Is God putting old wine into new wineskins?
Christian Cryder sees Him “doing something new in a way that looks a lot like something ancient and old,” the Pastor of All Souls Church in Austin, Texas, explains. He calls this fresh encounter with an ancient faith “Sacred Americana.”
Cryder and his wife, Marilyn, relocated their family from Montana in 2013 to plant an EPC church. They knew their focus would remain on a post-Christian population that has little use for—and trust in—the institutional church. But “new” showed up even before they started packing.
Early on, they understood this call to include doing at least two things differently from their previous plant. First, they would not strive to be “big” and successful, but would start—and continue—as a house church. Second, they would be bivocational. No church buildings, no paid staff.
Their first priority became “being the church to each other” and not numerical growth, Cryder noted.
“If you plant a church you ‘might’ make disciples,” Marilyn explained. “But if you make disciples you ‘will’ plant a church.”
Cryder said the group developed a spiritual life together that was “surprisingly rich and deep, and our folks started saying, ‘Hey, we don’t really want to outgrow the living room. We like it this way,’” he said. “But the gospel just kept inviting folks into the party, which is refreshing, but soon you don’t all fit into one living room!”
Faced with that reality, the Cryders decided that All Souls would both grow and stay small. By early 2020, the church began meeting in two separate houses. Cryder led one service on Sunday morning and one on Sunday afternoon.
Then the world was displaced by COVID-19. Holding intimate worship gatherings in crowded rooms was no longer feasible. Like most churches, All Souls was forced to go virtual.
“Because we were so small it was actually relatively easy to pivot,” Cryder said. “We learned how to use Zoom. And people started dialing in. Some people kept showing up physically too … and because it was small groups, we could spread out, maintain distance, and be safe. In the process, we started to realize just how important physical proximity is to our spiritual well-being.”
Wearied by leading multiple services and frustrated that he couldn’t “read how everyone was doing over Zoom,” Cryder delegated and innovated. He grabbed a handful of leaders from each of the three clusters to gather, call, meet with, and shepherd small handfuls of people.
Each week, a different cluster rotates into the Cryder’s living room, while the other clusters (and individuals) meet by Zoom. Each cluster has a discussion afterward over lunch.
“Those discussions have become electric,” Cryder said. “People are processing, wrestling, responding. And new leaders are starting to assume responsibility for other people’s spiritual care; they are starting to lead.”
As for the fresh encounter with the ancient faith Cryder calls “Sacred Americana,” he notes that his experience with All Souls Austin can be distilled—or perhaps more appropriately, brewed—into 15 thoughts:
1. Crazy failure is a potential outcome.
“God still speaks, and when He does, you’d better listen and respond—even if everyone thinks you are crazy. Even if it’s possible you might fail. We believe God called us, but that He offered no guarantee of success. He might actually have called us to do something where we are going to fail. But even then, maybe our little leap of faith could prove helpful to others who were also seeking to explore new ways of planting churches in a post-Christian context so they say, ‘we certainly don’t want to do that.’”
2. All your friends won’t be fans.
“Some people, even longtime friends, will think you are wasting your time by encouraging questions or being vulnerable. And hanging out with sinners. We are often told, ‘You’ll never succeed in planting a church there—there aren’t enough Christians!’ But we figured, isn’t that kind of the point?”
3. Lose the infrastructure.
“Maybe we need a different model that’s not so capital-intensive. Maybe we can learn something from pre-Christendom Christianity, which didn’t have much money either and it certainly didn’t slow them down. Paul made tents. Maybe post-Christendom pastors should consider getting a job?”
4. Your heart is where your home is (or should be).
“You’ve got to live in a neighborhood you want to serve. It’s hard to do that if you’re commuting.”
5. Check your vision.
“God is deeply interested in all the people in this crazy, mixed-up world—not just those in our churches. And He wants those of us who follow Him to be as serious about wading out into that mess of humanity as He was. Be like Jesus and hang out with sinners.”
6. Name is a big part of the game.
“I rarely use the term ‘unbeliever’ or ‘non-Christian.’ Those are pejorative terms and are heard as judgemental: ‘I not a Christian yet and you want to change me.’ I listen to grasp what they prefer to be called—pagan, spiritual-not-religious, unchurched.”
7. This isn’t your father’s prospect list.
“Christianity is seen not just as backwards and unenlightened, but actually what is wrong with American culture. People think they knew what Christianity was, and they rejected it. So much of our ministry involved deconstructing that image until people scratch their heads enough to say, ‘You aren’t like what I thought about Christians—explain this to me.’ We seek to be friends with all sorts of people. And most importantly, we sought to seek the community, not just our own church.”
8. About that old wine in new wineskins …
“We trace our roots to the creeds and the Apostles and the first century Christians. Whenever possible we tend to be liturgical, to celebrate old truths. But we try hard to do so in a way that is cogent to the down-to-earth and relevant questions. We seek to ground ourselves in something older and deeper, with lots of characters: Tim Keller, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, John Knox, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Augustine.”
9. Curiosity grows the Church.
“As our website says, “All Souls is a curious little community of faith where you don’t have to share any of our convictions in order to be our friends can learn how New Testament Christianity answers life’s big questions can meet others who will encourage you in your spiritual journey where just might encounter Jesus in a whole new way.”
10. Question everything, please!
“If Christianity is true, it should be able to stand up to tough questions. We wrestle with the Scriptures to discover how the biblical Jesus answers life’s big questions, we see what He expects of those who follow Him. Not all of us reach the same conclusions. When people were real with Jesus, He was real with them Some of us believe. Some are still exploring. But all of us are learning what it means to live as disciples of the biblical Jesus.”
11. Worship is a verb.
“We try to see worship as a verb—a heartfelt response to a personal encounter with the living God of the Bible. It can only happen through repentance, belief, and understanding the gospel.”
12. Worship is a noun.
“But Worship is also a noun—a public ritual that invites everyone to reckon with the great claims of Christianity and with the unbelief that lurks in all of us. A worship service should speak to both.”
13. Focus on double vision.
“People in our churches must come to share in this sense of bivocational calling, to find divine purpose in their secular work and to discover that He has also built them to be spiritual builders, forming Christian community wherever God plants them. I think that is what being a disciple is really all about.”
14. Dream big but think small.
“Presently we have 30-40 people meeting in two clusters at the same time—one church, one service. But this model actually scales. We could have clusters meeting in 10 homes, possibly more. And it’s not exhausting. In fact, it’s actually probably the most vibrant, refreshing, dynamic church community I’ve ever been a part of. And I think it probably looks a lot like the ancient, early church.”
15. You divide to conquer.
“When do you split? I think there’s a sweet spot between 10 and 20. Fewer feels small and low on momentum. More and not everyone can share.”
by Craig Bird