The Church That Is a Neighbor

How a Tennessee church of 60 is discovering what it means to be a neighbor

A couple of years ago Patrick King was asked to perform a house blessing in his urban Knoxville, Tenn., neighborhood. But this wasn’t just any blessing—it was for a severely autistic woman who was moving onto his block to be next door to her caregiver, and it was to take place during a neighborhood outdoor party.

 “There were 100 people spread out over four houses and yards,” King recalls. “But when it came time for the blessing, everyone gathered. I knew some were Christians and some were adamantly against [Christianity] but they came anyway in support of Barb.”

As he stood on the front stoop, facing his neighbors, King had an epiphany.

“I knew this was symbolic of where I wanted my life to be,” he said. “The idea of the parish priest ringing the bell and everyone comes running for church is long gone. This is the day of the neighborhood as your abbey, and I wanted to be these people’s priest whether they knew it or not.”

King’s mission to plant a city church had actually begun a few years earlier. After seminary, he and his wife Caroline had moved to Knoxville, her hometown, where he was drawn to inner-city ministry. He saw the geography as more than fulfilling a need—he discovered it had spiritual context as well.

“You want it to be your neighborhood,” he said, “not something you’re seeking to save. The neighborhood is not a problem to be solved. It’s a gift to be discovered.”

King, who had studied monastic tradition and abbey life, found a parallel between that ancient tradition and the modern-day city.

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“Everyone says if you want a great city, it needs to have mixed-use development. The monks caught on to that centuries before us,” he said.

Along with about 30 other like-minded Christians, Patrick and Caroline moved from the suburbs to the city and launched Old North Abbey in 2009, first meeting in homes and then in 2011 renting a storefront in an historic building, where they meet today. Following the Anglican tradition, the church decided on two commitments. The first—to share the communion table weekly—came naturally for the liturgical congregation. But the second—to share an actual dining table almost every night—was more of a challenge. Yet it fit perfectly with the church’s mission, King explained.

“So much of a community is centered around being a family and sitting around a table, it just made sense to build this way,” King said.

Called “Food for All,” the program rotates church members from home to home five nights per week. Participants can opt in and out, and although not all 60 participate weekly, non-members do filter in, drawn by the convenience.

“We’ve had neighbors who eat with us who might check out the church a few times but then they just eat with us and that’s fine. We’re happy to be friends,” he said.

King was also intentional about his church’s neighborhood involvement. Rather than starting new ministries—the church is surrounded by inner-city volunteer organizations—he attended numerous local civic meetings to look for where the church should be serving.

“I thought, ‘Why don’t we just jump onboard with what’s already going on and learn how to be good neighbors in the context of what’s already happening?’” he said.

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At one of those meetings—a committee discussing redevelopment—King was the lone pastor among bankers, real estate agents and developers. During the meeting, someone asked him why he was there and he shared his thoughts about city sidewalks and how they influence relationship building. Afterward, one of the developers enthusiastically approached him with an outreached hand.

“I’m an atheist but I wanted to meet you,” he said to a surprised King. “I agree with you—there is something spiritual about sidewalks.”

Although the church clearly performs outreach—that block party was one effort, and members frequently offer service to their neighborhood—King is uncomfortable with the term.

“‘Outreach’ is a tricky thing,” he said. “I want us to have a long-term presence with neighbors so that we can truly be called friends. If that’s outreach, so be it.” —Christy Scannell

Old North Abbey

Knoxville, Tenn.