Bringing Collingswood the Good News
Jim Angehr and his family came to Collingswood to set up the latest in a growing number of Philadelphia-area Protestant RCA churches. He hopes the borough will be responsive.
For a few months, you may have seen this guy around town.
He might have been offering to hold a door, asking about a good place to eat, or just striking up a conversation. It’s possible he had his children in tow; it’s hard not to notice someone with four little kids doing anything.
He’s pitched in with local Sandy relief efforts. He’s invited heaps of strangers to his home for a drink. He even wrote a sponsorship-level check to support the Before the Bridge music festival, knowing he’d only be able to staff a table there for part of the day.
His name is Jim Angehr, and he came to Collingswood to build a church.
This town has an entrepreneurial streak. Behind most doors in the borough lurks the beating heart of an artist, performer, designer, activist; something.
So for Angehr, the question becomes whether an on-the-go community that is nonetheless home to stone-and-stained-glass houses of worship will embrace the good intentions of a new-model pastor.
A devotional growth model
The liberti church plant is a congregation of the Reformed Church in America (RCA). It’s a well-funded, mainline, Protestant denomination that, counting Collingswood, oversees five congregations in the Philadelphia area—in Center City, the river wards, Fairmount and the Main Line—as well as in Harrisburg.
Although it’s investing heavily in growing the brand. Angehr says he’s effectively got three years of diminishing annual support from the parent organization to see if he can get the Collingswood model up and running financially.
To do that, he's got to first fulfill the obvious expectation of weekly worship services, and as it is now, things will roll on a monthly basis until Easter. But Angehr said he’s glad it’s taken a few months to put this inaugural service together.
“I’ve really enjoyed this fall not having worship services because I got to do a lot more being with people, showing up at things. If we had started…immediately, I wouldn’t have been able to do that,” Angehr said.
“I feel like I’m able to speak on Sunday with genuine and not patronizing respect for and love of the community,” he said. “It’s not like I have a sense of arrival or I’ve done my three months of listening so now I’m going to talk for the next 20 years."
Forming practical partnerships
It’s not like Angehr hasn’t had a taste of different to know. He’s ministered in West Philadelphia and Lubbock, TX, and already senses a few themes to the spiritual makeup of the borough.
He speaks of encountering “people who are outwardly put together” but maybe suffering from “psycho-spiritual burnout.” He’s seen folks who identify with what he called “older Collingswood,” but who may be “priced out and shut out of the cool stuff” and “want to show that Collingswood and South Jersey is for them” too.
And then there’s people who he says may be “living out the small side of the American dream,” which can be “potentially selfish when it’s just me-and-my-own.”
Angehr’s also fully aware that these are conversations that are neither obvious nor that most people are prepared to hold with a guy who’s only been here for a season. He doesn’t claim have the answers, but he’s trying his darnedest to ask the questions in a helpful manner.
“I feel like God has led us here and God calls us to make the world better,” Angehr said. “Jesus wants us to put ourselves out more for the common good; to step out in community and service beyond where we’re comfortable.
"How do we do it in ways that aren’t patronizing or weird?" he asked. "If I don’t love and honor and respect non-Christians, I’m not being a good Christian,” he said.
“Jesus healed 10 lepers. One came back and said 'thank you'; the other nine didn’t,” Angehr said. “The important thing is that Jesus cleansed 10 lepers.”
‘Called to contribute in practical ways’
If nothing else, Angehr is highly conscious of how people regard his approach in a clouded, God-weary, contemporary audience. He’s a true child of New Orleans: a musical omnivore with a fondness for Old Fashioneds who got more than a little taste of home when Sandy came to Jersey.
He talks about "wrestl[ing] with skepticism and doubt," acknowledges "the horrible things the church has done over the centuries," and admits, "Sometimes when I pray it feels awesome; other times when I pray it doesn’t.
“Here’s a theological concept,” Angehr said. “I think there’s no ultimate contradiction between being a good Christian and a good human being.
"I think it’s a call to humility on the part of religious people in general—which, ironically, isn’t a hallmark of religious people in general," Angehr said. "If there is a God, He’s larger than we are, and God’s not necessarily going to be on our axis.
Angehr also has a firm command of Scripture (liberti hangs its hat on the Gospel of St. Luke) and an education on the antique cultures at the root of Christianity.
Even unpacking the name of the church means handling “a loaded term” that has a handy proverbial use, he said; “liberti” is what the Romans dubbed freed slaves.
“I think that there are different kinds of bondages and Jesus has come into the world to address all of them,” Angehr said. “Poverty is a bondage, injustice is a bondage, worshiping our careers too much is a bondage. Worship, mercy, and community are [our] key values, and to work in an ethic of love."
'We’ll try to be good neighbors and see if God gathers people'
Locally, Angehr is still making connections with people he’d like to help. His efforts so far have centered on ministering to seniors in nursing homes, and helping provide food or material relief for those in need.
The larger liberti network contributes internationally to things like irrigation efforts in Sudan, he said; what it can do through Collingswood will depend on the partnerships he forms in town.
“We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel in terms of service,” he says. “Churches are called to contribute to life and joy and peace, not just in warm fuzzy spiritual ways, but in practical ways.
“We’ll try to be good citizens and good neighbors and see if God gathers people," he said.
And even if liberti never takes off in Collingswood, Angehr said, he hopes to make a difference for as long as he’s around to do so.
“That would be the goal for liberti Collingswood five years from now," he said. "Even people who don’t believe in God would say, ‘Thank God for liberti Collingswood.’
"We want people to say ‘Collingswood is better because they’re here.’”