Though I didn’t publish it until now, this was the first article I ever wrote about our church plant. As I reviewed it, I’m astonished at how much has changed in just a few short months. We have tweaked and re-tweaked our service during that time to what flows best, and we’ve settled on a worship leader who’s helped us put in place a solid team of musicians. Most of all, the church has been growing slowly but steadily, and we can say that as of September 2017, we have a solid stream of consistent attendees that have, either by verbal proclamation, or by their weekly appearance, made Epiphany their home church. Because of that, relationships have blossomed, and are continuing to grow. We even have more weekly community groups popping up. Finally, the Gospel continues to be poured out to all, in word, song, and sacrament. I am extremely thankful to be a part of this mission, and look forward to the future. I hope you enjoy this glimpse into our recent past, and that it encourages you to see that God still builds His church:
It was utterly glorious.
Sunday, April 2nd, 2017, Epiphany Lutheran Church held our very first ever weekly church service. It was a phenomenal time of worship and fellowship as the jazzy sounds of hymns and other songs poured out from our open church doors. We nearly reached capacity in this old historic Lutheran church we rented. So many friends from all over came to see us off on this endeavor. Even the Pastor’s first mentor flew in to celebrate. This old building probably hadn’t seen this kind of activity in a long while. Talking to some of the congregants that attend this church’s morning service, many are excited to see this much activity, and are hopeful for our success. They want to see this property continue to be used for God’s glory. It only encourages us more to know, that while going forward to draw new people to God with the message of grace found in the Gospel, we have the encouragement of those that have come before us, and did the original work to plant a congregation here.
The next week, Sunday, April 9th, felt a bit different. The hymns and other songs in their jazzy renderings still sounded like sweet music. They still poured out into the NYC air from our perpetually open doors. Except, this week, the melody weaved past a few more empty rows before it found its freedom in the streets. The message of grace was still heard, but only by a few dozen ears instead of scores. Sins were still absolved, and people were still strengthened by the body and blood, though the Pastor and I would agree, not nearly enough heard the words, “you are forgiven”, and we had far too much of the elements left over. The service ended, and we still had conversations with our neighbors in the seats around us. With a smaller crowd, those conversations lasted a bit longer, and maybe even went a little deeper. That’s actually a good thing.
Among the jobs I take on in the church while I wait for more workers to join our ranks, is that of a greeter and usher. For better or worse, I am the first face you see. I take that seriously, but not too seriously. Unlike the job in a more traditional setting, a greeter in the city can literally be standing on a Manhattan sidewalk, waiting to greet our members, returning visitors, and newcomers. That means we see much more foot traffic going past our open doors than most churches might see in a more suburban setting. It’s partly one of the reasons to keep the doors open, and have that music flow out into the streets. People are curious, and they do stop to take a peek and listen. It opens up opportunities for conversation. Though probably strange for a Manhattan sidewalk, a simple hello to someone walking by usually provokes a similar response, and again, maybe further conversation. This is part of what I do.
Still, I have to admit to feeling a bit disappointed this second offical Sunday. As the clock ticked closer to our time of service, it was clear that we wouldn’t have the multitudes that we had last week come in. Even the majority of bystanders I came across appeared distracted with music, phone calls, and other things enough to walk by without a glimpse our way. During the service, I did glance back and noticed a few curious people stopping long enough to take a peek in, but overall, it felt as if the wind went out of our sails, or at least mine. I know we were expecting something like this. We knew the second week’s attendance would be considerably smaller in size for a variety of reasons. At one point, many of us started playing the home version of “The Price Is Right”, guessing closest to see how many people might actually show up. I was optimistic, so you can be sure I didn’t win.
After this Sunday, it was easy for me to understand why some churches use a more “attractional” model to draw people in. We are addicted to success, but not just success, immediate success. Validation for some, comes in the form of a constant increase in numbers week after week. To get that, some churches offer, quite literally, the world. They tailor a service made for people in, and of the world. I suppose that might be ok, if the thrust of the messages once there, were the gospel of grace week in and week out. But, it usually isn’t. In order to attract people and keep them, the messages are geared towards self-improvement or self-salvation. Jesus is the guy to get you to that next level in your life. They rarely learn that Jesus is the guy who gives his life for us, and that we need a daily reminder of this because of how often we fail at “next level” living. So these messages draw people in, and maybe even fill the seats, and when they do that, the vision-casting leader can claim some great success, even as he fails to lead people into the truth of the gospel, which again is, that we constantly need to be reminded of how often Christ covers our best attempts at self-improvement and self-salvation.
In light of all of these things, I have to strain vigorously to remember not to place pressure on myself or others for the success of this church plant. In fact, even as I write this I am reminded that with our second official week in the books, we were already bigger than our weekly church service. We already were a Tuesday evening community group “Church” of 10-15 people, and sometimes more, many of whom can’t make it to church on Sunday evening. We already were a monthly question and answer “Church” of another 10 or so people, who come and share a meal in an environment that feels comfortable enough to ask any question, and discuss any topic. We already were a college ministry “Church”, as our Pastor acts in the capacity of chaplain for some of the local NYC colleges. We can say our church is all these things, because all of these things have seen the reward of relationships, and through those relationships, we have seen people step through the doors of our church. By God’s grace and will, we’ll continue to forge ahead, develop relationships and see more come to learn intimately of God’s grace.
So here we are. Epiphany Lutheran, second week and counting. We don’t have pallet walls in the background, with blue stage lights and mist machines for people to come in and see how cool we look. Some people would probably pass us by anyway, just because it says “Lutheran.” But then… there are the others. They come through all the different ways I listed, and more. Sometimes, they come before service starts, because a young toddler leads them in inquisitively, wanting to hear more of the music being practiced. That actually happened. Sometimes, it’s doing children’s ministry in the outdoor church courtyard surrounded by apartment buildings, and having a curious watcher shout down and say, “How great that is! Maybe I’ll bring my child.” That also happened. Sometimes, it’s a random couple walking by asking for prayer for their loss. Not only do they get that prayer, it’s followed by a warm embrace. That was my own experience. When they come, for whatever reason, they are encouraged to stay. If they stay, they will find a message that reminds them constantly of God’s love for them. They are told regularly that God forgives them. They are reminded, that they can be a mess sometimes, a really bad mess, and still be loved by God. They are finding out that Christianity is not about how much you do for God, but how much God has done for you.
This is what we have to offer. It is Gospel-centered. It is Cross-centered. It is Christ-centered. It is the hope of the entire world, and it’s for me, it’s for you, and it’s for them.
I’m not going to lie. I’m nervous. This church-planting, which I’ve been asked to be a part of, is a huge deal. I desperately want it to succeed, but sometimes it can be hard to see that possibility up ahead. I saw what it could be on our first Sunday, and I saw the closer reality, on the very next Sunday. But I’m reminded of Psalm 127:1, the scripture my Pastor rests on as we go forward. He’s seen this play out over and over again as he’s moved forward with this church plant, and continues to trust God for the future. I ask that God help me do no less than that, as I move forward as a helper, willing to do whatever’s needed, knowing God will do as he pleases. Knowing what pleases him is drawing people to himself.
Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. – Psalm 127:1
I ask for your prayers and support for the future as the work that God is doing here at Epiphany continues.
If you’d like to know more about our church, our pastor, maybe listen to some of his sermons, and read his other writings, check out our website by clicking the name below. If you’d like to help us out financially, go to the website, and click the menu and when it drops down click on the “GIVE” button.
you can also find us and give via VENMO. Look us up there at @EpiphanyLutheranNYC