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 anyone could believe certain Bible stories.
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.
“The vision gripped us so much that we had to take the risk,” Sethuraman said. In 2010, the Down Community Church was born.
They soon realized that to reach the margins they would need to encourage a sense of belonging before people 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.”
Down Community Church started in a home and frequently visited courthouses, pubs, hospitals and rehabilitation centers.
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, the duo had to “unlearn” how to do church.
“We started off doing what we thought we knew,” McDade said. “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.
First went the worship songs. Then the sermon. A midservice 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 attendees asked to drop the word “church.” Sethuraman and McDade eventually understood that the change would make the faith community more approachable.
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 calling to make peace with all.
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 and 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!” McDade said.
Instead of having programs, the faith group joins with what other 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,” he said.