A justice centered, theologically rigorous, people-affirming, life-giving, and Spirit-breathed church is possible because God is still in the blessing and miracle-working business. —Yolanda Pierce, In My Grandmother’s House
It’s a rare Sunday when I don’t cry in church, but it’s not because I’m sad. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. For the last three years, I’ve been part of a church plant that makes me feel like David, who thousands of years ago proclaimed, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” Granted, there have been moments of sadness here and there, especially since some folks I love no longer join me at church, but the overriding experience in the room each week is one of joy, and it’s that unexpected joy that makes me tear up Sunday after Sunday.
Like the other day when the mother of a Latino family sitting in front of me was holding the ten-month-old baby belonging to the interracial couple sitting in front of them. I saw little Luca look up at teenage Jonah, and I couldn’t believe how much they looked like brothers, even though they aren’t related at all. Scenes like that are more beautiful than the most ornate church I’ve ever seen, and they more than make up for the conveniences of established churches I sometimes miss.
Our church plant is called Bridge Church, and we meet in an elementary school on the south side of the river that runs through the middle of town. The school is in one of those neighborhoods that used to be rundown, but has lately become the best place to buy and flip historic homes, so lots of new businesses are popping up now—along with a few new churches. But, we’re the only ones setting up chairs every week in a gymnasium. My husband, the Executive Pastor, takes charge of the work necessary to pull it off. He and several other men, including our son, show up at 7:30am each week to unload the trailer and set up two classrooms for children’s ministry—along with backdrops, computers, sound monitors and the rest of the band’s equipment.
We average fifty people most weeks, not including kids, and our ages are ten months to seventy. We have black families, white families, blended families, and many single people. Some of us live downtown, several of us live out west, and the rest of us are from north, south, and east. We have construction workers, bus drivers, teachers, engineers, architects, homemakers, and social workers in our church. Some of us drive nice cars and have pools in the backyard, while some of us struggle to get a ride week after week, but the one thing we have in common is how much we love to worship.
Our worship leader’s name is Kenny and before we ever had a service, my husband and I got together with Kenny, Anthony (the Teaching Pastor), and Kenny’s favorite bass player, Chris, to discuss how Bridge should structure service each week. Something I’ll never forget from those early meetings was hearing Chris and Kenny talk about the importance of having a good time at church. I’d never heard church described that way before. I was very familiar with people saying the music was good or the preaching was good, even more familiar with people complaining when they thought either was bad, but I had never known people who expected to have fun at church.
For me, fun might have happened incidentally at church, before or after Sunday morning meetings, in the halls of Sunday school, or around a table in the Fellowship hall, but it was not the main vibe of the churches I knew before coming to Bridge.
Bridge Church is unique in that we started as an intentionally multi-ethnic and multicultural ministry of reconciliation in Knoxville, Tennessee, during 2018; but we are not unique in the fact that we have fun. Apparently, that’s been happening in black churches in America for a long, long time. I just never knew because I’d never been part of one before. But Kenny and Chris and Anthony have taught me a lot over the last few years, and I’m so thankful for how they share their hearts and lead us into the presence of God every week, which is much more joyful than I ever imagined it to be.
Going to church has been my Sunday morning habit for nearly forty-five years, and though I‘m not always raring to go at 10:00am (especially when it’s cold outside), I can’t imagine getting through the rest of the week without it. I’ve been a member of at least ten different churches in my life, and have visited dozens more, but something about becoming part of Bridge has made me want to celebrate the goodness of belonging to God’s beautifully diverse family. And what better way to celebrate than to write about it?
Last year I published a memoir, lamenting some of the loss I’d experienced in life, as well as the fact that I didn’t know how to lament those losses in the first place. Having grown up in a culture that denied the validity of such mourning, it took writing a book for me to find permission to grieve. Well, now that I’ve spent three years in the presence of people who know the value of celebration, without denying the hardship of real life, I’d like to help more people find this joy for themselves.
At a time when so many are walking away from church, or deconstructing faith altogether, might I suggest that diversity could be the way forward? For far too long the family of God has been segregated, and we’re missing out on so much goodness by continuing to remain separate. The book of Revelation tells us that one day people from every tribe and every tongue will bow before the throne of Christ in worship. Yet that glorious scene is available to all of us even now, if we get out of our comfortable traditions and try something new.
Bridge Church is not a perfect church because there’s no such thing as that. We’ve made mistakes in the last three years, and several families decided our little experiment was too much work and bailed (truth be told, I’ve thought about leaving a time or two myself). But the ones who’ve stayed have grown closer to God and each other and are beginning to see the work God is doing in the community around us—a community that’s struggling and looking for hope, but also has gifts to give us whenever we serve them.
I had never known people who expected to have fun at church. Janna Barber
Paul taught the early church (which was a pretty diverse group, too, as I recall) that it’s better to give than to receive. Two thousand years later it’s still true, even in South Knoxville, Tennessee. The time I’ve spent with this little congregation called Bridge Church has given me more joy than I knew was possible, and Sunday after Sunday, that joy spills out of my eyes as tears—so often that I’ve begun carrying a small handkerchief in my purse to help wipe them away during service. Because this forty-five year old white woman has a new definition for “blessed,” and it’s got nothing to do with whatever is currently trending on the internet. Instead it’s based on the connection she has to the Ancient One who made her, and the many varied reflections she sees of him in the people of this world.
Kenny often instructs us to “lift up holy hands” during worship because it reminds us to surrender our hearts and minds to Christ while singing praises to him; and in my imagination I sometimes picture our hands joining the thousands of saints across the world who worship Jesus, as well as all the millions of saints who’ve lived and served God through the ages before this one. These hands come in every shade, from palest white to silky olive and beautiful black. Some of them are small and some are large, many are aged and worn, while others are delicate and young. Some are strong, some are weak, some may even be dirty, but they’re all being made new by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I believe that kind of vision is sacred, worthy of a few tears, even if it looks a little crazy to those who don’t understand. So be it. A friend of mine once told me that the prophets of the old testament were the first poets, and I’m lucky to be counted among them when people call me a poet. If that’s the case, I’m happy to be thought of as a little odd when I cry in church or raise my hands in adoration. Church has become a full body experience for me these past few years, and the result is unspeakable joy and glorious tears.