This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Northern Ireland church ends sermons to follow Jesus

Down Community in Northern Ireland holds non-traditional worship services, like holding a walking-service on St. Patrick’s trail.

Pastoral colleagues, Karen Sethuraman and Gordon McDade, thought they were doing everything right. Their traditional church, in Ballynahinch, Northern Ireland, had lots of people, programs, and a strong community outreach.

“But when it came to integrating those who had no church background, it was a complete culture clash,” McDade said.

The unchurched people didn’t know the songs.

They didn’t like to sit through 30-minute sermons. They didn’t understand how someone could believe some Bible stories.

Down Community holds a Sunday service that feel more like a coffee-shop environment than a church service.
Down Community holds a Sunday service that feel more like a coffee-shop environment than a church service.

For years, Sethuraman and McDade wondered what it would be like to start a church for people who felt they didn’t fit into a traditional church. “Is it even possible?!” they thought.

“The vision gripped us so much that we had to take the risk,” said Sethuraman. And in 2010, the Down Community Church was born.

They soon realized that to reach people on the margins, they would need to encourage a sense of belonging, before their friends might believe anything about Jesus.

“It is refreshing to be with a community who are neither Protestant nor Catholic, but draw on the broadest vision of the Christian tradition, welcoming and inviting all, embracing the stranger and outsider,” said Tim Foley, director for International Ministries at Mennonite Mission Network, who attends the community and meets with Sethuraman and McDade as they explore Anabaptism. “The vision of Down Community is enormous, a real kingdom orientation yet grounded in the everyday reality of real lives, in all the pain and joy that you find there.”

Down Community Church started in a home and frequently visited courthouses, pubs, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers.

On such a visit, Sethuraman remembers her friend dreaming about her upcoming release at a rehabilitation center. Her friend asked, “Is it true that you’ve set up a church for people like me?”

“No,” Sethuraman said after a while. “I’ve set up a church for people like me, but you’re welcome to come along.”

Down Community Church aims to embody “the good news of Jesus [that] has transcended divisions of class, politics, gender, sexuality, age, culture, and ethnicity,” wrote McDade for a 2013 news article about their venture.

It can be messy work, “but we made it very clear that we were not out to fix anyone,” said McDade. First, “it’s about acceptance, grace, and unconditional love.”

Over time, Sethuraman and McDade had to “unlearn” how to do church.

“We started off doing what we thought we knew,” said McDade. “Thinking that if you could do church in a cool way, that people would come … but it didn’t really work.” Instead, they attracted those who were dissatisfied with their own church. “This diluted our vision,” said McDade.

First went the worship songs. Then the sermon. A mid-service smoke break began to be as regular as the offering. It proved to be just as necessary for those with short attention spans.

Most recently, several Down Community Church attendees asked to drop the word “church” from the name.

This challenged Sethuraman and McDade at first, but they understood that the change would make the faith community more approachable for the unchurched.

While the Down Community doesn’t look like a traditional church, the essentials are the same: faith in Jesus, a life centered on relationships, and a responsibility to make peace with all.

Each Sunday, the Down Community meets for what is called “the Living Room,” where the coffee and conversational teaching flows freely. Instead of a sermon, teaching is interactive and happens through lectio devina, a practice of Scripture reading, meditation, sharing.

“They love it, because lectio devina gives voice back to the people,” said Sethuraman.

She acknowledges that God speaks through everyone.

As an extension of word-based lectio divina, Sethuraman and McDade lead guided meditations and invite people to express their journey with God through art and music. This is particularly helpful for many who have experienced rejection, sometimes from both church and society.

“If they weren’t a part of [Down Community], they wouldn’t go anywhere at all,” said McDade.

“The idea of the Living Room [gathering] is that it is the front of the community, where the Kitchen [gathering] is where you go deeper with God,” McDade said.

The Kitchen gathering happens periodically on Wednesday nights. Smaller groups meet in homes to discuss practical applications to the Bible’s teachings. This is where significant spiritual growth happens.

To the Down Community, like other Anabaptist groups, community is central to what it means to live out the good news.

Although they didn’t begin as an Anabaptist group, the Down Community soon discovered that’s who they are, that there was a centuries-long tradition of people who believed as they did. “All of a sudden we realized we weren’t as crazy as we thought we were!” said McDade.

Instead of having programs, the faith group joins in with what other community groups are doing, like learning the Irish language or entering a team in a pub quiz.

“[We focus on] being Jesus people in the middle of community life,” said McDade.

A shorter version of this ran in the June issue

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!