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Feb 2002 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

What if God Was One of Us?
By Amanda E. Doyle

The worship service is packed this Friday night, the warm bodies inside causing the front plate glass to steam over, and all eyes are on the pulpit, where a young man, eyes closed, intones the joy of lying in bed with his woman.

Sound like the churches you've encountered in the past? If not, welcome to the world of Genesis House, an experiment in what spirituality and ministry are all about.

Genesis House "What we're doing here doesn't fit into any categories of the church's Book of Order," laughs Bob McClellen, a retired Presbyterian minister whose enthusiasm and energy for the whole enterprise belie his age (71, as of a few weeks ago). "We're in the midst of modeling a very different understanding of what the church and worship and evangelism look like."

At Genesis House, what they look like is this: music nights that celebrate jazz, folk, R&B, gospel and classical music; art exhibits featuring various media and subjects; poetry and open-topic discussion groups; a Tuesday night fellowship and Bible study gathering; and open mike nights — standing room only, of late — with acts ranging from poets to flute players to down-and-dirty soul singers.

And, of course, coffee. "Coffee*Tea*Conversation," it says on the door, and the all-volunteer staff has just recently started doing a brisk-enough business in espressos, mochas, sodas, sandwiches, soups and baked goods to move beyond breaking even financially, after almost a year in business. The coffeehouse advertises "a taste of paradise," but it's not the coffee they're counting on.

"We are here to listen to the people who walk through our door, and to share their experiences with them, and to be an oasis where people can practice humanity and risk being real, with all the messiness and conflict and connection that brings with it," says McClellen. "That work and energy that result in a true community — that's paradise to me."

Coffeehouse ministries are nothing new: in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s, the famous "Potter's House" outreach program of the Church of the Saviour was begun as an attempt to bring the church to the marketplace, the sacred to the street. McClellen and his Genesis House co-founder, Lee Jones, wanted to stretch the idea one step further.

"We started to think, 'What if the coffeehouse existed, not as a ministry of a particular church, but as the church itself?' This is exactly what Jesus was talking about, and we think what the earliest Christian church must have been like," he says. "The Church, as it exists now, is essentially all about drawing lines in the sand between 'us' and 'them' and answering any questions with creedal statements. We are interested in finding out what happens when you break down those artificial walls of clergy and laity, when questions about God and Jesus are still open ones, before you had Books of Order that told you what to do and when to do it."

The crowd attracted to Genesis House, then, includes folks disenchanted with or uninterested in the traditional church, as well as non-Christians, non-believers and some people who just want a good cup of coffee.

"Are there people who just stop in on their way to work, buy a coffee, and walk back out the door without ever knowing or caring about the larger reasons we're here? Sure," says McClellen. "To them I say, 'You spent some money and supported us, so thanks very much!'"

Ron the barista But it probably won't be long before the volunteer barista behind the counter finds out their name, and remembers it, and says hi the next time they stop by. They may soon find themselves invited to come back for one of the evening events. That's part of the way Genesis House has built such a diverse audience for its events. Poke your head inside the next open mike night to see, wonder of wonders in St. Louis, a crowd that's racially, economically and age-diverse.

"Diversity was in the design from the get-go!" says McClellen. "What passes for community these days is our differences drifting to the side or disappearing, temporarily, but we don't want to suppress differences here. You and I don't have to agree with each other — look at the disciples for proof of that, where you've got Simon, sworn to kill anyone who was loyal to the Romans, and Matthew, who was a Roman tax collector — but they were able to both stay in it because they had their 'eyes on the prize,' as it were, and they both kept being drawn back in."

McClellen himself keeps being drawn back in by the challenges of making spirituality relevant to the world. As a college professor of religion in the '60s, he faced an indifferent to hostile audience of agnostic students and began seeking out what he calls "functionally equivalent" vocabulary to talk about spiritual questions without having to be overtly religious. To McClellen, the questions raised by religion, psychology, physics and sociology are fundamentally the same: "the problem is often vocabulary, different words for describing the same human condition." When he was the pastor of a Presbyterian church in West County, his congregation comprised physicians, engineers at the old McDonnell Douglas and other highly educated people who asked tough questions. "I learned very quickly that I couldn't slide by with 'Jesus loves me, this I know,'" he said. He and his congregation explored new paradigms for their church community. The challenges of building an entirely new model for community, evangelism and worship clearly excite him.

For now, Genesis House sits poised on the edge — of a still-developing section of The Loop, of financial stability, of its ultimate failure or success. "Who knows if this is the paradigm that will ultimately work for what the church will be in the next century?" McClellen asks. "We're learning a lot as we go, but we know that the traditional models — a 'body count' of membership rolls and other practices that defenders of the status quo love — are not going to carry us much further into the future. Whatever happens, it doesn't have to have the same structure or vocabulary that we've always been used to, but it does have to be human, it does have to be real."

Genesis House (6018 Delmar Blvd., 314-726-4063) is open Mon.-Fri. from 7-5, and Tues., Thurs., Fri. and Sat. evenings from 7-10:30. They are always seeking volunteers.

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