By Melissa Lauber
At Riverfront Ministries in Wilmington, Delaware, they are convinced that God is still creating, and so they’ve aligned themselves with that spirit of creativity, letting imagination guide them into uncertainty and the possibilities of the Holy Spirit.
It’s sacred work. It also – for better and worse – redefines church.
Riverfront Ministries was launched seven years ago as a kind of pop-up church/community. Today, it’s an inclusive ecumenical space with roots in the Presbyterian (USA) and United Methodist churches. Its pastor and executive director, the Rev. Chelsea Spyres, describes Riverfront as “a community of song, Word and Table. We’re creative, collaborative and sacramental,” she said.
The community meets in a pavilion or in bars or restaurants along Wilmington’s developing Riverfront during warm months and at Grace UMC in their art gallery and cafe at 5:05 p.m. on Sunday nights when the weather turns colder.
Worship takes on a different character each week of the month. On first Sundays, tradition guides the service, with preaching and Communion. The second Sunday is a community concert with small devotional pieces based on the theme of the first week’s worship. The third Sunday is jazz vespers, and the fourth Sunday is dinner church, as members gather for a meal and conversation based on a modern theological writing. Fifth Sundays are spoken word events, where poets share a few of their works and then congregational members are invited to write and share their own pieces.
Each Sunday tends to bring different people, with about 40 people attending throughout the month and 15-20 on any given Sunday. Some of those attending have been hurt by the church in the past and are seeking a new expression of spiritual community, others are working artists who view their creativity as an expression of the sacred. Most of the community is open to and revels in change and experimentation.
“Sometimes I just have to figure out how do I stay in a space of questions and uncertainty and appreciate the gift of that,” said Spyres, who considers herself an organized planner who, by nature, seeks defined rhythms and consistency. Not relying of specific roadmaps and journeying with people into new ways of doing church can sometimes feel like a challenge. She frequently asks herself if she’s on course and if what they’re doing is “church enough.”
Daymon Warren, who attends Riverfront Ministries, came from a church that sometimes felt like a place of judgement. At Riverfront, he is “able to be comfortable asking questions” and exploring. “This is the place where Christ would have been,” he said.
Warren, a photographer, and the other musicians, poets, artists, and culinary entrepreneurs who inhabit the ministry landscape help teach Spyres and other leaders that “the unknown is okay. It’s a leaning on the Spirit,” she said. “God is in the midst and is working in whatever we’re doing and not doing.”
She’s learned that if something doesn’t work out, there’s no need to think of it as a failure. Instead, she reframes it so that it becomes a lesson and an opportunity for growth.
Such an incident happened recently, when the third Sunday of the month used to be a Taizé service. When the attendance started to decline, the church leaders had to discern the purpose of the experience and how they might pivot and still carry on with the intent of Taizé while moving onto something new. Their discernment led them to create the jazz vespers service.
“It a constant releasing in some ways,” Spyres said. “It’s a constant conversation. We’re receiving grace and working to envision a new possibility of church. It’s a movement.”
But providing ongoing funding for that movement is hard work that’s dependent upon receiving substantial grant money and finding new revenue streams. One of their ministries, the Wilmington Kitchen Collective has allowed them to bring mission and service to the worshipping community, while bringing in revenue.
The Kitchen Collective, Spyres explained, opens the commercial kitchens at two (soon to be three) city churches to area bakers, caterers and food truck owners. It offers affordable high-quality commercial kitchen facilities, business development, and economic support to culinary entrepreneurs. It brings together the culinary gifts of our entrepreneurs, the gift of space of Grace & First and Central churches, and the gift of creativity and organization of Riverfront, which takes charge of the day-to-day operations of the Kitchen Collective.”
Spyres also offers pastoral care to some of the culinary entrepreneurs who use the kitchens. She notes several similarities between the work of the worshipping community and the Kitchen Collective.
“It’s sacramental,” she said. “Their work is set apart and holy. It is an expression of the Spirit.”
In both communities, Spyres notes that in addressing issues of faith, “they ask for space to wrestle.” It’s one of the challenges she loves. “Here people tend to lean into the questions more than any answers.”