Show Notes

When you hear the word “church” you are likely imagining something that is very particular to your time and culture. But the church is 2,000 years old, and has many different expressions. This episode will introduce you to a variety of expressions of Church throughout the centuries.

Elaine Heath is an ordained in the United Methodist Church, who has served as a professor for eleven years at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and as Dean and Professor of Missional and Pastoral Theology at Duke Divinity School, Duke University. After retiring from Duke she led Neighborhood Seminary, a non-profit which she co-founded to provide theological, practical, and spiritual formation for lay people to know how to help their neighborhoods flourish by participating with what God is doing in their neighborhoods. She currently lives with her spouse at Spring Forest, a multicultural intentional community in rural North Carolina, where along with 7 friends they tend a forest and small farm that support immigrants who experience food insecurity, hold day retreats for small groups and individuals, and host a decentralized mission church, The Church at Spring Forest. She serves as Abbess for their residential community, and Theologian in Residence for their church.

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Interview Summary

“Being called an ‘instigator’ was the best introduction I’ve ever received,” shares Elaine Heath, a profound voice in reshaping modern Christianity. With her extensive background in both pastoral roles and academic settings, Elaine has dedicated her career to fostering innovative expressions of church that resonate deeply with today’s societal needs.

Elaine Heath‘s journey is marked by her tenure as a professor of evangelism, a dean at Duke Divinity School, and later as the founder of the Neighborhood Seminary. Her work focuses on equipping laypeople with theological and missional training to effectively “neighbor well” in their communities. This approach not only enhances the spiritual depth of individuals but also empowers them to have a tangible positive impact on their surroundings.

Innovative Expressions of Church

Elaine emphasizes the necessity of reimagining church practices to connect with individuals outside the traditional church setting. “We need to meet people where they are, in their everyday life, and not just within the walls of a church,” she explains. This involves creating faith communities that are accessible and relatable to everyone, especially those who might never step into a traditional church setting.

Our mission is to bring the church into the spaces and places of everyday life, making the gospel accessible to everyone.

Historical Inspirations

Reflecting on her inspirations, Elaine discusses how historical figures like the Apostle Paul and the Desert Mothers and Fathers pioneered radical, community-focused faith movements that challenged the status quo. These figures inspire her work, reminding us that the church has always been called to evolve and address the needs of its time.

Just like the Apostle Paul, we are called to realize that God’s love and mission are boundless, extending far beyond the walls of any church.

Spring Forest Community

The Spring Forest community, founded by Elaine, serves as a living laboratory for her ideas. It’s a place where spiritual formation and community healing are intertwined with daily life. Here, community members engage in sustainable agriculture, support refugee resettlement, and participate in shared spiritual practices, creating a vibrant, supportive network.

At Spring Forest, we live out the gospel by connecting deeply with our land, our neighbors, and our innermost spiritual needs.

Challenges and Adaptations

The journey hasn’t been without its challenges. Elaine shares the initial struggles with funding and bureaucratic hurdles, which prompted strategic adaptations. The community shifted focus, emphasizing local neighborhood initiatives and forming robust partnerships with other organizations. This adaptability underscores the community’s resilience and commitment to their core mission.

Each challenge we face is an opportunity to rethink, reimagine, and recommit to our mission in innovative ways.

Elaine Heath’s visionary approach offers a compelling blueprint for modern faith communities. By integrating the sacred with the secular, and fostering an environment of inclusivity and adaptability, she challenges us to rethink what it means to live out our faith in the world today. Her work is a testament to the power of persistent innovation and deep commitment to community healing and spiritual renewal.

Reflection Questions:

  1. How can your community benefit from innovative expressions of church?
  2. In what ways can you contribute to healing and transforming your neighborhood?
  3. How can communities balance tradition with innovative practices?
  4. What does it mean to you to “open the imaginations” of people in your community?
  5. How can the challenges faced by your community become opportunities for growth?
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