Breaking the Moldy Sunday Mold

This city has one of the highest unchurched populations in the country. It may just foretell the future. And that may be a good thing.

There’s an innovative church here that’s bucking the odds. It’s growing. And not just in numbers, but in life change and commitment to Christ.

Union Church, in the middle of secular Seattle, sprouted in 2006. But this is no ordinary cloned church plant. On your first visit you might find the pastor sitting in a semi-circle with other worshippers. On your next visit you might find the place deserted–everybody gone on a Sunday morning.

Pastor James B. Notkin explained the pioneers of Union decided from the get-go they didn’t want to be shackled by the status quo of church as we know it. And he wasn’t drawn to the celebrity pastor model that characterizes many new church plants. He asked, “What’s going to grow disciples?”

What resulted was a fresh approach to invite people to focus on three things: a commitment to Christ, the work of Christ, and the Body of Christ. The congregation rotates among these focal points from week to week.

Second SundayThe first and third Sundays of the month feature a fairly typical mix of music, prayer, preaching, scripture and communion. But the second Sunday breaks the congregation into small discussion groups that dig into God’s message for them. And every fourth Sunday the members don’t do a church service, they do a service church. They disperse around the city to serve others in various ways. Notkin said, “People understand this is all worship.”

This changed-up worship appeals to the unchurched, the dechurched, and “those who’ve been in the pews for decades but felt they weren’t growing,” Notkin said. “They’ve really embraced it.”

The discussion-oriented Sundays are bringing many men back to church. They really appreciate the give-and-take nature of the message.

Service SundayThe hands-on service activities on the fourth Sundays have provided a surprising outreach effect. Notkin thought the people they serve would perhaps eventually want to participate in Union’s church life. But, more often, unchurched people have accompanied Union members on the service Sundays, enjoyed the relationships, and have eventually plugged in to Union on the other Sundays.

After reading our book, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore, people often ask me for examples of churches that exhibit what we call the four Acts of Love–Radical Hospitality, Fearless Conversation, Genuine Humility, and Divine Anticipation. Seattle’s Union provides a growing example–and just maybe a glimpse of the future.

11 Responses to “Breaking the Moldy Sunday Mold”

  1. How far away is Seattle–I want in! What a fun (church = fun; it’s possible), wholistic approach to engaging people in the faith. I find hope here in part because my church is dipping its toe into the same pool. We’re closing the doors on some Sundays so the congregation can take part in scrubbing clean local elementary schools. Shifting some of the children’s programs to off-site neighborhood yards and community centers. Encouraging new leaders to emerge who lack theological degrees but have a heart for service and practical skills in organizing people and fixing stuff.

    It’s a breath of fresh air, a lift, a spring in the congregational step. It’s lovely the Settle church is building in this oppenness from the ground up, but a similar approach isn’t out of reach for existing congregations. We’re doing it more and more.

    A hopeful post–thank you!

  2. Thank you Thom for sharing this. As you hear of more in your travels, correspondence, etc. please do tell us about them! You have been doing a great job defining the problem. This is a nice step toward being a solution! These types of things really help me wrap my head around different ideas! :-)

  3. Loved reading this! Some great and practical ways of “doing” church in a way that does engage on so many levels! One of the things we get super excited about in being a church plant our selves is that creativity is limited only to honoring God and making much of Jesus every time we Gather, Scatter and Break as a community! God stuff! Keep finding the beauty of the church being reborn in America!

  4. Ali commented on Facebook: “Awww man, why does the commute to Seattle have to be so long! Although I am curious how children’s ministry fits into the 4th Sunday. Do the kids go and serve (even babies)?”

    • Yep. We have some projects that work better for kids than others. There is repackaging food for the food bank (bagging dog food is always a hit), making cards and treats for the women’s shelter, singing and assisting with a worship service at an assisted living center are some others. The older kids often kayak with parents and other adults to clean up floating debris in the neighboring lake. Some parents with young ones take the Sunday to host a meal in their neighborhood and the kids help make those new relationships with neighbors more natural. I don’t know how long your commute is but if you want to take a look or talk more swing by our café and we’ll treat you to some great sipping chocolate or Herkimer coffee and chat! Thanks for the interest!

