Religion News: August 2018

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Jim Jatras and Karen Poehailos at East-West Encounter. Submitted.

East-West Encounter Speakers address the Sanctity of Life

“We have some theological and cultural differences, and we will probably never repair the schism,” said Jim Jatras, one of the featured speakers at the “East-West Encounter” at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church July 13. He was referring to the schism of 1054, which separated the churches of the Christian East from the Christian West. The Encounter, the third one of its kind, is jointly planned by St. Nicholas in Greenwood and St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Charlottesville. 

Jatras, who has had a long career in diplomacy and conservative lobbying, acknowledged that both churches have similar ideas about the sanctity of life. Jatras was one of the key authors of the brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court against Roe vs. Wade, decided in 1972. 

Jatras expects that any reversal of this decision, which mandates states to permit abortion, will result in a number of states making abortion illegal, but it will be a slow process, he said. He outlined the theological underpinnings for the belief of many churches in the inherent humanity of an unborn child at any stage of development. Early philosophers and religious thinkers had much discussion about when “ensoulment” (the time at which a developing body receives a soul) occurs. “Of course, the church fathers were not embryologists,” he said, “but in the end it doesn’t really matter at what point an unborn child is considered to have a soul, since our laws are designed to protect the life of physical bodies.”

Dr. Karen Poehailos of the Pregnancy Centers of Central Virginia spoke about the need for compassion and kindness for women facing unwanted pregnancy. “These women often have terrible stories of abuse and violence,” she said. “I see our role as walking with them through the whole process.” She said she and her staff are committed to treating every woman with dignity, whatever the outcome. “Our compassion is rewarded. We’ve had women walk away, only to come back a second time.”

The Pregnancy Centers, located in Charlottesville, Culpeper and Orange, counsel women on the medical aspects of pregnancy and abortion, and offer medical help during pregnancy, always operating according to the policy that the health of the women is honored, she said. The centers have added treatment for sexually transmitted diseases to their services, and often treat women having complications from abortions. They are now able to reverse the effects of abortion-inducing medication. They have a good relationship with the Charlottesville-Albemarle Health Department, and offer a number of tangible services to women after birth. “But we’re not just a diaper bank for them,” Dr. Poehailos said. “We seek in every way we can to help them respect and take care of themselves.”

Planted: New Churches Take Root in Crozet

Todd Johnson meets Hope Presbyterians at Grit in Old Trail; Walt Davis welcomes Life Journey members from a table in the back of the Mudhouse; Father Joseph Mary Lukyamuzi uses the Crozet Gazette office to council Catholics.  Blake Johnson also uses coffeehouses, and he now has an office to meet Holy Cross Anglicans at the Crozet Baptist Church. For services, these pastors have used parishioners’ houses; their own basements, garages and outbuildings; barns and public buildings.

Todd Johnson

For now, these are men with a church but without a building. They’re church planters, men of God who see themselves collecting like-minded people into a vibrant spiritual community. The humble alternative to the mega-church they offer is growing as a model in today’s world, partly because of the sheer numbers of people who do not practice a religion. Almost three-quarters of the today’s population does not go to church, and even children brought up in a church are not maintaining attendance when they become adults. According to Christianity Today, most of the growth in religious attendance is happening with new, smaller churches. And unlike the gigantic churches with huge budgets that have an array of programs to attract followers, planted churches rely on their very smallness to meet the needs of their members. 

Christian Schwarz, an author who writes about the changing composition of religious bodies,  studied 1,000 churches from 32 countries and six continents. He discovered that small churches (averaging 51 people in attendance) were 16 times more effective in attracting new members than larger churches. 

Finding a congregation

In Crozet this growth is not coming from “converting” members of other, established churches. “It’s not our intent to take people from their churches,” Rev. Todd Johnson of Hope Presbyterian said. “For the most part, we invite people who, for whatever reason, have not found a place that is comfortable for them.” 

Walt Davis agrees that new churches can thrive here without recruiting a single member from an existing church. “According to the growth expected here, each existing church building could have one service after another all day on Sunday without reaching the entire population,” he said. “And that’s now, not the future after Crozet grows.” Davis had previously looked at Farmville but figured that declining numbers in the school classrooms predicted that the area was losing, rather than gaining, population.

Blake Johnson said he used the work of Tim Keller, a former New York City pastor, as a guide. Keller wrote that church plants are highly effective at reaching new residents, new generations, and new believers. When communities are in a growth pattern, Johnson said, new churches are planted, just like new businesses and neighborhoods. “Church planting, I think, can be seen as sign of life—important to the overall social fabric of a community,” he said.

Father Joseph Mary Lukyamuzi is the pastor of Holy Comforter Catholic Church in Charlottesville and the Crozet Catholic Mission.

