Pastor Peter Hong asserts that Chicago’s New Community Covenant Church “exists to provide an alternative to those tired of religion.” But the four-year-old, ethnically diverse congregation certainly embraces its identity as both spiritual and religious. “So much of what has gone wrong in the evangelical community is this notion that the Christian faith is a private faith,” says Hong. “It may begin as a personal faith, but it was never meant to be a private faith.”
This distinction describes well a church equally invested in the spiritual lives of individuals and in its religious role as a corporate and communal body. Community is an underlying value of all the congregation’s ministries, from service- and fellowship-oriented small groups to lay-led prayer before Sunday worship. Hong notes the closeness of the words “community” and “communion,” a theological connection echoed by fellowship team leader Olivia Littles: “We talk about how Christ’s death and resurrection reconciled us not only to Christ but also to the world.”
New Community does more than talk about such doctrines. It strives to respond to Christ’s apostolic call to geographically concentric circles of ministry, from local to global, because, as Hong explains, “we believe that this is where the heart of God is.” The congregation is involved in international missions; it also runs a warming center a few blocks from the church office. The latter began three Chicago winters ago as an outgrowth of ad hoc ministry to neighborhood homeless people. A homeless acquaintance asked church staff member Katie Sandford where the nearest warming center was; Sandford and other staff responded by creating one. The largely volunteer-run facility now serves more than 30 people daily, providing daytime access to material supplies, communications, and social services referrals. “Most important,” says Sandford, “people are treated with dignity and respect.”
These same values motivated the multiethnic and justice-seeking team of women and men that founded New Community. The church has since outgrown multiple worship spaces and added a second service, bearing witness to its identity as an alternative not to religion itself so much as to irrelevant or inadequate expressions of religion. Hong sees New Community as part of a broader trend toward a faith both personal and communal, of a “transition from the old paradigm to a new one.”
Steve Thorngate is editorial assistant at Sojourners.