An ancient liturgical practice takes a contemporary turn

A Dallas Episcopal church reaches out to its community and adapts to a changing culture.

By Dina Meek

Bob Johnston does not shy away from change. He accepted a calling to the Episcopal Priesthood that had been persistent, and left a position with the largest patent law firm in Dallas, uprooted his wife from a medical practice and, ultimately moved his family to London where he would do his final training before ordination.

So when he felt moved to plant a “church within a church,” a more contemporary version of the traditional service at the venerable Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, he didn’t hesitate to heed the call. “The existing church wasn’t sure what to make of it,” Johnston reflects. “It might not have been possible if I hadn’t been a parishioner for 14 years — they knew they could trust me.”

The Church of the Incarnation is more than 100 years old and with more than 3,000 parishioners, one of the largest Episcopal churches in the country. It’s situated between downtown Dallas’ center of commerce and the city’s most affluent neighborhoods; an area that has recently boomed with developments catering to young professionals. “I think the feeling was that we were called to reach out to our neighborhood,” Johnston says. “Young people were pouring into the area, but we weren’t connecting with them.”

The timing was right

At the time, the church was running the Alpha Course, a 10-week program that explores the Christian faith. “There was a disconnect when those students tried to come into the church,” Johnston says. With its ancient liturgy based service presented within the church’s imposing stone architecture, it was difficult for some to make the connection between their experiences inside the church, with their daily lives outside. The church had tried a more contemporary service copied from a similar service at a New York City parish, but it was not flourishing. The timing was right to try something new.

Working toward his ordination Johnston had served at London’s progressive Holy Trinity Church in Brompton. “I got to watch how an Anglican church can do many more things than the Episcopal Church USA does in a nation where even fewer people attend church,” he says. Holy Trinity Brompton is where the popular Alpha Course originated. “I went to a church planting program and I learned about that. And I started working on the model for planting a church within Incarnation while there,” Johnston says.

Having already done much of the research, upon returning to Dallas Johnston began doing small focus groups to better understand the people he would be trying to reach. He researched what kind of music they listened to as well and asked them what they expected of a church. He met with a friend who established a contemporary service at a nearby Methodist church who told him that 90 percent of that program’s budget was spent on music. He set about getting the funding needed for equipment, including large screens to project song lyrics. “We said we’re going to do what it takes,” Johnston says. “Our church as a whole is known for its beautiful worship. I said ‘Let’s take that into a new genre.’” He used that explanation to help him raise funds.

Spread the word

Once the plan for the church was established it was time to spread the word. Johnston turned to friends within the church who had an advertising design firm, Almighty Inc., to help him brand and market the new church. The name “UpTown” plays off of the name of the church’s neighborhood and the promise of what the service will deliver.

Working with the design firm Johnston and his team of lay volunteers developed newspaper and magazine ads along with direct mail postcards targeted to neighborhood residents. They also included a kiosk at a nearby shopping center focusing on establishing the brand image for UpTown as well as its series of relevant sermon topics. Among the topics promoted, “Love, Sex and Marriage,” “Fear of Future, Failure and Commitment” and “Overcoming Overload” were designed specifically to address the issues that young people deal with today.

In December 2004, UpTown Church of the Incarnation opened its doors and has since grown to two services weekly. The main church spent $80,000 to retrofit its chapel so that UpTown’s screens and other modern devices could be completely invisible when that service was not operating.

The meeting of the ancient with the modern is the hallmark of UpTown. The music features traditional hymns that have been re-arranged for a mixed contemporary sound. In addition to a streamlined Episcopal Communion service with scriptures and responsive Psalm readings, Johnston’s sermons focus on current topics often presented as series over several weeks.

“Pseudo-altar call”

The Nicene Creed is pronounced with the pastor reminding the congregation that it has been used by Christians through the ages and is said around the world today. During communion, offered to all baptized Christians, everyone is invited to pray with prayer ministers stationed throughout the chapel during communion time. “A pseudo-altar call,” Johnston explains. While clergy wear a stole during communion, they do not fully vest.

After the Sunday morning service, there is always a lunch date at a local restaurant where attendees can discuss the scriptures and sermon more in depth. Following the Sunday evening service a group will often gather for an impromptu dinner.

Johnston sees UpTown as three streams coming together. “We are sacramental. We believe in the ancient practices of worship since before the New Testament canon was even put together. We are strong on the Word — Episcopalians will say it is Word and Sacrament; we focus on scripture. And we are Spirit led. We look for opportunities to emphasize being open to the 
Spirit. We emphasize a dynamic relationship with God.”

For the future Johnston is hoping to “be big enough to be effective.” But, perhaps, the most important thing he could do has already been done — bringing together the beauty and continuity of ancient Protestant worship with the relevance of a contemporary focus. “One of the best compliments I ever received was from a guy who grew up Episcopalian but was attending a Bible church,” Johnston says. “He told me that UpTown was ‘a train wreck between a Bible church and sacramental liturgy.’ He loved it.”

Dina Meek is business director for Almighty Inc., Westcliffe, CO, an advertising design firm dedicated to faith-based marketing. []


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