This year, members and groups at Grace, from the Vestry on down, have been reading The Agile Church by Dwight Zscheile. I reached for it when I was looking for something that would change the conversation at Grace. We’ve done a lot of good work during my nine-years’ tenure here. We’ve welcomed lots of new members, seen significant growth in our Christian Formation program for children and youth, undertaken the first major renovation and capital campaign in 30 years. We have a task force, “Creating More Just Community” that is focused on issues of racism and inequity and is doing significant advocacy work around criminal justice reform through MOSES and has also formed partnerships with the Madison Jail Ministry.
We could do and must do more. My goals in this process are two-fold: 1) to leverage our location and building to connect with our neighborhood, and especially our neighbors at the State Capitol; and 2) to move beyond our walls and our property and build relationships with our neighbors in places and contexts other than our building. But to do that, we need to think beyond and outside our walls.
The former goal is rather obvious but nebulous and at the same time a potential mine field given the current dynamics in our state and nation concerning the relationship of Christianity and the political sphere. Our Creating More Just Community group is working on it, having reached out to legislators and legislative staff, and through our connections with other groups, we’ve hosted a forum for governors’ candidates, numerous gatherings on criminal justice reform, and are currently hosting the Wisconsin Poor People’s Campaign.
The second goal presents its own set of challenges. While our building and our lovely courtyard garden are an enormous asset. We have, quite literally, the best location in the city, even if we don’t have adequate parking. We are beautiful, visible, and those who enter our spaces, whether it’s the nave or our gardens, experience beauty and transcendence, and a palpable sense of the divine.
We’ve been here for 175 years. Our nave was completed in 1858. It’s the oldest building on Capitol Square; the oldest church in continuous use in Madison. Its stone walls speak of stability, permanence, immobility. What might agility look like in our context?
Today, after our 10:00 service, we had the first of what will likely be a number of conversations about our future, about adapting and innovating our ministry and mission for the next decades. Almost 50 people participated. There were people who have been members of Grace for decades. Others who participated have been attending for only a few months; one person, a neighbor, has attended a few times over the years, but had the courage to join our conversation and to participate.
We heard stories; stories of how people came to Grace; the familiar, and powerful story of how the Men’s Drop-In Shelter came to Grace in 1984, on a one-year trial basis (It’s been here ever since). We heard the story of the food pantry, and of the people, the visionaries who created it and those other visionaries who advocated for the shelter.
We talked about our neighbors–the many 20 and 30 somethings who live in our neighborhood and are looking for community and connection, and looking to help those in need. We talked about the demographic and cultural changes facing Christianity in the US, and Grace Church.
Vilas Guild Hall, constructed in 1894 as a memorial to Cornelia Vilas, was filled with the sound of animated conversation for almost an hour. We didn’t make it through all of the questions I had laid out to guide our conversations but conscious of the time, I began to bring the meeting to a close.
It was at that minute, as I began talking about next steps, about having a welcoming process in place before the fall, that someone stopped me and said, “Let’s get started right now. If you’re interested in forming a welcoming committee, come over to this table after the meeting’s over and we’ll start making plans.”
We have a great deal of work to do. Welcoming visitors is only one of many tasks ahead. We need to get out in the neighborhood, talk with the people who live, work, and play here, to listen to their needs, their passions, and dreams and find a way of connecting their stories with the Good News of Jesus Christ. If we can do that successfully, we will be well on our way to becoming more faithful followers of Jesus and showing others the transforming power of Jesus’ love in their lives and in the world.