Alternative worship ‘pops up’ in Portland, Oregon, for Advent

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Dec 12, 2011

[Episcopal News Service] A new church has literally “popped up” in Portland, Oregon, offering alternative and movable worship, an Advent vespers here, an Advent Mass celebrated there – followed by pub conversations nearby.

PopUp Church,” also known as All Souls, debuted Dec. 1 at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Portland with a weekly series of Wednesday evening Advent vespers.

An “experimental outreach,” it has no fixed address or formal membership, but offers a way to stay centered during the harried Advent and pre-Christmas season, said its founder, the Rev. Karen Ward.

“It is a fresh expression of church that includes everybody game to show up, be present and participate. It is for the church-skeptical and church-curious,” added Ward, an associate priest at Sts. Peter and Paul.

She was inspired to develop the concept through British-based fresh expressions of church, and such popular culture icons as mobile food trucks, pop-up local restaurants and even flash mobs, she said.

“It is a new way to do church outreach, with a church that pops up and moves around a city,” she said. Its next scheduled stop is a Dec. 17 Advent Mass at St. David of Wales Church in Portland, and Ward is hoping to include additional offerings in new locations next year.

PopUp Church targets people who “are not sure about church, [who] think church is uncreative and culturally irrelevant, or are fearful of ‘vampire evangelism’ where churches try to grab people under 40 and give them pledge cards and try to rope them into serving on a committee as soon as they walk in the door,” she said.

“People need a safe space in which they can search for God and be found by God,” added Ward, during a recent telephone interview.

Deborah Aronson, a member of Sts. Peter and Paul for little more than a year, said the Dec. 1 startup vespers service became, for her, that safe space and much, much more. “If people knew about this, they would be flocking to it,” she said.

“It felt incredible,” said Aronson, who added that she’d be willing to follow the church to other locations.

“The church was very warm and lightly lit. There was a lot of incense. It was quiet, reverent, it felt like a monastery, very sacred, very quiet, full of reverence. I loved it. I’m going to go for the rest of my life.”

The 6:30 p.m. traditional vespers began in the darkened church chancel with a circle of chairs positioned around the Advent wreath. Candles, a small pot of incense and a Tibetan bell helped to make it “the Anglo-Catholic tradition, but in a more chilled-out, smaller way,” Ward said.

The group pulled the Book of Common Prayer out of the racks to read the psalms, she said. “It’s important to use the actual physical book. I wanted people to have a tactile experience with the tradition.”

The service alternates between silences and slow, deliberate, mindful prayer – “no bells or whistles,” Ward said. “We weren’t hurrying or rushing through the prayers. It’s like instead of gobbling up your food, you eat slowly so you can taste it. We punctuated everything with silence and pauses. We were trying to taste the prayers.”

She also hopes to pull in “tekkies” like herself who yearn to unplug and experience contemplative silence.

“I’m a technological geek — my family is me, my iPad, MacBook and iPhone,” she said. “That’s the family portrait at my house. I own 35 web addresses but when I go to church I don’t need technology. I’m looking for peace, a spiritual connection to God, mystery. The point is how can we have an authentic encounter with God and with one another.”

After the Dec. 8 vespers Julia Lake, 51, joined the conversation at a local pub, The Observatory. For Lake, a mid-week evening service has helped keep the focus on the reason for the season. But she hopes the PopUp offerings extend past Advent and into the new year “because they’re so creative. I’ve really enjoyed this.”

Ward hopes to build upon initial attendance at the vespers through word of mouth, adding that the ministry “will grow in its own time, by being faithful and being present,” she said. “We’re at week two. I’m happy with the progress so far. There are 30 people who’ve signed onto the website.”

The Rev. Kurt Neilson, rector of Sts. Peter and Paul said the concept “has got a lot of energy.” He compared it to local mobile Portland restaurants offering specialized meals, like Korean tacos, that develop a following, then tweet their various locations “and if you’re into it, you follow them.”

Similarly, it will take time for a core group of PopUp Church-goers to coalesce, he said during a recent telephone interview. “The intent is to create a worshipful atmosphere that is very open, inviting and utterly welcoming and nonthreatening, primarily to the unchurched or the de-churched, although we find that our members like these services too.”

Whenever Ward discusses PopUp church she is approached by two or three baby-boomer parents of grown children who invite her to talk to their children about fresh expressions of church, she said.

“What we tell our own people on our website and e-mail [listserv] is that, ‘hey, if your son or granddaughter or nephew hasn’t darkened the door for a long time, send their name over so we can send them an e-vite [electronic invitation]. It’s worked, to a modest extent.”

Ward said she decided to “take a leap of faith” and create the ministry after moving three months ago to Portland from Seattle, where in 2002 she founded Church of the Holy Apostles, a young Episcopal and Lutheran fresh-expressions congregation.

“I needed a place to be creative and to connect culture and God and the Gospel in new ways and find energy,” said Ward. She’d barely unpacked her U-Haul boxes when she put up a website, acquired a Facebook page and a Twitter account “and talked to folks I met, one at a time, about the new church, so hopefully it will grow by word of mouth and social media.”

