Reimagining Church

Thriving Congregations Initiative: New Models for the 21st Century

Embracing Possibility

David Potter

We live in a moment of possibility.

For nearly two full years, COVID-19 has shaped our reality. At first, like many, I thought of Pandemic Time as something of a collective pause: to examine social structures, to surface and tell untold histories, to reckon with worn out ways of being. But in the many long-yet-exceptionally-swift months since, I have become more acutely aware of the ways in which we are actively undergoing transformation. Life-as-once-known isn’t just on “pause”—it is a life-once-was.

The way we were then is not the way we are now.

And our communities are not the same places they were in pre-pandemic times. How we gather and how we share meals and how we sustain connection and how we find belonging and how we hold ourselves and one another together amid the constant existential swirling: it’s all just… different.

But perhaps, just maybe, this can be a good thing.

Because if we're honest, who we have been as a nation, as Church, as neighbors, has rarely ever lived up to aspirations. While the pandemic has presented new challenges and dynamically shaped the substance of our lives, in many ways it has merely exposed threadbare patches in our social fabric in need of some long overdue mending.

In all of this, now, here in this evolving historical moment, the Church has a critical task: Can we sing the Lord’s song—even here? What does proclamation of Christ’s unbinding love look like in this 21st century post-pandemic reality?

I’m grateful for the opportunity to engage these questions this year alongside a dynamic congregation. So, at the outset of this journey, I’ll just briefly introduce myself and the congregation I will be accompanying.

At present, I am a third-year M.Div. student at Yale Divinity School. I am also in formation for ordained ministry through the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (DC) and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. My studies have focused on practical theology and my sense of vocation is oriented toward social healing and contemplative activism.

Though I’ve relocated a handful of times, my roots are in the Midwest.

It is the place where I first inherited a sincere faith and was shaped to consider the holistic expression of a life marked by principled and conviction. A few decades, a handful of conversion moments later, and I’m equipped with insights from worshipping in and being nourished by a broad spectrum of Christian traditions.

Some of those opportunities included pseudo-Pentecostal Evangelicalism, institutionalized intentional community, mainline multi-culturalism, progressive interdenominational experimentation, thumping kickdrums and fog machines, and sweet smells and bells. I’m grateful to have been formed by the multifaceted ways of being Church together and I'm excited to bring those experiences with me as a Reimagining Church facilitator.

The Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James—affectionally known as “St. PJ’s”—is a vibrant, diverse church in the Wooster Square neighborhood of New Haven, CT. It is a faith community well equipped to engage the challenges of this present moment.

St. PJ’s is a community familiar with hybridity:

St. Paul’s was built in 1829 and shortly thereafter began extending its ministry through missional formation and support of new parishes elsewhere in the city. Later in the 1990’s, the congregation of St. James the Apostle in Westville—after selling its own building—merged with the church and together they formed St. PJ’s. This same ethos continues as the congregation increasingly becomes a place of multi-cultural community and belonging.

St. PJ’s exemplifies rich history held together with living faith:

While gathered and deeply rooted in a historic location, St. PJ’s ministry is one of innovative and life-giving creativity, as exemplified in its weekly jazz Eucharist liturgy. While undertaking necessary efforts to preserve the beauty of historic stained glass, the congregation has also recently undergone transformation to its worshipping space; new hardwood floors and a mix of chairs and pews with rolling castors has equipped the congregation to offer large, open gathering space to the surrounding community.

St. PJ’s is a community of agile, dynamic, and steadfast faith:

Throughout its history, the congregation has served the city through an abundance of outreach ministries and vital community services like after-school programs, meals, refugee resettlement, and a music school. St. PJ’s has also diligently offered community and belonging to many waves of peoples: from Italian immigrants in the early 20th century to an increased population unhoused persons, and now in anticipation of several hundred condo units soon to be completed.

Indeed, there are countless stories to be told—far too many to hold just here. And this is precisely the core of my excitement for this project: storytelling.

I think of Reimagining Church as an invitation to consider the question ‘what, how, and who have we been and where are we going next?’ Or, rather, ‘what stories have shaped us and what is the story we must tell in this moment?’

Those who know me well are likely all-too-familiar with my steadfast-wavering conviction that this is a time of social transformation.

And in case you’re wondering, that wasn’t a typo in the last sentence: in holding steadfast to deep hope for the not yet, I do so with a healthy degree of trepidation formed by what I see already. The work of imagination is joy, laughter, and play—and it is also the realm of risk, courage, and uncertainty. Imagination ought to make knees waver and buckle.

This is a moment of possibility not just because we are collectively primed for change—but because it is a Kairos moment. We are in a time of transformation because Spirit is working through disruption and uncertainty; from chaos (or at least what often feels like chaos) we are being drawn further into beloved community.

This is the work of the Church, and of this project of Reimagining Church.

It is the same labor of love the Jesus Way has always toiled over throughout its history: proclaim and embody good news—even when—especially when—there is great evidence to the contrary.