Eighteen months ago, a handful of suburban Presbyterians began worshipping together. With the help of a newly obtained minister, the group sprouted and grew into a healthy Presbyterian mission. Sunday, the founding members saw their mission blossom into Burke Presbyterian church.
The Rev. Roxana Atwood, who nurtured the Burke congregation from its start, began her venture equipped only with a list of names. With the help of some members of Grace Presbyterian Church in Springfield, where her husband, James, is pastor, she began canvassing neighborhoods, placing newspaper ads and spreading the word.
Although Atwood said living without a church building can be inconvenient, it helps people learn that a church is the people and not a building. "Biblically the church was in homes, on the move, without a lot of structure or leadership," she said.
"The children of our church will have to think of the church as people, because their building keeps moving around!" said Atwood, one of only a few organizing women pastors of a Presbyterian Church.
Atwood said that although some people are attracted to a new church for the excitement, many more are "turned off" by the amount of work they know it will require. Many surburbanites know they will only be here for two or three years, and they know they'll never see a building.
In addition, being a congregation without a church building means worshiping in outside facilities. The 175 members of Burke Presbyterian Church usually meet on Sundays at a Burke community center, where they must arrive early in order to set up chairs and sometimes clean up the remains of the previous night's party.
"But that's good!" Atwood insists. "It helps to remind us the church is in the world, a community center is a place which speaks to people."
Atwood, 43, and the mother of two grown children, said her nine years as a missionary in Tokyo gave her the courage and motivation needed to build a church from nothing.
Being a pastor and a pastor's wife sometimes gets too demanding, said Atwood. It's the kind of job you never finish. There's always something else you can do."
Her children are very important to her, she says, and so are the 20 children in the congregation.
Before her regular Sunday sermon, Atwood calls the children to the front where they gather around her on the floor.
"She tells them a simpler version of our sermon and asks them questions," said Helen Richards, a church elder with two young children. "She listens to what they say -- which sometimes is so candid it embarrasses parents!"
Richards said that, unlike past experiences, her children never want to miss Sunday services. "She makes them feel like they're an important part of the church and they really love her," said Richards, who admitted she was apprehensive at first about joining a "new church."
Atwood said another advantage to a new church is that it attracts more adventurous people, who are more willing to try experimental worship styles and less likely to doubt her credentials because she is a woman.