I was happy to see Nanette Sawyer interviewed in a recent issue of The Christian Century (1/23/13). She is the founding pastor of Wicker Park Grace, an innovative ministry with young adults in Chicago. I had the privilege of meeting Nanette on a couple occasions and have read her book “Hospitality–The Sacred Art”. I have found her to be an inspiring voice in new church development.
One day in 2008, I made the 5 hour trip to visit a gathering at Wicker Park, which was not exactly a church. From their website, I knew the address and what time they met; I knew there would be improvisational jazz, and that I should bring some food to share. I brought cherries. When I arrived for the event, I found it informal: different people stood up and read poetry, a home-made video of a justice project was shown, and two brilliant young musicians played. A bound journal was passed around and we all wrote our prayers into it. Although Nanette read and explained the scriptures, there was no formal sermon. Afterward, I shyly hung around for the simple meal. The cherries I brought were praised and shared. Then I drove back home and never saw any of them again.
Except Nanette. I met her again a few weeks later at a conference at Montreat. She invited me to talk about her ministry over a meal one day. I asked her if she thought Wicker Park was a church, or would ever become one. She said something I never forgot: if a church starts a food pantry, we may call it a ministry, but we never expect it to become a “church”. She saw her outreach to young adults as a ministry, but not necessarily as a church. That comment has changed the way I think about new ways we might be the Church–or do ministry– in the future.
Nanette has helped create a ministry by sharing a cup of tea or some poetry or art with people in small groups. She has exposed some young adults to Christian teachings who would never venture into a traditional church. But she does this without drawing attention to herself or her own views. She simply creates the space for people to talk about their faith.
Recently, she began serving half time in a more traditional church and sharing their building with the ten year old Wicker Park ministry, which is now called Grace Commons. My guess is that the shared building use is a way of adapting to keep both ministries more sustainable. The church (St. James Presbyterian) meets on Sunday mornings. Grace Commons meets on Sunday nights. So now, she does both “church” and “ministry”.
What IS the difference between a church and a ministry?
If you are interested in new church planting, a conference called “Church Planters Academy” is being held in Minneapolis in August including leaders like Nanette. You can read about it here.