The world, ever in flux, seems to be changing faster today than ever before — politically, socioeconomically, environmentally.
To stay relatable and effective in their missions, religious institutions have had to evolve over the centuries, shaped by and for the times and societies they inhabit.
Even in Bradford, often denigrated as being “behind the times,” local churches are taking steps to modernize and adapt to fit the needs and lives of those they seek to serve in the community.
Mother Stacey Fussel, rector of Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Bradford, recently talked to The Era about the challenges facing local churches and the efforts to overcome them and boost religious involvement among local folks.
Fussel said ministry in the region is complicated by a number of factors, including a declining population (losing four percent in the last census), a large percentage of the population living in poverty and more youth events being scheduled on Sunday mornings.
“There is no longer any societal or economic incentive to be a church-goer,” she added. “These factors and others have led to a significant decrease in church attendance nationally and in our own region.”
Fussel said less than 40 percent of people in McKean County identify themselves as being part of a worshiping faith community.
“Even in rural areas like ours, there is no longer a common Judeo-Christian morality to help define our communities’ norms,” she said.
To face these challenges, churches like the Ascension and Open Arms Community Church are finding new ways to reaching out to connect with the community and get people involved.
In recent years, the Ascension began hosting Second Harvest Mobile Food Pantries, Thursday Free Soup Lunches and the Blessing Box, and they started a preschool that offers early childhood learning in a Christian setting at minimal to no cost to families with financial need.
“We are now beginning a time of redefining and are engaged in significant prayer and preparation geared at creating more opportunities for folks to encounter Christ through our congregation’s ministry,” Fussel said.
The Church of the Ascension will host a 12-hour day of prayer on March 9 and an open baptism on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, followed by an instructed service the next Sunday to explain all parts of their worship service and why they do what we do.
“Ascension is a fine historic church that is open to God doing new things,” Fussel said. “The congregation called me to serve here eight years ago — as a single woman with two adopted children.”
When she started with Ascension, it had an average of 45 people total on a Sunday and has seen healthy growth since, Fussel said. “We peaked at almost 80 folks worshipping on an average Sunday but have dipped slightly in the past few months.”
“Churches have life cycles and need redefinition, redevelopment and even rebirth at certain points depending on where they are in that life cycle,” Fussel explained. “With redevelopment … the church has focused on loving God by offering excellent worship in the Anglican tradition and loving our neighbors by offering help for their physical and spiritual needs.”
Overall, the Ascension’s worship service is more traditional — with some prayers that date back to the 4th century — “but the atmosphere in worship is not stuffy and formal,” Fussel said.
“I think the notion that you have to have a praise band and a pastor who wears a T-shirt and jeans to be accessible to regular people is a false assumption,” she said. “Those types of church services are fine and reach people for Jesus — services that use organ music and have vested ministers are fine and reach people for Jesus, too.”
Meanwhile, at Open Arms Community Church, Pastor Mike McAvoy continues to step outside the box with the use of technology, media and pop culture to grow the flock.
“The music is more modern, we’re not singing with just an organ out of hymn books,” MCavoy said.
He said Open Arms creates opportunities for people to share life and worship via social media and the internet as well. “Our approach creates a flexible structure to find that space and fit God in their life.”
Open Arms also uses modern language and modern translations from the Bible to help communicate their message more clearly and easier for people to understand.
“We communicate it in a way that the scripture says, so we don’t compromise the message, but we do contextualize it to today’s modern way of living and I think the people really find value in that,” McAvoy said. “We also do it in ways that are pretty creative and that resonate, making it relatable and accessible. We are utilizing things parts of people’s everyday lives that they appreciate or value as platforms.”
For example, the church has held services and holiday events featuring superheroes, sports and other popular entertainment such as “The Walking Dead” and “Star Wars.”
He said such themes may have shocked some people in the community, but it helps to connect with people through pop culture and ideas that are already familiar to them as a means of contextualizing struggles in life and lessons from the Bible.
“We seize those as opportunities to share what God has to say, and a lot of people are looking for that,” McAvoy explained. “We capitalize on every aspect of life and show how God’s a part of that.”
He said church discussions also focus on topical events, tragedies and trends, and maintains an emphasis on personal responsibility, connecting with others and finding ways to make positive changes in one’s own life and community.
“Our area is known as being economically depressed, we have a lot of generational poverty and folks just struggling to make it, financially or in their marriages,” he said. It’s about breaking free from the victim mentality, that poverty mentality, and entering into that life to the full that Jesus said he came to bring us.”
McAvoy said being Free Methodist helps because the denomination lends itself to a greater amount of freedom in how they worship and structure themselves to do ministry.
In the past Free Methodism was not very different from other denominations in that all of its churches were instructed to do the same thing, kind of “cookie cutter,” but he said they found the same thing didn’t work in every community.
“Every community is different and the cultures are different and the times have changed, so we need to really exercise the free in Free Methodist and be free to conform to the needs and what works for the local community,” McAvoy said. “Demographics and interests of those particular people — rural, poor, country living, small-town feel, what they value — certain aspects of what you do for ministry has to be sensitive to that and work with it as opposed to fight it.”
McAvoy said Open Arms is not original in its modern, alternative approach, that he has seen similar methodology employed by various denominations around the country
“As far as the style and capitalizing on everyday life in society, lots of churches are doing it,” he related. “In our area, culturally speaking, we are a bit behind other parts of the nation as far as what’s trending — it takes a while for things to come into our area.”
Other denominations that are more open to the approach Open Arms is taking include Nazarene, Wesleyan and United Methodist, and in some cases Southern Baptist, McAvoy said.
“There is a difference between your style and the spirituality behind it,” McAvoy asserts, pointing to just three traditions for which he believes Jesus affirmed rituals: baptism, communion and the honoring of god with wealth in tithes and offering.
He believes being too ritualistic or using too much religious jargon can get in the way of attracting people who have never been to church and those who stopped attending church for one reason or another.
And McAvoy is not interested in luring people away from other congregations. He said the goal of Open Arms is to attract folks who aren’t already attending church so that they may be introduced or reintroduced to a Christian way of life.
“Even in this rural area, its 2018 not 1950 or 1242. Doing these ancient traditions — some people like them, but a lot more don’t. They’re not comfortable with them and they don’t understand them,” he purports. “It doesn’t speak to them personally as much, we try to find new things to do that will help people find God experiences and reminders in their everyday lives.”
McAvoy said when he started with the church in 2003, Open Arms was averaging around 50-60 attendees, and now Sunday services see numbers in the upper 200s.
“We’re not doing anything different today that 15 years ago, it just continues to grow as more lives are touched and we continue to partner with the community,” he said. “We’ve planted those seeds over the years and that’s why we’re seeing the growth right now which is pretty substantial for our area and something we’re very excited about.”
The church is growing so much, in fact, McAvoy said they ran out of room for their Christmas Eve ceremony and had to hold it at Bradford Area High School Auditorium instead.
He said they’re having a hard time accommodating normal Sunday services and they’re currently looking into larger locations where they would hope to accommodate as many as 500 people and possibly host community concerts, benefits or events.