The Presbytery of Philadelphia is embracing unconventional congregations as part of its restructuring as a “missional presbytery,” says the Rev. Jeanne Bragdon Radak, the associate executive for congregational ministry.
In an interview with Faith & Leadership, Radak describes the challenges of incorporating the innovative Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia into the existing denominational structure. She talks about working with the Rev. Bill Golderer at Broad Street Ministry and the ways the presbytery is working with existing churches to help turn their focus outward into their communities as part of its overall missional plan.
Q: What’s your take on Broad Street Ministry?
I think they’re pretty cool. Bill [Golderer] has a way of having a vision and really being able to articulate that vision where other people can see it. You can have vision, but if no one else understands, it doesn’t really go anywhere.
Here’s a ministry of hospitality, a homeless ministry, an arts ministry. They’re also feeding people and having Bible study and worship. It’s a ministry of relationships, which I think is the direction the church has to go. It can no longer be about focusing on yourself. The church has to be about connecting people and catching that vision of what God’s calling us to do. I think Broad Street Ministry is a model of the direction the church has to go in the future.
Q: The relationship between the presbytery and Broad Street hasn’t always been smooth. Why?
Because this was so new, it didn’t fit into anybody’s model. No one knew what to do with it. I think there was a lot of feeling each other out. This is new territory for both the presbytery side and the Broad Street side. There needed to be some relationship building back and forth. I think between Bill and Erika [Funk, Broad Street’s youth initiative minister] and me and other members of the presbytery staff, we have been building those relationships and trying to figure out how we all do this together. The trustees also weren’t quite sure what to do -- are they [members of the Broad Street community] like tenants renting our building, or are they a ministry of the presbytery? That conversation was going back and forth. Finally, the acting general presbyter asked me, “Would you talk to them and figure this out?”
Presbyterians like everything so neat and boxed up. We were able to start going back and forth: What are we going to call this thing? Do we need to name this thing?
We developed a whole new category totally outside the Book of Order: the missional faith community. That’s “missional,” as in being sent out by God. They’re being sent out into the neighborhood to build relationships with the people God has sent them to.
We put something together and tried to make the Book of Order fit where necessary. We went to the presbytery in January  with the missional faith community guidelines. They had a couple of questions and we received them as a missional faith community. These are guidelines. Although Broad Street is a model we’re working from, we want to encourage others to be able to try something new.
We want to make room for emerging ministries. Now we have chartered churches, new church developments, immigrant faith communities, community ministries and missional faith communities. The idea is: How do we become a presbytery that welcomes all the people of God, not just those who fit in our categories? If we want churches to be welcoming, we need to figure out the ways to model that.
Our whole model now is not: How do churches support the presbytery? But: How do we get it so the presbytery supports congregations? It’s the congregations who are in the neighborhoods, being sent out. We want them to be missional, to discern where God is calling them and go outside their doors and reach the people that God has called them to. Broad Street Ministry is the perfect example of that.
It isn’t about you; it’s about where God is calling you. I see our presbytery leadership really turning that way. We need to be working toward this.
Q: Who influenced whom? Is the presbytery changing in response to Broad Street, or is it the other way around?
The movement of the presbytery toward being a missional presbytery started before Broad Street did. (Click here for more information about the presbytery’s redesign of its strategy, structure and staff.) It was still in the developmental stage. It’s the movement of the whole church. It just happens that Broad Street and the presbytery are moving along the same lines.
We’re motivated by the broader conversation. The world has changed, but the church hasn’t changed. How do we change to meet the changing world? The way we did things in the ’50s and ’60s...unfortunately, a lot of churches haven’t realized that era is over. There’s an awakening of the whole conversation of the church.
So we ran parallel. We were on the same path at the same time. It’s really [part of] the whole missional church conversation that’s been going on for the past 15 to 20 years. I think it’s really taking the church back to its early days.
Q: How are some of your churches reinventing themselves to be more missional?
We have been a missional presbytery for a little over two years. We thought: Now that we’re a missional presbytery, we have to have missional churches. We have 20-some churches in a three-year discernment process to create cultural change, to reach out and build relationships.
They’re not reinventing themselves; they’re looking at how they discover where God is calling them and how they get to that place. A couple have discovered that their missional challenge was youth. There were youth all around them but no youth in their church. It’s how to connect to that community that surrounds them. Who are our partners and who are we?
Recruiting churches to the first [group of churches] was worse than pulling teeth. People were skeptical. We got nine churches, and a couple of them honestly are doing it because they’re desperate. They’re going to die. A couple -- I thought it would never work for them. I was so wrong. These churches have really grown, not necessarily numerically, but in a new understanding of who they are as community and in their own personal faith. One church got up at our meeting and said, “I know this is not about church growth, but we took in five new members,” and this was a church with 22 members. They hadn’t taken in five new members in seven years. Another took in 14 new members in one year -- this is one that hasn’t taken in 14 new members in probably 14 years.
Q: If you’re hoping to save churches from dying, why isn’t it about the numbers?
It’s always going to be about numbers -- but it’s asking the question past that. It’s not: Did you take in new members this year? It’s: Why, and what did you learn from that? For me, it’s the constant reflection on where is God in this? Who are we reaching? Who are we connecting? What are the relationships? Who’s coming? Is it just the homeless? No, it's [also] the guy who works at City Hall. It’s street people and people in suits who are connecting to each other.
Are God’s people learning from each other? Are we doing what we’re called to do? That’s success -- when you can say yes to that.