Snapshots of Renewal: Sacred Journey Church

“Snapshots of Renewal” is a series in partnership with The Gospel Coalition New England that offers context-specific glimpses into the developing movement of the gospel in New England. This snapshot is provided by Todd Murphy who serves as the pastor of Sacred Journey Church (CRC) in Providence, RI. Sacred Journey was started in 2009 and is a part of the Acts 29 Network. He is a regular blogger and a published author. You can also listen to audio of Todd and other NE leaders discussing Gospel-Centered Church Planting at TGCNE ’12.

TGCNE: Within the context of New England, what is unique about Providence?

Todd Murphy: Providence is the second largest metropolitan area in New England after Boston. It boasts about 1.6 million people in the metro area. It is home to the Ivy League, Brown University, the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and to many other colleges and universities.

Economically, the state of Rhode Island is suffering. RI was one of the most severely hurt states in the last economic downturn. Most properties lost over 50% of their value (great time to buy here!). RI managed to be edged out only by Michigan, taking second place for the highest unemployment in the country.

Religiously, Providence is considered the most Roman Catholic county in the nation. Estimates range from 60-73%.  In reality, church attendance is 25% at its max, and more likely around 10%. However, people are very open to religious dialogue. It is not uncommon for me to strike up a conversation about faith matters with strangers. They are not adverse to dialogue, only to aggressive and disrespectful evangelistic techniques. 

The population is ethnically diverse. The majority of Rhode Islanders are of English, Irish, Portuguese, French or Italian descent. In more recent times it has developed large Hispanic and African-American populations, and it has also become a home to a number of diverse international refugee communities.

TGCNE: If someone is passing through Providence, what must they take time to see, do, or hear?

TM: Historic Newport is still a prime vacation spot. People travel from all over the world to vacation there. It still boasts the great mansions of the “Gilded Age” such as The Breakers, the summer home of the Vanderbilts. There is some good surfing off NewPort and Tiverton. The Narragansett Bay has what are considered to be some of the most ideal sailing conditions in the world. Also, if you are hungry, head to Federal Hill in Providence.

TGCNE: How long has your church been in this community?

TM: I began Sacred Journey by doing a men’s Heidelberg Catechism study. A few young men and their families quickly grew into a core team. We started in October of 2009, alternating between evening services and home groups twice per month. We transitioned to Sunday morning services in April of 2010.

TGCNE: Give us a glimpse into a typical Sunday morning at your church.

TM: Sacred Journey is a Congregation of the Christian Reformed Church. You might describe us as having a high view of the church and a historically high Reformed theology, but with a big warm smile on our face. If you want to know where we stand theologically, you need look no further than Heidelberg Catechism. But our biggest emphasis in our ministry is repentance and discipleship. We embrace our Reformed roots but do not waive that flag. I constantly remind our people and visitors that we are not here to make “Calvinists” but to make disciples for Jesus who love and obey his word.

Our Church is made up mostly of young and middle-age families. Our children range from toddler to teen. I have six boys of my own ranging from 2 to 17. We also have college and grad students, working professionals, and folks in the trades. We do not share any one demographic. We have a lot of ethnically mixed marriages in the church.

Our Sunday gathering is comfortable, but structured. This means it focuses on worship, word, creed, and sacrament. We are not into “hip and cool” but rather “tried and true.” We begin by corporately celebrating the doxology, a psalm, and the Lord’s Prayer. After this we transition to a time of music which we might call  a blend of contemporary and traditional songs. Then comes the preached word followed by weekly celebration of the Eucharist. After closing with the creed and a song, we have coffee and move to a time of sermon discussion for those (especially our leaders) to ask questions and unpack the content of the sermon.

TGCNE: What are some of the other gospel preaching churches in your area?

