Under yoga teacher Candice Schaer’s watchful eye, 19 small children from the Head Start program at Esparto’s Countryside Community Church bent forward into downward dog pose, punctuated by enthusiastic rounds of age-appropriate yips and barks. The Thursday afternoon adult yoga class, the last before Christmas, was beginning in the social hall in a few minutes.
But first, Schaer told the Head Start kids who had dropped by from a nearby classroom, “We’re going to hug a Christmas tree.”
The children, ages 3 to 5, held their arms in a circle in front of them. Their shining faces tipped up at Schaer.
“Drop your shoulders,” she instructed them. “Raise your elbows. Yes, what a nice Christmas tree we’re hugging. Are we going to sing ‘Jingle Bells’ hugging the Christmas tree?”
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And so they did, their voices bright, as the first members of the adult class straggled in to the social hall. For the adults, their unconventional worship session – their yoga class, which connects their spirits as a community – began as it always does, with smiles at the children’s energy.
A traditional Christmas story presents readers Santa visits and Nativity scenes. Traditional worship invites congregants into church pews to listen to sermons. But to many religious leaders, a new era calls for new approaches to worship: As mainstream Protestant congregations grow older and smaller, lacking younger churchgoers to take their place, the Presbytery of Sacramento and the national 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement of the Presbyterian Church (USA) are looking to meet people where they are in their lives, rather than waiting for them to show up for Sunday morning services.
“This is a grass-roots, spiritually led movement that’s bringing new life and hope to the church,” said Vera White, who directs the 1001 New Worshiping Communities program through the Presbyterian Mission Agency in Louisville, Ky.
“And that’s what the Christmas story is all about, hope and expectation and moving to a new future. When you reflect on the Christmas message, we think of the shepherds who were outsiders in their culture but were among the first to get word of Christ’s birth. These New Worshiping Communities are reaching people who may have felt left out of the mainstream church.”
Instead, they’re at a twice-weekly hour of yoga in Esparto – and at weekly meetings in homes around midtown Sacramento for sharing Scripture, along with once-a-month Theology Pub sessions at the Old Soul coffeehouse in Oak Park. Some of them get together for simple Sunday evening meals in Carmichael and perform disaster relief work across the country and around the world. Others attend a series of faith-based storytelling events and creative writing workshops.
It’s a hands-on version of worship, rather than one that involves sitting and listening to someone else preach.
“We’re meeting spiritual needs that people wouldn’t admit has anything to do with church,” said the Rev. Ken Winter, who retired last summer as pastor of Auburn Presbyterian Church and leads the local Presbytery’s New Worshiping Communities grant-making committee.
The goal, in a decade’s time, is for the church to nurture 1,001 of these new worshipping groups across the country. So far, White said, there are about 260 groups, heavily clustered on the West Coast, which tends to have lower church membership but be more open to spiritual innovation. About a half-dozen of local groups receive grants from the Sacramento Presbytery, which represents 25 churches in the region.
The New Worshiping Communities skew younger – about a quarter are specifically for millennials, White said – and draw heavily from unchurched ethnic populations.
“All that goes against the rule of thumb for planting churches, which says that the only way to form a new church is on 28 acres in an affluent suburb,” she said. “We have them forming in trailer parks and tattoo parlors.”
And in the Sacramento apartments of the Rev. Jeff Richards and the dozen members of The WordHouse, a ministry that involves gathering to discuss the Scriptures and their lives. The WordHouse has received New Worshiping Communities grants from both the local and national Presbyterian church.
Most members are in their 20s and 30s. Some of them also attend Sunday services at area churches, Richards said, but most prefer to participate instead in The WordHouse’s smaller, more personal worship meetings, which include the monthly Theology Pub evenings.
“There’s still a spiritual yearning to people,” said Richards, 38. “They want to worship God here in the real world in a way that makes sense. They want their experience and talents to be used toward the church’s goal.
“We’re fulfilling that human piece that what we do as a people matters. It’s not about coming to church one time a week to be filled up and sent out. It’s about living a life being inspired by Jesus.”
The Rev. Jeanie Shaw has devoted much of her ministry to disaster relief work. Where there have been hurricanes and tornadoes, mudslides and floods, she takes groups of Sacramento volunteers to help rebuild people’s houses and lives. Back home in Sacramento, she gathers her volunteers and others – about 80 people in all – for soup and prayers on Sunday evenings. After meeting in her home for months, the Eventide community now meets at Grace Presbyterian Church as a New Worshiping Community.
“There is no greater gift than the gift of enabling someone to be a neighbor to someone in need,” she said. “That’s what I believe we do.
“It’s difficult to find how to help, but people want to help. We’ve created a way for people to help in the most meaningful way there is, by picking up a hammer and saw. Then we come home, and we share these stories of people whose lives are transformed.”
In Esparto, once the Head Start kids returned to their own classroom, four women stood on their yoga mats, their hands pressed together in front of their chests, as Candice Schaer led the Countryside Community Church yoga class in a brief prayer. That’s about as overtly religious as this particular New Worshiping group gets.
But there’s a warm sense of community here, a shared sense of caring and spirituality.
As they made their way through shoulder exercises and plank poses, Schaer urged the women only to do what they could without straining. Behind them stood a Christmas tree, and a couple of stockings hung on a nearby bulletin board. Together, class members watched out for Connie Jones, 65, a retired bartender with severe back problems. Scrappy but physically fragile, she can’t pull herself off the floor without difficulty and usually uses a walker.
“How you doing over there?” class member Lisa Powell, 49, called to Jones.
“Don’t push it,” advised Charlene Landreth, 49.
Jones said the classes help keep her back pain under control. She has come to Schaer’s yoga sessions for only a few months, but that’s long enough to persuade her to attend Sunday services at Countryside, too.
“God works in your life when you don’t even know it,” she said. “It doesn’t make a difference to me what church you go to, as long as you believe in God and try to do the right thing by others. I know God is directing me.”