A World of New Connections

Kaji Dousa ’06 M.Div.

I had never seen my church like this before. It was Saturday morning, and artisans and shopkeepers clustered throughout the space. Some were seated on the floor with makeshift picnics, on blankets, their children crawling about, banging things, while others stood and watched the band.

Some of our regular folk were in the kitchen, getting things ready for Sunday. No one in the packed room was over 40. I thought: This is church.

Many of us talk about church as a place to seek God’s inspiration, a way to connect “the world’s need with our gifts.” Until now, I have spent my career trying to place people in the church, connecting them to existing ministries or committees. There is holiness in this work, I believe, particularly when there is a match.

Often, there is no good match, and these manufactured connections do not stick. The energy fades or shifts elsewhere. Much of my experience has been taken up forcing a connection. This is not something I do any longer.

A New Calculus

One recent Saturday, we had a room full of artisans, hipsters, mostly young women with young children, an elusive demographic. They have lots of demands on their life, and church does not always make their list.

But they wanted to be together – enterprising young women trying to make ends meet for their families, starting part-time cottage businesses, seeking local markets, sharing their passions. Working full-time would make childcare cost-prohibitive. I get this. Half of my income goes to childcare. The calculus just doesn’t work for most families.

So these entrepreneurs started their small businesses in the free time after the babies were fed and put to bed. They felt solidarity. But work done in the wee hours is work done alone. When one local business offered this opportunity for them to connect, they needed a place to assemble. Enter our church.

We had not envisioned this, but making a space for the vocation of others is very much ministry. And this group of artisans, after a few meetings, got to know the space of the church as their own. Many of them now come to regular church events – like our monthly babywearing support event that pulls in dozens of young moms, or our bi-weekly breastfeeding support group. Or they find my office, or the church’s office, where a number of them seek help in a life crisis.

Recently, I started offering these families free marriage support sessions. Many face struggles but without the money for professional marriage counsel. So in exchange for up to six sessions with me, I ask them to volunteer up to six hours on Sunday mornings around worship time.

In this unpredictable, unplanned way our church has become a home for young moms and their families. And, little by little, a good number of them have been visiting us on Sunday mornings for worship. But church membership or Sunday attendance cannot be our end game.

What I have learned is that we have to understand each connection point as holy. We cannot call ourselves hospitable if our goal is to get them to church on Sunday. We have to realize their gatherings invite the Spirit of God with as much authenticity as any other church meeting. Just because it is new, just because it does not carry the familiar brand, does not make it something other than church.

Many of my colleagues would hold such ministries in suspicion. But we can analyze and complain all we want as we weep and close another church. Or we can help church help people in new ways and honor that as holy. And somehow see that as church.

What makes it church? Here’s what I know: Jesus improved lives. He interrupted them, he changed them, he made things better. Sometimes people disrupted the disciples’ urgent time with Jesus. They showed up with needs. They did not have a proper appointment or follow protocol. But Jesus did not put them off. He did not require that they come back during office hours or at Sunday morning worship time. He met them without qualification.

As disciples, we seek to do the same, united in a spirit of love. The shape of that abiding love is active, morphing, growing, full of impact, improving lives. That is our mission.

Kaji Dou˘sa ’06 M.Div. has been senior minister at The Table (United Church of Christ of La Mesa, CA) since 2013. A former Beatitudes Fellow, she previously served churches in Minnesota, New York, and New England, and has been on various national boards of the UCC.