St. Joe’s Unplugged

This is the second in a series of reports on initiatives funded through the budget of The Episcopal Church in its grants to Mission Enterprise Zones.

St. Joe’s Unplugged is a mission of St. Joseph’s in Boynton Beach, Florida, whose focus is to attract people in their 20s and 30s, the unchurched, the de-churched, and those looking for a Fresh Expression of worship. The weekly Unplugged service began in the fall of 2005 as an ever growing joyful and soulful Sunday respite for humans being.

Guitars strumming, drums beating, and voices singing melodically, this service is a unique one for the Episcopal Church. For the majority of the service, you are on your feet, singing along to classic hymns, updated with a contemporary flare. The Unplugged service was born at the beach, with a portable sound system, chairs and a big cooler for an alfresco altar. The beach service was successful in that it was welcoming enough to attract strangers to join them. But the vagaries of south Florida weather – and blowing sand — eventually forced the group indoors.

The Rev. Martin Zlatic, Rector of St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church said, “We did focus groups with a professional marketing firm for the intended audience of the ’20-30 somethings’.” He went on to explain, “Universally, when asked, ‘if we were to design a church service that would meet the desired description you have given us, when would you like that service to be offered?’ – they all said early Sunday evening.” Based on this input, the service was founded at 6 pm on Sunday nights. On that day and time only 25-30 people attended in a typical week – very few of whom were in that age group. Zlatic notes, “Since the switch of the time to 11:45 am on Sunday morning, the attendance has continued to grow not only in the target segment, but with our intergenerational folks as well.” St. Joe’s Unplugged now has a sustained average of more than 130 on a typical Sunday.

Now led by St. Joseph’s Associate Priest, the Rev. Wendy Tobias, the liturgy continues to strive to be a haven for those looking to Unplug from stiff traditions, stale music or from churches who don’t welcome a questioning mind. Many come who are not “church” people at all. Others come to Unplug from all the ‘noise’ of life so they can better tune in to who and what they really are – loved, encouraged, and accepted by God.

The Mission Enterprise Zone Grant is providing key support for the continued ability to provide a dedicated associate priest and professional musicians for St. Joe’s Unplugged. Music by Live Hymnal led by Charles Milling continues to be a huge draw for these worship services and former youth band members are now working with youth as well as actively participating in services. Also, since receiving the MEZ grant, St. Joe’s Unplugged has been able to reach deeper into the Recovery Community, both through Tobias leading a small group in a treatment program’s once a month Spiritual Fridays and through Delray Recovery Center residents attending Unplugged. In naming some of what she has learned in leading St. Joe’s Unplugged, Tobias cited:

  • Risking experiential opportunities in the service has been met with increasing receptivity i.e. Word Beyond Words service, active prayer stations during prayers of the people, experiences during sermons e.g. Centering Prayer, Written Prayers of Release, parachute over everyone as an object lesson, vital preaching that challenges fear based theology.
  • We are also learning that it’s best to have real consistency in the details of the service i.e. lighting, sound, movement, timing.
  • Involvement of those in their 20s and 30s in service as candlelighters (especially newcomers when they are willing), greeters, ushers, prayer leaders, chalice bearers. Relaxed liturgical innovation helps them feel comfortable and a part of our worship community.
  • We are still trying to discern what is the best way to have a leaflet or not have one. We tried a tri-fold for a while with QR codes for our welcome video and announcements. Now we’re trying to figure out a different approach to a limited size leaflet. Tune In is a group just forming (20s and 30s) and they really want to have a slicker look, brief but then have some full page handouts for some appealing items like a Taking Faith Home sheet used in our traditional service.
  • I am learning that I need the 20s and 30s advisory group to help me navigate and advise and that I need to LISTEN to them and respond.
  • We are collaborating with our Diocesan Young Adult Ministry coordinator, Daniel Ledo, in planning some exciting networking with other young adult groups in our deanery and beyond.
  • Our Unplugged community really appreciates outreach through Habitat for Humanity, feeding homeless and needy through another local church, and our Mission Trip and efforts to the people of the Dominican Republic.

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