She hopes to hold other PopUp services at other churches throughout the diocese and possibly to eventually host them in alternative locations.

St. David of Wales Church in Portland is the next stop for the PopUp Church, said the Rev. Sara Fischer, rector.

An Advent Mass is set for 5 p.m. Dec. 17 as “an experiment,” said Fischer. “We’re very excited to host the event,” she added.

“The liturgy is going to be very orthodox and lovely. It’s not going to be some kind of completely different out-there liturgy,” she said.

She hopes it will catch on. “It would be fun if what came out of it [the mass] is people saying ‘ooh, let me know when the next one is’ and … it spreads in a viral way.”

— The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.


Comments (10)

  1. The Rev. Henry Galganowicz says:

    Bravo! terrific, out of the box idea!

  2. Lynn Marini says:

    Praise God we need more ways to reach the uncertain, the fearful, & who have bad experiences in another church.
    We do a “Blue Christmas” service for all in the community who have unhappy memories of Christmas or…..

  3. Dave Clayton says:

    I see all kinds of possibilities here…and I’m 62. Young people want to experience things on their own terms and definitely don’t like being pressured or pushed into participating. I know I would participate. Provide the opportunity and the Holy Spirit will do the work.

  4. Janis Galvin says:

    I am hoping to be accepted as a novice for the diaconate in the Diocese of Massachusetts. I very much love “alternative” worship. This sounds so exciting and fantastic. At this time I visit a Methodist Church mid-week for Prayer and Praise. It is a very spontaneous service, a reading, prayers, reflection and lots and lots of music. On alternate Fridays, there is “The Link” which was created to “link” the youth to God and church and to get a re-charge during the week. I love it. Keep up the good work!!

  5. Rev. Charles Uhlik says:

    This is an awesome article!! Every diocese should have a priest & deacon to go and take a new and fresh liturgy to other congregations or other secular locations who can not afford them (musicians, tech. skills, style, substance) to use our liturgy to invite people on the fringes.

  6. Annie Boardman says:

    Maybe I’m dense, but I’ve read the article a couple of times and gone to the link “PopUp Church” and don’t see what it is. I’ve had friends who camp using a “pop-up” camper for sleeping, so “pop up” has an image I don’t think is accurate for this? The photo w/ the article has people sitting around tables that look like tables at a “cafeteria” at a shopping mall, but it’s not clear if that’s taken at the service or the fellowship eating out later…..

    I’m curious, just not following what PopUp Church means.

    1. The Rev. Gillian Barr says:

      @Annie: It’s “Pop-up” as in the seasonal stores that “pop-up” temporarily in otherwise vacant storefronts before Hallowe’en and Christmas. Those stores like the “Spirit!” Hallowe’en places that are just there for a month, or the “Christmas decorations and New Years calendars” stores that only exist Oct-Dec. Or the temporary restaurants that well-known chefs, who have a following but currently aren’t working a regular gig, set up in a vacant kitchen space w/ a very short-term lease. Those are called “pop-up” stores and restaurants. They’re not tied to a location, but more to a season or an experience. So this is “pop-up” church.

  7. David Ketola says:

    I am very intrigued by this church. Bravo go coming up with a fresh way to provide a space where people can connect with God and each other.

  8. Dr. Wilberforce Mundia says:

    I love it, love it love it. My colleague in Ministry just forwarded me this article and I loved reading it. The most important thing the article and the concept of “Pop Up” church reminds me is that we need to have a wide, wide variety of ways of letting people worship. We must not be prisoners to any one place or style of worship. And, whatever else we do, we should not understate how the Lord is also speaking to and with those who come to our traditional places of worship. Finally, we must also pray that God will do God’s work in people’s lives. Part of what worries me is that we may be tempted to make these “outreach” efforts the work of human ingenuity. Pray, pray, pray that God will touch God’s people wherever they are. Pray, pray, pray that God will teach us ways of reaching humanity. It is not human cleverness that will spread the Good News. It is the power of the Holy Spirit. Pray.

  9. Tlhe Rev. Robert A. Terrill says:

    Now we’re beginning to get somewhere with the notion of a pop up church. The latest report to Executive Council on church membership and average Sunday attendence decline was depressing and devastating to read. It is time to do something different, and if a pop up church is one way of doing it, bravo, brava and bravit. We have long bemoaned our downward trends without doing much about it. How about now tackling the thorny issue of a theology of the church that is based on scripture and the early church. Personally, I like the idea of the church model in the British Isles prior to the coming of the Latin Church. In that model there were elements of traveling bishop/presbyters and abbot/bishop monastic communities. They were flexible, moveable, and dynamic. In the monastic model the abbot was the supervisor and the bishop was the pastor. In the New Testament model bishop/prebyters served local communities that worshiped in homes and synagogues. Certainly now the diocesan models we have today. Perhaps we need to reduce the House of Bishops, combine dioceses, let presbyters confirm, continue to support canon 9 priests, open up “pop up” and storefront churches, and NOT WORRY SO MUCH ABOUT REAL ESTATE. Then guess what, the price of doing business goes down while the opportunities for ministry evangelism go up. Do this and expand electronically. And, pray for the church. The Executive Council report cries out for it.

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