Wild Goose

New Life for the Church That Died

Over the past 100 years this little church in rural Virginia has diminished and closed its doors several times. But now the church is hopping. And the banjos are only part of the story.

For years pastor Edwin Lacy admired the vacant old building from afar. And then he had the opportunity to imagine a wild new future. He dreamed of a new kind of church that would reach the unchurched–with a distinctly Appalachian flair.

Lacy chose the name Wild Goose Christian Community. He said the wild goose, in Celtic traditions, is a symbol for the Holy Spirit. “A wild goose will also sneak up behind you and bite you in the seat of your britches — an apt metaphor for how the Holy Spirit often works in our lives,” he said.

To help make the old building a welcoming place for the locals, he removed the pulpit furniture and installed a fireplace, and replaced the pews with a circle of rocking chairs. It’s a decidedly relational atmosphere. It fits the worship style that features banjos and fiddles. Lacy himself helps lead the lively singing with his clawhammer banjo. Edwin on the banjo

The setting works well for Lacy’s conversational messages. He recently told an NPR reporter, “I’ve tried to get away from the performance and audience relationship that I had seen in so many traditional church worship services. And so we have discussions. We read some scripture and everybody participates. I learned early on that just ’cause I had a seminary education did not mean that I knew as much about scripture or theology as a lot of the people sitting in the pews.”

None of this takes place on Sunday morning. That’s because Lacy and the congregation see no need to compete with the area Sunday-morning churches. Instead they meet on Tuesday evenings. Beginning at 6:30 p.m. the faithful arrive and and share a potluck supper before the worship time, which is called Wild Goose Uprising.

Potluck

When Lacy started he hoped for 15 regular participants. Now, one year later, 30 to 40 people gather weekly for a meal and the Uprising. Keep in mind this church is located somewhere in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There is no town–just a post office that’s open two hours a day. Some Wild Goose people drive over an hour to attend. Every week the rocking chairs get occupied with a diverse bunch of men and women, from teenagers to 90-year-olds.

Lacy said, “Forty rockers is about the limit.” A couple of times they’ve squeezed in more, but that meant they needed to form a second row around the circle. “The group dynamics completely changed when we had to have a second row.” So now he’s thinking about eventually adding a second night to the Uprising weekly schedule.

Lacy, a second-career pastor, hopes this Wild Goose will inspire others to experiment and break the trends of church decline. “I hope it helps other small churches think differently before they lock their doors,” he said.

What to learn from the Goose

This church exhibits some examples of the “4 Acts of Love” that we describe in our book Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore. For instance:

1. Radical Hospitality. Replacing the pews with comfortable, movable seating encourages a relational environment. And beginning the evening with a shared meal extends hospitality in a sensory way. And meeting on Tuesday is friendlier than Sunday.

2. Fearless Conversation. The messages here aren’t lecture-based. The pastor shares his thoughts and encourages meaningful conversation within the service.

3. Genuine Humility. Pastor Lacy acknowledges that others in the room may know more than he does. “There’s leadership, but we’re all in this together,” he said. And the idea of a small church is fine with him. This church isn’t looking to be the biggest Sunday morning show.

4. Divine Anticipation. The people of the Wild Goose invite and expect the Holy Spirit to act in unexpected ways. “God is in this place,” the pastor says.

This church brings a whole new meaning to the wild goose chase.

27 Responses to “New Life for the Church That Died”

  1. We had a church in our town that did something similar. Many who attended were the unchurched group- people who had not been attending a church since they were kids. It sounded like a good idea. They started in a rental space and then purchased a vacant church for cheap. But, even though they had a large attendance, only a few gave an offering. You can only run on fumes for a while. The unchurched don’t get it that it takes money to run a business, they come, they are bodies but are usually takers, not givers. Please solve that problem.

    • that’s the problem with a lot of people there taker’s and unlearned the word tell’s us what to do money wise and every other wise, I don’t understand how God made the rule’s and we decide which one’s we are going to keep, you just as well tare page’s out of your bible, and Rev. say’s any man who add’s to or take’s away, will have these plague’s added unto them, don’t people know that when God say’s give and they don’t that is as big a sin as any, people are unlearned and disobedent

  2. Great essay, Thom. It sounds like a worshipful, uplifting environment there in the hills! I also support the concept that worship opportunities need not be crowded exclusively into 11AM to noon on Sundays. Quick question: Owing to the congregation’s rural nature, do they in any way observe the Sacred Harp? Keep up the good bloggery!

