Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 1)



Of all the things I’ve experienced in congregations, one of my greatest joys took place during my time in Pasadena.

As part of my doctoral work, I initiated an ethnography project which involved conducting interviews with people from Pasadena Presbyterian Church. After looking through those interviews, a clear theme emerged: There was a desire in that community to be more connected with neighbors in our local area. Most of the people in the church community lived somewhere other than the neighborhood where the church building was located.

And in response to this, we initiated an incredible time of discernment. We assembled a team of people that ranged in age from 24 to 81, and we spent 7 months dreaming about the possibility of creating a new, evening worship community and connecting with neighbors. Let me just say. . . doing something like this changes you. The process invited our relationships to deepen in such meaningful ways. Our discernment team became so close. This was never an opportunity for pastoral leaders to do all the visioning alone, then invite others on board. We were a team of people from different generations and life experiences. Millennials, Boomers, Silent Generation. . . . Pastors, Immigrants, Musicians. . . It was a powerful time together.

Then, in October 2012, we launched this new community into the world. We began worshiping on Sunday nights. Folks from the neighborhood began to wander into our service, and it was a joy to get to know them. Some then began to claim the community as their own. Then they began to participate in its leadership.

Here’s the thing our discernment team decided from the beginning: The teaching, preaching, praying, and planning of this community would not be led solely or even primarily by ordained staff leaders. Instead, we invited members of the church, then later, members of the neighborhood to lead in these ways.

And I tell you what, it changed me. It was powerful.

Sometimes, I did teach, preach, and pray, but my primary role as a pastoral leader was to empower the community. If I or we didn’t plan well enough in advance, I would occasionally jump in too readily. But when we kept a vision for full participation and full empowerment at the center, it was so life-giving! I watched people blossom as they discovered gifts for speaking, teaching, and preaching. I witnessed the joy of people telling their life stories and making-meaning with them in community. One person came alive in the invitation to set up the worship space. She always showed up early for it. Later, she started writing prayers, and she was so grateful to share those with the community.

And friends, I have to say that now, I would not want this any other way. I believe in a horizontal vision for church. A non-heirarchical, fully participatory, empowering vision for church. I’ve seen what it can do.

After leaving Pasadena, it was meaningful for me to continue to follow along. The Evening Worship Community began serving a full meal as well. Neighbors experiencing homelessness then became a part of that community too, receiving a vital need, but in addition, they also began to help lead it.

Horizontal Church: This changes things!

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about my recent experience in visiting a remarkably horizontal church in Washington D.C.

Renee Roederer

This post is a part of a series. Feel free to check out the other pieces too:

This Week: Horizontal Church
Horizontal Church: Who Speaks, Prays, and Preaches? — Why?
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 2)
Horizontal Church: The Priesthood of All Believers and Collective Organizing
Horizontal Church: Accountability
Horizontal Church: Christian Education

8 thoughts on “Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 1)

  1. “There was a desire in that community to be more connected with neighbors in our local area. Most of the people in the church community lived somewhere other than the neighborhood where the church building was located.” This is exactly what our congregation strives to do. Thanks for the affirmation!


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