TM: Here are a few of the gospel preaching churches in the area:

  • Christ Reformed Presbyterian Church, Pastor Daniel Howe
  • Cathedral of Life, Pastor Jeff Williams
  • Godspeed Fellowship, Pastor Tim Zulker
  • Renaissance Church, Pastor Scott Axtmann
  • Sanctuary Church, Pastor Andrew Mook
  • Christian Hill Community Church, Pastor David LaChance Sr.
  • Trinity Presbyterian Church, Pastor David Sherwood
  • Grace Harbor, Pastor Kevin McKay
  • Cranston Christian Fellowship, Pastor David Gadoury

This list is not complete, but it gives some of the key churches in the area.

TGCNE: Are there unique opportunities for gospel ministry in Providence that you feel are not being acted upon?

TM: This is a great question. There are in fact large immigrant and refugee populations that have sought asylum here in Providence. For example, it is home to many Liberian and Nepalese refugees. People who can contextualize gospel ministry for these and other populations have an amazing opportunity for the gospel. These communities also need leaders and church planters who have received solid theological training. Unlike the traditional white churches, the ethnic churches are booming. Unfortunately, because of the limitations of traditional academic models, many of the leaders within these communities have not had the opportunity to get the robust training and support they need. This is one reason we have been working to start the St. John Center for Discipleship. We hope to provide regional gospel training, especially to those who cannot attend a traditional seminary.

TGCNE: Every ministry context comes with unique challenges. What often makes ministry in Providence difficult?

TM: First, Southern New Englanders are often religious enough to not really feel they need the gospel. It is common for us to speak of being “spiritual but not religious.” This is usually coupled strongly with a “good person” mentality. Thus, real gospel ministry and discipleship will usually only happen over long-term, sustained relationship.

Second, throwing up a sign and door hangers to plant a church may seem to work, but in actuality these methods have the potential to be counter-productive. If you take that approach, you will siphon the bored and disgruntled from their existing churches, but you will not reach the unchurched for Jesus. Making disciples here will cost you relational investment and time. Your church will grow much slower, but it will ultimately be healthier.

TGCNE: What tangible signs of gospel renewal are you currently seeing in Providence?

TM: It is always amazing to watch how the gospel changes lives. Often people come to faith in the most unexpected ways. If you are faithful, you will also see a mighty amount of life change. Lately, we have seen a number of families come to faith. In the case of one new family, there was a wife who had some evangelical background and a husband who thought religion was simply something that was helpful for bad people. Over time they were immersed in our community and gospel culture. Both of the them were challenged, and in a short time her faith was shaken and renewed. At the same time, he came to faith for the first time. We celebrated by welcoming the husband and the couple’s children to the church through baptism. They are an integral part of our church now. He serves on the music worship team and she is a director of one of our key service ministries. Everyday we see them growing as a family, being more transformed by the gospel and an ongoing practice of repentance. This is one of many stories we could tell.

There is a growing restlessness within God’s people here. We are realizing that the gospel and discipleship take commitment. More and more we are encountering people who are hungry for discipleship and are eager to be trained as active laborers in the harvest. On top of this we are seeing a growing interest in church planting in Southern New England.

TGCNE: How can other Christians pray for Providence and Sacred Journey Church?

TM: Our vision at Sacred Journey is to shape and promote movements of discipleship culture in Providence and Southern New England. We are doing this through the ministry of the church and aiding that with the St. John Center for Discipleship. While a key focus of this is church planting, we think the most important ingredient is discipleship. We agree with Mike Breen who has said that, if you build churches you might get some disciples, but when you make disciples, you always get the church. That is what we are about and that is what we ask prayer for. We would ask you to pray for us in the following ways:

  • That Sacred Journey will be equally proactive and teachable in making disciples and shaping gospel leaders.
  • That the St. John Center for Discipleship would be able to raise the funds and support it needs to provide discipleship training and theological education to regional leaders.
  • That there would be more workers for the harvest in Providence.

Having learned a bit about what God is doing in Providence, take a moment to pray for Todd, Sacred Journey Church, and the community that they are seeking to reach with the good news of the gospel. Thank God for his renewing work all over New England, and be encouraged to speak and live out the gospel in your own context.

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