    • Tealeclipse, I don’t know the answer to your question about the “Sacred Harp.” In fact I didn’t even know what that was. Had to look it up. Fascinating.

      • as long as people worship and spend time with God, by getting in his presence it don’t matter if it’s in a barn, just get some where and get in his presence we need the presence of God back in our churches, every where, he is what we need

      • have you talked about the sacred harp sounds interesting

      • Hi, Sherry. The Sacred Harp is both a hymnal and a 19th century style of worship singing. I believe that It predates shaped note singing (the old “Red Book” of such congregations as Free Will Baptists and others) and still retains its identity. The hymnal itself was first compiled in 1844 and revised only four times, the latest being 1991. The singers, unaccompanied and in sections (treble, alto, tenor, bass) sit in the “hollow square” with the leader in the center. All parts face each other. Melody is sung in the tenor. (Male and female singers co-mingle within sections as needed.) The Leader, standing in the center, announces the tunes to be sung (New Britain; Holy Manna/ “Amazing Grace,” “Brethren We Have Met to Worship”), and goes on from there until the meal, after which the singing continues. My local Christian bookstore owners had never seen a shape notes hymnal; my Sacred Harp was indeed a mind-wraparound challenge. The movement began in New England and ultimately settled in the Virginias and Appalachia. I have found that the tunes are oddly pentatonic, perhaps for no reason other than their places of origin. I was first introduced to the Sacred Harp during my music studies at Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt) in the 1970s, where there were annual Sacred Harp singing conventions.

      • Evangelist Roger Culwell July 26, 2014 at 12:06 am

        thank’s Sherry I knew it was a religious thing some thing they don’t want to change or the church won’t change but I didn’t know the org. of it. I am in TN. here it’s stamp’s baxter hymn’s and quartet’s, when I was a B. got delivered to full gospel praise and worship, I have to get in the presence of the Lord, if you just going to have a meeting leave me out, I got meet with the Lord

      • Evangelist Roger Culwell July 25, 2014 at 5:23 pm

        not sure about the harp, have heard the organ called that, it is usually something they won’t get rid of know matter what, some call it a sacred cow, just something you don’t touch, there not going to change or don’t touch. could be a slir toward religion, I think it was a religious slir thrown in

      • The Sacred Harp has been in existence since before its earliest codification, 1844; You can look it up.

      • Evangelist Roger Culwell July 25, 2014 at 11:56 pm

        oh thank’s I new it was a old way of doing thing’s when they say religious cow, well I came out of the religious stuff when my wife died, went to full gospel and praise and worship music, we have to go where the holy spirit lead’s us and do what he tell”s,us some time’s that require’s change, I sung in a quartet back then, and the old stamp’s baxter hymn’s they call them here in the south, but it was close to what she mentioned, 4 guy’s, but if God lead’s to change we got change, and some will not change know matter what, as long as the change do push God out, we need a relationship with the Lord and sadly most churches don’t have it, even though he died on the cross to have fellowship with us we still will not talk to him today, most talk at him he want’s to be in the conversation, he want’s a relationship with us.

  3. Amazing. So many interesting ways to think “outside the box”. It’s like taking church puzzle pieces, dumping them out of the box and then putting them back together in fascinating new ways. My (late) husband had degrees in both psychology and business, so I learned a lot about how groups of people interact in different settings from him. It’s interesting to me that Lacy said “The group dynamics completely changed when we had to have a second row.”

  4. That is a fascinating story. I think we all need to remove the pulpit furniture and get down to some real discussion.

  5. I love how the Holy Spirit can inspire a person to see things differently and to create an environment that welcomes the Presence of God. So very different, but so effective in that arena.

  6. I appreciate the importance of ‘discussion’…so learning occurs vertically, laterally and internally…all at once, in multiple dynamics. This sounds like a fun (old) way for the body to work out teaching and learning. And I love the Blues and am fascinated by Appalachian culture…just came back from that area. I am familiar with Shapenote singing, and “lining” and traditions in the south where musical instruments are not allowed in service (thus the Shapenote singing). Interesting how there are so many expressions of worship. Enjoy your blog and important discussion. The internet has opened a lot of doors.

