Reimagining Church

Thriving Congregations Initiative: New Models for the 21st Century

Reimagine with Us

By Katy Webb

Reimagining Church. The phrase could sound a bit scary, right? We like our church, otherwise we would not have joined the congregation or we would not continue coming. First Congregational Church of Madison is a vibrant church with a lot of positives: strong ties to the community, a deep commitment to hospitality toward new and existing members, wonderful music, a beautiful historic building, and great ministerial leadership. Why would we want to reimagine? Why now? In partnership with the Lilly Foundation’s Thriving Congregations Initiative, Yale Divinity School’s Reimagining Church program is addressing the very real issue of church membership decline in the broader culture. Although churches are in decline, we are growing here at FCCM, and we want to build on this growth. The church can be a leader in helping to reconnect and heal our relationships and faith lives, and we want to do what we can as a congregation to contribute to this necessary growth and change.

In this season’s stewardship campaign, our ministers Sarah and Todd Vetter explored the 23rd Psalm through readings, preaching, and activities. We discovered as a congregation the many facets of our “valley of the shadow of death” –– things that cause us concern, fear, pain, and suffering. Topics such as fraying social bonds, loneliness, the continued impact of COVID on our lives, and family issues appeared painted repeatedly upon clouds above us in church, representing things that are plaguing us individuals, as a church family, and within the greater community. Many of us know this church is a place where we are known, welcomed, and can connect with others. Instead of completely reimagining how we function as First Congregational Church of Madison, how can we draw on our strengths as a church community and reimagine deepening our interactions with each other and with the greater community on the Connecticut Shoreline to address these widespread societal issues? How can we work together to be the rainbow that appeared within the clouds, guiding more people to the still waters? 

Jordan Sylar, our former seminarian, Yale Divinity student, and member of our church, has been chosen as a student facilitator in the Yale Divinity initiative Reimagining Church: New Models for the 21st Century. Aimed at senior ministry students and Connecticut-based congregations, this project gives us the opportunity to respond to the changing needs of people in our church and community. A small group of members of FCC has been called together, including Kevin Kane, Carol Robbins, Mary Olson Scudder, and Katy Webb. Through meetings over the past months, this group has discussed the ways that FCC has been a strengthening force in our lives. We have discussed our own dark valleys and connected with each other deeply. We have considered ways that FCC has grown and changed in the past and discussed needs in our communities on the Shoreline. The group has expressed a commitment to a positive framing for what we intend to do, focusing on the actions of neighboring, caring, and connecting. Thus, we have formulated a focus on rebuilding relationships through storytelling, building bonds, and group formation. We have crafted a name for our project –– Relational Life Initiative: Building Sustainable Community –– and we want the congregation’s help. 

As is human nature, we also began to problem solve, considering ways that we might serve to support our community, reinvigorate past programs set aside during COVID, and spin up events and programs to directly address the loneliness and distance we see around us through positive means of encouraging relationships. We know we are not yet at the problem-solving stage, so we are taking this as our sign that it is time to share more information about the grant and hear from our members. We know that this endeavor will not be successful without transparency, open communication, and active engagement with the church. We are planning a luncheon after church on January 22 with First Congregational Church to inform and listen. We hope you will bring questions to consider: What do you think FCC and Madison need? How can we build on the growth that is already happening? How can we partner with existing community groups with weak or new ties to the church to include a wider range of people and issues? 

The grant comes with funds to apply to activities that will help us to determine our needs, engage with the congregation, and pilot some activities. Updates will come in the service through announcements, as short blurbs in the Tuesday Newsday, and through planned activities. Group members of Reimagining Church are also interested in visiting established programs and groups already formed within FCC to discuss topics and observe the good work of supporting each other that we are doing already. 

We are living in unprecedented times with challenges that are inviting us to grow even more. We must also reflect on the new world in which we find ourselves. In a post-pandemic world rife with division and loneliness, we read how community action and yes, church, will bring us back together. How will First Congregational Church of Madison as a congregation answer this call? Join Jordan, Kevin, Carol, Mary, and Katy in our efforts to Reimagine Church.

This blog was written by Katy Webb in collaboration with each working group member and FCCM’s ministers.