  5. My new church which is about to start in a few weeks is going to avoid Sunday meetings like the plague, because that more than anything defines it as “church.” Ours is going to be a cafe church. We will meet in a cafe, eat food, share fellowship, discuss life, pray and learn scripture. No pastors, no platforms, no programmes, no preachers, no salaries, no religious communion just good food which is the real communion.

    We are going to focus on the fatherless and our goal is to grow and have a church like ours in every port as the spirit moves.

  6. Thank you Thom for sharing this. What an encouragement for those folks who know there should be more but are afraid to get out of the boat.
    Make sure you visit their website and watch the video on the “Our Story” page.

    When you read Acts 2:42-47, in order to have the impact they had on their community, you have to do what they did.

  7. PRO’s My husband and I dropped by Union a couple of times over the past few months and although the new form sounds like an exciting model of community it is very small with only about 100 people at their weekly service and no families with kids over the age of about 8 or so. (no facilities for them).. This isn’t a big deal in Seattle where less than 20% of the families include kids but it won’t work for our Junior high son and High School daughter.

    Someone in the comments mentioned they are opening up a coffee shop church and The Union actually holds their services in a space that is a simple coffee shop / conference space during the week to help cover what looks like pretty heavy over-head – 3 or 4 pastors for 100 people seems excessive.
    FYI Sadly in Seattle the only rapidly growing churches like Mars HIll are lead by non-affiliated “rock star” born again pastors and have become the new singles bars – dominated by young 20 somethings and the only “men” we saw at Union were husbands of the married couples, and the ratio of single women to men was about 20 to 10 unless you include a couple of homeless guys (who wander around during the service) so I wonder if the pastors comments implied other churches don’t even get the husbands to church?

    We were a little shocked however in progressive Seattle with one of the largest gay/lesbian communities to be in a small group with a couple of married couples (one couple used to attend Mars HIll ) who were very vocal about their belief that being “gay was a sin” supported by the Bible (when pressed they misquoted Old Testament scriptures)

    We did some reasearch and the larger church UPC they are affiliated with is part of a large group of anti-gay Presbyterian churches so perhaps you can’t really put old wine into a new wineskin afterall?

    • Hi Jennifer, you are right we have not targeted, “20 year old, backward baseball cap wearing video game playing” men ( to truncate the market profile used by former church in Seattle. Actually, we have not intentionally marketed to any group choosing not to reinforce the church-as-commodity mindset.

      That said, since you visited, our under 30 participation has grown and our under 35 is still the largest demographic. Men are still out numbered by women but the involvement of men, especially those for whom was their “wife’s thing” is strong.

      In true Presbyterian fashion, we do believe that “people of good character and principles may differ”–so as you did encounter a brother and sister who hold a view different from yours further conversation with others would have revealed a full spectrum of belief on homosexuality and most other issues. There is a strong desire to be a people in process who choose to be united in Christ and not by lock step beliefs as is evident by the commitment that many in our community have to others here who hold very opposite views.

      For the record, our overhead is indeed high. However it is due to the cost of the land in South Lake Union–not staff salaries (We have no full time staff). The café (a breakeven enterprise) and venue are run primarily as a way to serve and be present in the neighborhood–the financial benefit, while significant, is a secondary reason.

      Whether is Union is new wine or not is not our call. What I can tell you is that we see people, gay and straight living into the grace of Jesus, doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly (yours truly perhaps not so much) with their God. Blessings on you!

  8. I’d love to find a church that thinks outside the traditional church box. Christianity is active not passive, in this country we’ve make it passive.


  1. This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg - March 25, 2014

    […] Schultz shared, “Breaking the Moldy Sunday Mold,” sharing the story of Union Church’s unique approach to gathering, worship, and being […]

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