  7. Went to their site. Hoping to visit some Tuesday this summer. Sounds like a wonderful place.

  8. What I take away from this is the culture…you HAVE to relate to the culture you are in. For him, banjos and rocking chairs, others coffee bars. You have to create environments for the culture you are to reach!

  9. I just blogged about this church too, after David Murrow linked to it on Facebook. Sounds like a blast!
    – Kathleen

  10. This sounds good, especially for the pot luck thing. That is what the early church did. They didn’t scrimp on the Lord’s Supper then like now with tiny cups of juice and a tiny unleavened square of bread not fit to even be a meal for a mouse. The thing about pot lucks or a real supper is people spend time talking and building relationships…. not like shaking hands and saying hello at the end of the song service. That’s about as good as the tiny wafer of bread. You don’t build community on a weekly hand shake. I build relationships at work by talking about everything but work.

    • To be sure, Holy Communion is a sacrament; worshipful, contemplative, a platform for remembering Christ’s sacrifice until His return.
      It’s not a pot luck; that’s something different entirely.

      • Reality Check June 6, 2014 at 8:28 pm

        Funny you should say that. The New Testament church sat down for meals, not so called holy communion, which is fairly obvious if you read ALL of 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34.

  11. OK, here goes: Lord’s Supper/ Holy Communion should not be confused with potluck/ carry-in; sacred should not be confused with social; although each has its role. The scripture reference then indicates that one must determine for oneself one’s worthiness to participate. The kicker is that, in a prior verse, Paul insists that there is to be no arguing in the congregation. How’s that working out, by the way?

    • Do you ever think the church has taken things to a bit of an extreme with the silvery shiny trays, tiny little glass cups on the fancy table engraved with “Do this in rememberence of me” covered with the red cloth? It was probubly at the beginning or middle of dinner when Jesus grabbed a loaf and broke pieces off, dipped them and passed them around. I would have said ripped but the bread must have been dry and hard, hence the need to dip it. If it had been made with no yeast, I’m sure it was hard and dry and need to be softened else everyone would be breaking their teeth. I’ve had communion with both leavened and unleavened bread but some of the churches I went to weren’t so fixated on all the items being perfectly representative. This is a heart thing anyway. It’s best not to create and value physical things because the world will just trample all over it… the institution of marriage for an example. All the physical things are just something that represents something spiritual and it can be expected the world will make a mockery of anything they get their hands on. The thing I value, the world can’t see, can’t touch and can’t have, nor can they take it from me.

  12. Roger Steinbrueck Reply June 13, 2014 at 9:40 am

    The photos invite me to come on in and set a while. After reading of this congregation I am left longing for a place where I can gather with my brothers and sisters in Christ as a family. And it is obvious that I’m not alone in the desire to find a place to be with friends. I am left meditating on how I can connect with and/or foster this where I live.

  13. We are doing this same thing with a new church plant. It get’s tricky when it gets about that big, tho. It becomes harder to keep it conversational. We do a lot of discussion in smaller groups where I set the conversation in motion and they take it where they want it to go. It’s a beautiful thing.

  14. I would like to know how many people have accepted Jesus Christ into their heart since this church setting has started. While I agree in having small groups for Bible study, I believe too many times we have lost focus of our mission of rescuing the perishing. We have made all kinds of adjustments to our buildings, seating, and the presentation of the message. I have observed that we have made it so comfortable that we have become more of a social club instead of pointing people to the cross. The message of the cross is still the needed message to see hearts and lives changed for eternity.

  15. In my mind the worship gathering should not be confused with the mission field. The gathering together of believers is important what ever the format and the breaking of bread together definitely leads to relationship with one another and we want to celebrate and encourage one another for the greatness God is calling us to. The mission field however is not from 10-12 Sundays it is the rest of the week. Yes we want to draw people into our fellowship and worship times but ultimately we want to open doors for the Spirit to draw them to Christ. The Goose sounds like a great way to help people to grow up un Christ and together in love once they are invited in!

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