New Jersey church offers ‘flash mob’-style Worship Without Walls

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted Aug 5, 2013
The Rev. John Mennell speaks to worshipers July 28 at the corner of Church Street and South Fullerton in Montclair, New Jersey, during Worship Without Walls. Photo:Sharon Sheridan/Episcopal News Service

The Rev. John Mennell speaks to worshipers July 28 at the corner of Church Street and South Fullerton in Montclair, New Jersey, during Worship Without Walls. Photo:Sharon Sheridan/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] Wearing a traditional black clerical shirt and collar, and less- traditional black shorts and sandals, the Rev. John Mennell sits near a portable altar, waiting for stragglers. About a dozen people — one with a leashed dog named Gideon at her feet — sit facing him in two rows of folding chairs. Backed by the sounds of diners chatting outside a nearby eatery and passing vehicular traffic, Mennell rises and greets worshipers at the corner of Church Street and South Fullerton in Montclair, New Jersey, to the July 28 Worship Without Walls.

From the weekends of Memorial Day through Labor Day, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair is holding 5:00 p.m. Sunday Eucharists in public, outdoor spaces.  Similar to “flash mobs,” participants are alerted to the location each week via text message. Passersby are encouraged to join.

“It’s fun to see different people’s reactions,” said Mennell, the church’s rector. “Last week, we ended up in the park in a walkway. … This one woman walked through with her dog, and her dog desperately wanted to join in the service.”

When the woman walked through a second time, Mennell invited her to join them. “She politely informed me how the dog leads her to the temple each Saturday.”

Such invitations, accepted or not, are among the points of Worship Without Walls, Mennell said. “Part of it is getting people used to inviting people in in ways that are uncomfortable.”

“In our beautiful Episcopal reticence,” he said, churchgoers don’t stand on street corners talking about Jesus. “This is about as close as people comfortably get.”

“If I told my congregation, ‘Go out on a street corner and witness,’ they’d run me out on a rail,” he said. But worshiping together publicly, “it’s really doing the same thing.”

On this particular Sunday, nearly 20 people ultimately joined the service, with a few passersby stopping briefly to check things out.

“As people come by and look curious, invite them into what we’re doing,” Mennell instructed the congregation. “We will sort of go with the flow.”

Mitch Goodrich was running an errand in town when he stopped and joined the service with his sons Henry, 8, and Calvin, 19 months. Turns out, he knew Mennell years ago at Church of the Redeemer in Cincinnati, before the Montclair priest attended seminary.

“This is fantastic. It’s so good to get out and let people see what’s going on and see who you are,” Goodrich said. “We need to do more of this in the Episcopal Church.”

One man in a baseball cap interjected comments several times during the service. Listening to the Old Testament reading on Abraham bargaining with God about the fate of Sodom, he announced: “We’re doomed.”

“No we’re not,” Mennell reassured him. “We’re saved.”

Later, during the sermon, the priest asked the congregation what stopped them from praying.

One woman replied that her concerns are “too small and insignificant.”

“Alcohol and chicks,” said the man in the cap.

“Different addictions often stand in our way,” Mennell replied.

“Guilt,” said another congregant.

“Satan,” added the man in the cap.

“Jesus has power over Satan,” said Mennell, spurring a brief dialogue over this theological point.

Such engagement, if sometimes challenging, is not unwelcomed.

“Part of breaking down walls [is] we can’t use the walls of the church as a barrier to keep people out and keep ideas out,” Mennell said later.

For the first time that summer, weather interrupted the service. With the onset of a rainstorm, the worshipers brought the prayers of the people to a speedy conclusion. Then about half of them headed to a nearby diner to conclude the service and eat together. They ordered food, then completed the Eucharist.

Worship Without Walls recently prayed near the intersection of Worship at Bloomfield and Mission Streets, scene of two Montclair shootings. Photo: St. Luke's, Montclair.

Worship Without Walls recently prayed near the intersection of Bloomfield and Mission Streets, the scene of two Montclair shootings. Photo: St. Luke’s, Montclair.

At the peace, besides greeting each other, they followed an extra ritual: pulling out their cell phones and texting “Peace be with you” to someone. The offering, as always, went to a local organization, this time Montclair Conversations on Race. Another week, the congregation worshiped near where two shootings had occurred. Worshipers prayed for an end to gun violence and designated the collection to CeasefireNJ, an anti-gun effort.

Often the group will follow worship with a meal, Mennell said. “It’s a fun way to continue the fellowship.”

That night’s dinner conversation ranged from an explanation of what “catholic” means to the spiritual journeys of young people. St. Luke’s member Michelle Cruz, a recent college graduate, discussed how what she had learned through science confirmed her faith. “It is so complicated,” she said. “I don’t think it could have come up by itself.”

Attending her first Worship Without Walls with her father, Felix, she said she appreciated being outside.

“Texting’s cool,” she added. “I texted one of my sorority sisters. She’s a Silesian Catholic.”

Elsie Lockett also attended for the first time. “I like it. It’s different, and it makes it less structured,” she said.

The Rev. Joseph Harmon, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in East Orange, attended the July 28 service with an eye toward starting a similar ministry with his congregation. “We’ve been discussing how Christ Church can become a more missional church and in particular how we can engage the East Orange community more effectively,” he said.

