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Simply Spirit-Led: How ‘The Bridge’ is Bypassing Complication for Community
In the Bible, we hear of an old story where God’s spirit moves with God’s people by way of the tabernacle and the arc of the covenant. Further on in its pages, a newer story is told where the veil of the more modern tabernacle—the Temple—is torn as the Son of God takes his last breath.
Many believe this symbolizes humanity’s direct access to God, without need of priest or perfection. The Holy Spirit moving with now becomes the Holy Spirit moving within. A few weeks later, the Church is born, and a movement begins without.
Some may wonder what it was like to witness the phenomenon of going from with to within to without. How does the heart of a structure become the heart of a people and then the heart of a community? It seems the members of The Bridge in Lake Charles, Louisiana have a pretty good idea.
In the early days of last year, Rev. Chris Hyde was having relative success growing University East (a new sister campus of University UMC in Lake Charles) through traditional church-planting methods. Then came 12+ months of blight, and all bets were off.
We reached out to Rev. Sam Hubbard, Assistant Director of Congregational Development and Transformation for the Louisiana Annual Conference*, who described the calamities faced by the southwest region of the state over the last year. First, as shared by the rest of global society, the rumors of the novel coronavirus soon became the onslaught of COVID-19— redirecting if not halting life for this Lake Charles community in March of 2020. Five months later, just as Louisiana’s second spike in COVID cases began its crucial descent, hurricanes Laura and Delta made their landfalls with barely a month between their winds. The pandemic-preoccupied world watched as devastation multiplied for Louisianians and multi-billion dollar property damage accompanied the loss of even more precious lives.
People Need Connection
“Insult to injury” feels like too weak of a phrase when considering that the still-recovering and the pre-vaccinated region was then met with record-breaking low temperatures and an ice-storm that granted Lake Charles the name “America’s Most Weather-Battered City” in February of 2021. Then, like a never-ending nightmare, just before United Methodists from all over Louisiana gathered virtually for our Annual Conference, flash floods shook the already overwhelmed area and its people. Survival would have been enough.
But hope had other ideas.
“When there’s a disaster,” Rev. Chris Hyde says, “people need to be connected more than ever.” And connection is what the congregants of University East-turned-The Bridge in Lake Charles have found.
Chris, in an interview with Sam Hubbard (which will air this week on the Office of Congregational Development and Transformation’s official webcast, NP2Cast) explains that as the city faced blow after blow, the people of University UMC were doing all they could to keep the main campus afloat while questions about the future of its new plant began to surface. Would their eastside building (once intentionally opened to the community 7 days a week and now damaged alongside 97% of Calcasieu Parish) persist through the pressures, or would momentum cease before the church could reach that significant 5-year church-plant milestone?
They Began to Dream
What would soon be realized was that these questions weren’t quite creative enough for Chris and his leadership. Instead of wading the waters of “survive or crumble,” they began to dream: What did the first church look like? What if we took everything apart and tried something new? What will the church be on the other side of all this? What do we want it to be?
The result of this imagination? They call it The Bridge, and it is now a growing network of backyard house-churches designed to offer space for the over-churched and un-churched. Those who want to explore their relationship with Jesus through more than just an hour on Sundays, those who have been hurt by institutional religion, and those who (along with 60% of the U.S. population) live their lives outside of sanctuaries are finding community here.
“It started off with dinner,” said Chris, painting a picture of the group that has gathered in his backyard over the last several months. Those who arrive by personal invitation alone (The Bridge has no webpage or marketing) gather for a potluck dinner on Monday nights followed by a devotion that focuses on spiritual intentionality and practical application of the topic. The liturgy of The Bridge is not accompanied by a bulletin directing announcements and prayers. Rather, their casual and approachable post-dinner discussion begins with a simple question: How have you seen God at work this week? Somewhere, John Wesley—who opened his own small group gatherings with the question How is it with your soul?—is smiling.
This intimate setting is not simply incurring growth in numbers, but there is also great evidence of depth in discipleship and explosion of energy. One might say the Spirit that moved within has now begun to move without as those once burned by all-things-Christianity or those unfamiliar with scripture, on the whole, are feeling at home in a faith community, diving into scripture commentaries on their own, and looking for God at work in their lives in the days between their gatherings.
Small is Big
Rev. Sam Hubbard has noted in reflection of The Bridge, “We over-complicate church and discipleship.” Rev. Chris Hyde echoed this by stating that the story of his church is one of simplicity, which can be “scary to people when we have a whole industry around this big, massive, complicated structure.” But in a world of disconnected congregants and exhausted pastors and program staff, Chris shared that sometimes it is hard to fall asleep on Monday nights after the connections being made and energy being exchanged in his family home in the hours before.
When asked what truth this specific NP2 Initiative has to offer Louisiana United Methodists at large, Sam replied, “Small is Big. The smaller you go, the better disciples are made, which then has a bigger impact.” That impact does not just stop with those backyard bonds being built; rather, The Bridge, having remained connected to University UMC, now has several University members training to become house-church leaders as well.
Is the church dying? We’ve all heard it asked. The numbers would suggest that, yes, at least the church as we’ve known it is on a fast decline. But, as Chris pointed out, “People are still talking about God, and God is still moving. Let’s go find them.” They’re finding each other in the places where real life happens: around real tables filled with real mismatched side dishes, asking real questions about what faith has to say to their real day-to-day existences. When disaster and devastation struck, real people got real creative about news that is still really good for this moment in time. They took it back to the basics of making meals and making space, together. With the community set to have ten replications by the end of the year, I’d say it has made all the difference.
A week after the tearing of that temple curtain, eight weeks before the tongues of fire danced over the people who shared all that they owned, Jesus held up real pieces of a real meal and said, “This is my body and blood. When you gather in homes like this and share it, remember me.” God’s Kingdom was not in trouble in that upper room of Jerusalem before the Light of the world was executed; and it’s not in trouble now in the backyards of Lake Charles, Louisiana amid relentless devastation.
Like resurrection after tombs, aid after disasters, growth after dwindling, and calm after storms, hope abounds among those who scandalously believe that the Spirit of God is with the people of God—that the Spirit is still moving today.
Thank you, Chris, Sam, and the folks of The Bridge for reminding us.
The Louisiana Office of Congregational Development and Transformation exists to resource and support churches in the Louisiana conference to live out their calling to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in their unique contexts.
They work with churches in all stages of their life cycle, including NP2 Initiatives (New Places, New People) like The Bridge.
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