Sanctuary offers worship without the boring stereotype, weaving in skits, crafts, music and more

New OTR church encourages people to engage

CINCINNATI -- Say the word “church” to many people, and the first word that comes to mind is “boring.”

Hoping to change that mindset, churches have altered their worship services with electric guitars and drum kits, by playing rock ‘n’ roll music and shortening sermons.

Sanctuary, a new church in Over-the-Rhine that had its first Sunday worship service Oct. 2, is doing that and more.

Each service will have a 15- to 20-minute sermon, but it will be more story-based than lecture-based, co-pastor Shawn Braley said. Each service will end with a traditional communion ceremony.

But the rest of the 70 minutes might include a discussion, a craft-making time that reinforces the lesson of the sermon, a skit or an artistic performance.

The Oct. 2 sermon, for example, was about the Biblical character Zacchaeus, a short man who climbed into a tree to see Jesus over a crowd. During the sermon, an artist will be on stage painting a picture of a tree. Everyone will receive a paper leaf on which can be written a takeaway from the sermon.

Shawn Braley is a co-pastor of Sanctuary OTR.

The idea, Braley said, is for parishioners not to just “come and sit and consume, but actually come and engage, in community, with the things they are hearing that day.”

Sanctuary is the brainchild of Braley and co-pastors Greg Knake and Ben Rascona.

Braley is a former youth pastor at Rivers Crossing Community Church in Mason. He now serves as executive director for Cincy Stories, a nonprofit, monthly storytelling initiative.

At Rivers Crossing he met Rascona, a Deer Park native who was studying English at Wright State University when he felt called to join Sanctuary.

The three connected in the fall of 2014 when Northstar Community Church in Loveland, where Knake is outreach pastor, began looking for other churches interested in starting a new Over-the-Rhine church, Knake said.

They found they had a similar vision for what the church might look like, and a common love for the neighborhood.

“The diversity, the energy and excitement happening there are super magnetic to me,” Knake said.

In July 2014, Knake had started an event called Beer and Hymns, a bimonthly get-together at MOTR Pub on Main Street. Through that group, he met others interested in being part of a new church. A small church that met in homes was started in September 2015, with the intent to start a Sunday worship service within a year, Braley said.

They called it Sanctuary, he said, after the medieval idea of churches being safe places where people can take refuge.

Since then, they have been spreading the word about the church through community activities, social media and community service.

It’s sometimes been hard to get people to take the idea seriously, Braley said, because the church doesn’t have its own building – services will be held at the Woodward Theater, 1404 Main St., a local performance venue.

Theologically, the church is conservative, but not in-your-face about it, Braley said. Although all the co-pastors are men, he said, they’re open to having women leaders as well.

“We’re conservative theologically, but liberal practically,” he said. “We’re passionate about pointing people to Jesus and having that be our focus.”

The church isn’t part of a denomination but would be most similar to the Vineyard churches locally, he said. Knake’s employer, Northstar, was originally started by members of the Vineyard in Cincinnati, he said.

Sanctuary isn’t the only new church in Over-the-Rhine. As WCPO.com previously reported, Over-the-Rhine Living Water Church held its first worship service at 1610 Walnut St. in August 2015.

About 25 people have been attending Sanctuary’s home church meetings, Braley said, and about 25 more haven’t attended but are engaged in what’s going on.

His “big, giant dream” is that it will become a diverse community that reflects the composition of the neighborhood and can demonstrate what it’s like to love others who are different.

Knake agreed.

“A win is not how many people show up,” he said. “It’s more a win if we can create an environment where a person who is homeless can worship next to somebody who just spent half a million dollars for a condo on Vine Street.”

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