If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred times: “We don’t do church the same old way here.” It seems to be a statement memorized by most aspiring church planters and trumpeted with pride from the stage. You know, the stage—the same stage with the same artsy decor, led by the same cool white guy pastor with skinny jeans, Warby Parkers and a bit of scruff just before he launches into the same Sunday morning programming.
Now, none of this is bad. In fact, a lot of it is really good. Churches can accomplish a lot using tried-and- true models, and utilizing tested programming isn’t necessarily laziness—it might be called smart.
So where are the churches truly doing something different? We wanted to highlight some trailblazing faith communities rethinking what church can look like in a modern context, whether in terms of how they engage their members, how they reach out to their communities or how they champion justice. Some of them are big and well-funded, some of them are small and struggling, but all of them are setting a new bar for what church can be.
1. Connecting Immigrant Families
Naco Christian Church / Iglesia Cristiana de Naco: Naco, AZ
Naco Christian Church is one church with one pastor in two different locations—with a large, taxpayer-funded fence between them. The church is just a few blocks from the Mexican border and offers services on both sides of it. There’s an early-morning service in Naco, Arizona, followed by one just across the border in Naco, Mexico, later in the day.
The church is pastored by Jesse Wood, while his wife Jessica works as the church’s children’s coordinator. They’re a binational couple, making them uniquely fit to lead a church that serves two different cultures. And the church is no gimmick. By operating close to the border, Naco Christian Church is a lifeline between children and their parents who’ve been deported back to Mexico.
2. Creating a Community Hub
Impact Church: Atlanta, GA
Impact Church’s slogan is “Doing Church Differently,” and they’ve worked hard to earn it by creating a church that puts more focus on the other six days of the week than they do on Sunday mornings. With Pastor Olu Brown at the helm, Impact has become one of the fastest-growing churches in the United States, and they’ve done it all while maintaining a commitment to improving the lives of their congregants inside and outside their walls.
In addition to offering Bible studies, Impact fosters communities to teach things like financial responsibility, dating advice and even estate planning.
The next stage in their journey is refurbishing a warehouse into an eco-friendly space that will serve not just as a church, but also a sort of community center. The new space will feature hygiene centers for Atlanta’s homeless population, after-school programs for area youth, office space to serve as incubators for startup businesses, a community garden and creative programming and coding classes.
3. Leaving the Building
We are Church: San Francisco, CA
In 2013, famed author Francis Chan stepped away from his huge church platform to try something very different: a church planting network with no building, no overhead and minimal structure. It’s called We Are Church, and it’s made up entirely of small communities that meet in homes. The rules are straightforward: Each home has two unpaid pastors and members are placed within a church in their local communities.
With no building costs and no paid staff, the entirety of church tithes and donations can be spent on charitable work, missions, relief aid and other causes the various house churches find meaningful. There’s also less fear of trying something new or different, since there’s so little overhead and, therefore, virtually zero financial risk.
4. Championing Nonprofits
Crossover Bible Church: Tulsa, OK
Crossover Bible Church isn’t just a church; it’s a nonprofit organization. Actually, it’s four nonprofit organizations, a dream brought to reality by two men in two different fields who found their visions overlapped. The Rev. Philip Abode was a pastor who wanted to plant a church in North Tulsa that would have a real impact on the impoverished area. He met up with Justin Pickard, a Harvard graduate who had a vision of a housing and economic revival in North Tulsa. The two realized they could do more together than separate, and out of that partnership Crossover Bible Church and its affiliate Crossover Community Impact was born.
Crossover Community Impact operates four different LLCs (limited liability companies). There’s Crossover Sports Association, which runs after-school sports programs. There’s a family medical clinic
called Crossover Health Services. There’s a housing development nonprofit called Crossover Development Company, and Crossover Preparatory Academy, a private, tuition-free all-boys school. By minimizing the scope of their reach (if you’re going to work for the church, you have to live in the neighborhood—no exceptions), Crossover has deepened the extent of their impact.
5. Taking Aim at Racism
Quest Church: Seattle, WA
Eugene Cho was already a rising pastor, author and speaker when the aging, mostly white congregation of Interbay Covenant Church agreed to merge with the young, mostly Asian-American congregation of Quest Church, gifting them a large, upscale debt-free building in the process. The church had the usual generational bickering at first—arguments over the volume of the music and the type of food served at potlucks—but what’s emerged is a new vision for a multi-ethnic church in the United States, one that transcends nominal lip service to “diversity” to offer a truly radical integrated community of people who depict something that more closely approximates what the actual body of Christ might look like rather than the usual homogeneous lineup.
The church has doubled down on its focus on combating racism since the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Cho was deeply moved by the death of Mike Brown and what he perceived as the Christian Church’s lack of compassion about the realities of systemic racial injustice in modern America.
6. Housing Dallas’ Homeless
Church of the Incarnation: Dallas, TX
This Anglican church has been around for a long time, but its approach to ministering to one of Texas’ larger cities has remained cutting edge for every one of its more than 100 years. Under the leadership of the Rev. Anthony J. Burton, the church has set the bar for what it looks like for a church to take Jesus’ concern for the homeless to heart.
Whether it’s volunteering at a nearby home for the low-income
elderly or cooking hot meals for a nearby shelter, there are few
ways the Church of the Incarnation isn’t involved in local homeless work. Maybe most notable is their Incarnation House, an area for homeless teens and teens in unstable housing situations. Incarnation House provides a real, concrete place for teenagers without anywhere else to go, and provides them with physical, educational and spiritual resources to take the next step.
Devin Jones is a freelance writer who lives in Denver with his wife and daughter.