Len Roberts, a regular Worship Without Walls participant, said he thought that’s just what St. Luke’s was doing in Montclair. Taking the Eucharist out into the community lets people know that the power of Christ is in the community, “not just in church,” he said.

St. Luke’s is one of multiple Episcopal churches within several miles and is reaching out to some of them to join in a nearby Worship Without Walls. Worshipers from Christ Church, a mile and a half away in Bloomfield and Glen Ridge, joined St. Luke’s for one service.

“One of the points is breaking down all of these different barriers that we have as we come together in Jesus’ name, and it was really fun to come together with another Episcopal community,” Mennell said. “We sang the same songs and said the same words. There’s no service leaflet to this. It’s a really powerful thing to see what we all know and do and share together, almost as powerful as inviting people into what we’re doing.”

“What I would love this to become is a different model of doing church,” Mennell said. “We’ve got the best thing in the world to offer. We need to get better at giving it away.”

To sign up to receive a text message with the location of upcoming Worship Without Walls services, text “stlukesmtc” to 41411.

— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.

Comments (13)

  1. Lorraine Connor says:

    Meeting people where they are is the key, and St. Luke’s is doing just that..wonderful !!

  2. I love this idea. I would love for us to be able to do something like that here in the Diocese of Fort Worth!

  3. Albert Westpy says:

    It gave me a lot of joy to read this story and learn that Saint Luke’s is doing so well. Bless you.

  4. Rev. Vicki Gray says:

    This is the vibrant future of God’s church. As good Pope Francis put it in Rio, “we cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel. It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door and be there, farthest away, with those who do not usually go to church. They too are invited to the table of the Lord.”

    Insisting that “no one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world,” we are called, he said, “to have the courage to go against the tide…to keep alive [our] sensitivity to injustice”…and to foster a “culture of solidarity” to replace the “selfishness and individualism” of modern society.

    And these cannot remain just mere words. They must be the stuff of our deeds. Like the “Slum Pope,” we must go to the slums, the prisons, the schools, the hospitals, the retirement homes…and city hall, to encounter the world, to comfort and to challenge.

    In San Francisco, we are doing that in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood where UCC, Lutheran, and Episcopal ministers of the San Francisco Night Ministry have been providing Sunday Eucharist for the last five years to a regular congregation of about fifty at our outdoor Open Cathedral and providing lunch to about a hundred. We are there every Sunday rain or shine and so are the faithful. For the past two years, we have been providing a similar service in the city’s largely Hispanic Mission District on Thursdays. We have witnessed lives being turned around and have , baptized several new Christians, performed three weddings…and one funeral. And we have walked with many through their time of trial with drugs, alcohol, mental illness, homelessness, and rejection by families and “respectable” walled churches.

    You can learn more about the San Francisco Night Ministry, which will celebrate its 50th year next year, and its Open Cathedral at You can also learn about Boston’s Common Cathedral and Ecclesia Ministries at

    Montclair’s Worship Without Walls is a welcome addition to the growing Ecclesia movement. We wish it well. Again, it is the future of the church.

  5. Karen Birr says:

    Wow! What a wonderful way to bring the Gospel to the people. I like this idea. I will certainly pass this on to my Priest. Keep up the good work, St. Luke’s. May you keep bringing the Gospel to the people.

  6. Dana Downes says:

    This is wonderful. I’m going to share this with our Bishop

  7. Laurie Charkins says:

    So enjoyed John at the baptism of Ellis Blue and little Michael, and thought that John’s message about “be not afraid”, and his progressive ideas about outdoor church were very inspiring. If I didn’t live 3,000 miles away, I’d be there! Think that Montclair has a treasure in John!

  8. Melanie Barbarito says:

    I love this!!! Great idea, John. But in Fort Worth, I think that summer’s probably not the time to do it. When it’s 105 degrees at 5 p.m., everyone is looking for an air conditioned place. If, by chance, Mitch Goodrich reads this far . . . so good to read about your coming upon John’s service. Hope you are doing well. Mother Melanie (once on staff at Church of the Redeemer in Cincinnati)

  9. Laurie Charkins says:

    I need to correct myself – it was my God-grandon Stephen Blue’s baptism, not my
    God-grandson Ellis’ – If you could correct my comment and change it to Stephen I would be very grateful! Thank you!

  10. The Rev. Alice Roberts says:

    I have been holding an outdoor service on the Common across the road from the church every summer Sunday at 8am. I call it ‘Commonchurch’. Word of mouth has gone around and the attendance includes people from all over town including dogs. It is relaxed and friendly. The sermon is a discussion of the appointed Gospel. Many have said they would like to find a way to continue, but in New Hampshire it would have to be inside. We sing, pray and have communion.

  11. Sheri Simpson says:

    Wonderful idea!! We are the area of the “church of none” (Pacific Northwest) and we all say that nature is our church. No walls–doesn’t scare anyone. Good Job!

  12. Julian Malakar says:

    God is everywhere, whether outside or inside of walls. God cares about our repented heart which is inside; trust and believe of Christ’s sacrificial death on cross for my sins, as free gift for my salvation.

  13. Katerina Whitley says:

    I am sure St Paul would approve. Every ekklesia he founded must have started in the street or the square. Wonderful evangelion!

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