building is a highly visible landmark. We determined that the exterior of the building should be returned as nearly as possible to what it was. We want to preserve that historic linkage in the community. We have also determined that the interior will not be beholden to the past. The interior must serve our future needs. We have learned that the informality of the gym creates a more relaxed setting that is very attractive. To some degree we are growing not in spite of worshiping in a gym, but because of it. What will future worship look like? Our answer is that we don't know. And because we don't know, we want the design of our new worship space to be flexible. A guiding principle is that we don't want our successors, decades from now, wondering why we locked ourselves into a design that is impeding them. To live into the unknown, we are experimenting now. Our temporary worship space now has a state-of-the-art audiovisual system. We recently launched a morning con- temporary service. We began live-streaming both of our worship services. We have made mistakes. We have put screens and cameras and controls in the wrong places. All of this is a learning experience. Every mistake we make now is a mistake we won't make in the new sanctuary. We also learned that watching worship online is different from being there. We noticed "dead spots" in the worship and adjusted our service to improve the online experience. The late Andy Grove, co-founder of Intel, famously asked, "If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?" Then he reasoned, why not do that? Losing our sanctuary led us to do things that we could have done anyway. You don't need a fire to ask hard questions. The Rev. Richard Hong is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Englewood, New Jersey. DISCUSSION QUESTIONS Imagine waking up and finding that your sanctuary has been emptied onto your lawn. What would you put back? What would you rearrange? What would your order of worship look like if it were designed from scratch? What is your church's core mission? Are you focused on it? Is your building serving you, or are you serving your building? Is your church experimenting for the future?

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