Old Swedenborgian churches guide congregations on new paths to spiritual growth

Teachings grew from 18th century Swedish mystic
Old churches take new paths to spiritual growth
Old churches take new paths to spiritual growth
Posted at 7:00 AM, Mar 26, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-26 07:00:23-04

CINCINNATI -- What does a church do when the traditional model of ministering to the neighbors and meeting for worship on Sunday, with the occasional potluck dinner, just isn’t working?

That’s the question two sister churches have asked themselves for the past few years, as they’ve seen Sunday morning attendance dwindle to fewer than a dozen.

“We haven’t decided what we want to be when we grow up,” longtime member Pete Toot said of the New Church of Montgomery. That’s a bit of a joke, because the New Church is one of Cincinnati’s oldest religious congregations.

It began in 1808 in the home of Adam Hurdus, on Front Street between Vine and Race Streets in Cincinnati. Hurdus built a parlor organ -- the first in Cincinnati -- to enhance the worship services.

The New Church of Montgomery’s former home on East Kemper Road in Montgomery.

Originally called the Cincinnati Church of the New Jerusalem, it was one of several churches that sprung up, initially in England, based on the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish mystic who had visions of heaven, hell and angels -- which he described in his book, “Heaven and Hell,” published in 1758.

He was a Christian who had some surprisingly modern ideas. For example, he didn’t believe God judged anyone, but that love of self or the world drives one toward hell, and love of God and of others toward heaven.

In 1819, the local congregation opened its first sanctuary on Centre Street (later Longworth Street) between Race and Elm, which seated 350 people. The congregation grew large enough to spin off two other Swedenborgian churches, including the one now known as the Glendale New Church.

In 1902, the Glendale congregation paid Louis Comfort Tiffany, creator of Tiffany lamps, to make seven huge stained-glass windows for the Montgomery congregation’s new sanctuary in Walnut Hills. That building was torn down in 1964 to make way for Interstate 71, and the windows sold to the denomination.

(In the past decade, those windows, which depict angels from the book of Revelation, have been exhibited at museums around the country, including the Taft Museum in Cincinnati in 2011.)

The New Church of Montgomery moved to a new sanctuary on East Kemper Road in Symmes Township and stayed until 2010, when it was torn down after the congregation ran out of its endowment money, said Toot.

“It was a combination of ambitious programs and a board that was not willing to stand up and say, ‘This is too expensive,’ ” he said.

Since then, the church has been selling its property to rebuild the endowment, he said; it still has four half-acre tracts left. The endowment’s not large enough to support a minister, he said, so he sometimes preaches or gets other ministers to fill in.

The Montgomery church now uses the sanctuary of the Glendale church for worship, alternating Sunday mornings with the Glendale congregation.

Each congregation belongs to a different Swedenborgian denomination. The Montgomery congregation is part of the General Convention of the New Church, but the Glendale congregation is part of the General Church of the New Jerusalem, which split off in the late 1800s in a dispute in part over the authority of Swedenborg’s writings.

The Glendale church was built in 1861 by former Cincinnatians who moved to the suburbs. The congregation has never had more than about 30 members, but it has this going for it: There’s no debt on the building, said the church’s “very, very part-time” pastor, Clark Echols, whose day job is as a mental health counselor.

Opening that building to community groups is part of the Glendale church’s reimagined vision for itself. In addition to the Montgomery congregation, yoga instructors hold classes there, nonprofits use it and another small church rents it on Saturday nights.

The Glendale congregation also actively promotes the building for weddings, sometimes with Echols officiating. In 2016, about 18 weddings were held there, he said, but he’d like to double that.

“So many people want a spiritual ceremony, but they’re not connected to a church,” he said, and many churches will only let members use their buildings.

The congregation has also discovered that people are interested in their own spiritual development, but not necessarily in organized religion. So for the past 10 years, it has been hosting 90-minute, small group studies that require just a six- to eight-week commitment.

The church’s new model involves helping people grow spiritually through small groups and influencing the culture by having the community at large use the building. Echols is very excited about it, he said, but not every member is.

“The problem is that it’s such a radical change of mission … it’s difficult for all of us to welcome,” he said.

On Monday nights, the Montgomery congregation invites people in to watch “Swedenborg and Life,” a live YouTube show with more than 40,000 subscribers. It’s put on by the West Chester, Pennsylvania-based Swedenborg Foundation, of which Toot is a board member.

He’s been going to the church since the 1970s and he keeps on because it’s a welcoming place where he can have discussions about “serious issues at most any level," he said.

About four years ago, the Montgomery congregation took a look at “what other churches are doing when they’re not being a traditional church,” Toot said.

The congregation decided to pursue three initiatives: feeding the hungry, ministering to the lonely/elderly and teaching the illiterate. So far, it’s done more feeding the hungry than anything, usually working through existing groups like Matthew 25: Ministries.

It’s hard to get people to come to church, Toot said, but it’s easy to get them to do charitable work. A typical church service draws eight people, he said, but usually 25 or more will help out with a charity event.

“The work attracts people,” he said. “They will get together to help each other much more than listen to theology.”

Wherever they volunteer, the members also share the “unique and positive writings of Swedenborg, in hopes that it will open others up to their own spiritual path, whether or not they choose our church,” said Maggie Panyko, the chair of the congregation’s board. “We aren’t pushy.”