For Father Lukyamuzi the new residents are the key. The Crozet Catholic Mission serves the steady influx of already-practicing Catholics into the Crozet area plus the number traveling a considerable distance to attend services, forming a congregation of nearly 200 families, most of whom attended Catholic services in their former homes, and most of whom have young, growing families. The challenge was not to find them, but to serve them, he said.

But for those reaching out to the unchurched, what attracts people? There are the basic values and faith, said Hope’s Todd Johnson. “Sometimes there’s very little difference, but the difference means something.” Johnson said there were a couple of Anglican families attending Hope services who left once Holy Cross Anglican began here. “That was their history, and it was fine,” he said. 

Davis had identified with the Southern Baptist tradition until one night in 2012 when he was reading Ephesians in Greek and was struck for the first time by the absence of a sense of guilt in the apostles. “I kept looking for references to guilt in the original writings and it just wasn’t there.” Davis changed his message accordingly and lost about half of his congregation: “They just weren’t comfortable with the idea that we are always forgiven and that Christ’s work is finished,” he said.

But there are other, less doctrinal, reasons why people might choose one church over another, Todd Johnson said: “You’re going to stay with the group you feel most comfortable with in the end.” 

Comfort is hard to define and doesn’t always come from everyone having the same background. Davis is proud of the broad representation of classes and cultures at Life Journey: “We have a real mixture, both of ethnic groups and income levels,” he said.

Because of the rising importance of new churches, there are seminars and courses on planting, and a lot of theories on how best to do it. “One of the methods is called ‘the hive theory,’” Todd Johnson said. “That’s when there are people going to an existing church who would be served better by a smaller, closer church.” Hope, an outgrowth of Trinity Presbyterian in Charlottesville, fits that model; as do Holy Cross, whose mother church is the Church of the Incarnation in Harrisonburg; and the Crozet Catholic Mission, which is a mission of Charlottesville’s Holy Comforter.

Walt Davis. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Walt Davis would be more along the lines of the “parachute” model, although he said he didn’t recognize that term. It’s when a minister comes into town without a ready-made following and begins to make himself or herself known. 

One way is by direct mail, but it has its pitfalls: “That’s when you send out thousands of letters and attract two crazy people,” Todd Johnson said. “Most of us grow slowly by involving ourselves in the community.” 

Hope Presbyterian has a well thought out website, does some advertising, and has grown from its visibility at Crozet Elementary, where it holds Sunday services.

Davis, a former football player, volunteered to help with line coaching at Western Albemarle. Then, when some of his former players joined Crozet’s volunteer fire department, he was asked to be the chaplain.

Rev. Blake Johnson, vicar of Church of the Holy Cross. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Blake Johnson said the growth of Holy Cross has been surprising, surpassing their expectations and spurring their recent move from the barn at Fidelis Farm to Crozet Baptist. “It’s been almost 100 percent relational,” he said. “It’s been mostly been our folks talking about the church and inviting friends. A few folks have found us through our website.”

To build or not

Well-developed programs and beautiful spaces are attractive to many seeking a church; but not to all. “Sometimes hardship can be a real motivator,” Davis said. He found this to be true recently when even his temporary Sunday home at the Fire Department meeting room was unavailable and the congregation met in a truck bay. “It was one of our best services ever,” he said. 

So far, the lack of bricks and mortar has not kept the church planters from having programs of charitable works in the community: it’s just made them less visible. Father Lukyamuzi said they’ve joined with existing churches in their charitable work; Todd Johnson said his members reach out personally and in groups to address the needs of families at Crozet Elementary. Blake Johnson said Holy Cross members are committed to charity as part of Christ’s directive. Davis said Life Journey quietly addresses issues they come across. He also encourage families to practice personal charity. “We don’t have to get the credit for it.” None of the planters seems anxious that the charitable works of his church be recognized, only that they be encouraged and accomplished.

The Crozet Catholic Mission is actively planning to build a church: the other new churches are not so sure. Davis said there’s a lot of freedom in not having the financial burden of a physical church. Blake Johnson said the pros and cons are similar to renting or owning a home; and neither he nor Hope’s Todd Johnson are ruling it out in the future. With or without a dedicated physical home in sight, all of the planters expressed satisfaction with the current, close-knit nature of their new spiritual communities.

Hope Presbyterian meets at 10 a.m. Sunday at Brownsville Elementary, then returns to Crozet Elementary in the fall.

Holy Cross Anglican Church meets at 4 p.m. Sunday at Crozet Baptist Church on St. George Avenue.

Life Journey meets at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department Building on Three-Notched Road.

The Crozet Catholic Mission meets at 10 a.m. Sunday at Field School on Crozet Avenue. 

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