Kenilworth Presbyterian Church in Asheville, N.C., was not so different from many Presbyterian churches ― founded 80 years ago, it swelled to more than 500 members in the 1950s, then over the years began a slow steady decline that by 2010 left the church with just 35 members.
And yet, Pastor Allen Permar Smith told the Moderator’s Colloquium on Ecclesiology April 23 at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (APTS), “Kenilworth Presbyterian Church believed it could have a profound impact in the community and the world. In short, the members still believed they could ‘do church.’”
Kenilworth’s members were open to change, Smith said, “however, they, like so many, did not know what change was or what it could be.” And so began conversations about how to revitalize the congregation’s worship and witness.
Quite by accident, Smith said, “committee members stumbled onto the illusive good idea. It started with a discussion about one element of worship: the offering ― specifically, how the offering should be collected,” he said. “One member felt that taking up the offering with offering plates or baskets sent the wrong message to visitors…. She expressed her concern that people may not come back to the church or may not attend church altogether because they have no money.”
Her argument proved persuasive and it was agreed that Kenilworth would no longer take up an offering during worship. “Instead, a basket would be placed in the narthex and, as people left the church, they could place their offering there.”
That admittedly unusual decision, Smith said, “proved to be a great insight into what it means to worship and witness…. As the Sundays progressed, the time for collecting the offering transitioned into a time of reminding the community that offering was much more than money. It was a time to call the community into a witness of offering to the larger community in the context of worship.”
That connection ― between worship and mission ― is a key theme of the colloquium, organized by General Assembly Moderator Neal Presa and Vice-Moderator Tom Trinidad and hosted by APTS with the Presbyterian Foundation as an additional sponsor.
The connection between worship and witness is also central to Matthew’s telling of the resurrection story, Smith said. When Mary and Mary Magdalene encounter the risen Christ, Smith said, “Their immediate response was to worship their Lord. Then Jesus commands them to witness by saying ‘…go and tell…”
The clear message in Matthew, he continued, “is that worship and witness is at the beginning of the Christian faith. Worship and witness cannot and should not be separate.”
That message is also clear in the Great Ends of the Church, Smith said. Three of the great ends ― “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind, the maintenance of divine worship and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world ― “call the church to worship. It is called to witness to the world through proclamation and exhibiting the Kingdom of Heaven to a broken world.”
And because of its connection with witness/mission, “worship, in the Reformed tradition, is, at its core, transformational,” Smith said. “The church gathers because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Christ event has changed lives. Therefore, all are welcomed to the church with the real hope that the gospel will change lives.”
Worship and witness, Smith concluded, “are two sides of the same coin.”
So how is the “no offering” experiment working for Kenilworth? “The results have been modest but good,” Smith said. Membership has “bumped up” to 55.
There are now three baskets at the back of the church for departing worshipers ― one for “5-cents-a-meal,” one for the local food pantry and one for the general operations of the church. Worshipers are encouraged to give their offerings first to the mission causes and “then, if they have anything left over, to the general fund,” Smith said.
The church budget is balanced, he added, and “benevolences increased from 5 to 15 percent.”
However, Smith said, “the true success of the church is not measured in this way. It would appear that the true success of Kenilworth Presbyterian Church is the belief that the members have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
As one member told him: “If we close down by serving the community this way, maybe we’re doing the right thing.”
Respondent Lindsay Conrad, an APTS student, wondered if removing the offering from the formal liturgy of the church “strips the offering of its power.” In her home congregation, she said, “symbolic tokens” are handed to each worshiper as they enter the sanctuary and those tokens are collected at offering time as signs of the worshiper’s commitment to mission and witness. “The importance lies in the gathered community offering its all ― worship and witness,” she said.
APTS church history professor David Johnson praised Kenilworth’s experiment as fulfilling the Great Commandments “to love God and love neighbor. We lose our Christian identity without both.”
Johnson said pastors and sessions, particularly of declining churches, invariably worry about money, “but the crucial question is not ‘Where did they go and how and how can we get them back?’ but ‘How can we be the church?’ We don’t have to be big,” he said, “just real.”