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.
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.
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.