Cody Schuler: Doing life together centered on Jesus

Beer and Hymns

The Gathering is a congregation in Fargo, North Dakota, that is trying to meet people where they are -- literally and figuratively. Because they don't have a church building, worship, meetings and study sessions take place in a variety of places, including Beer & Hymns at a local brewing company.
Photos by Kaylyn Stroh

The Gathering in Fargo, North Dakota, is a year-old United Methodist congregation that doesn’t have a building to call its own. What it does have, says its pastor in an interview, is a desire to welcome people who don’t feel comfortable in traditional church.

The Rev. Cody Schuler figured there had to be others like him -- turned off by church but hungry for Christian community.

Cody Schuler

So after several years working in established churches, Schuler founded his own United Methodist congregation, The Gathering. The idea, he said, was to offer a place for people to question and discuss and share their doubts -- as well as their faith.

“This was really about creating space for folks who don’t fit elsewhere and need a space of hospitality and a place of healing. We’re attempting to be a faithful community as we grow in our connection to God,” he said.

The congregation doesn’t have a building, so Schuler spends his time working in coffee shops and a co-working space, an experience that reflects the essence of what The Gathering hopes to be: flexible, friendly, open to all.

Schuler spoke to Faith & Leadership about The Gathering as a new form of church. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You were recently featured in a local newspaper story about co-working spaces. You’re co-working because your church doesn’t have a building. How did that come about?

Because I don’t have a church building, I don’t have a territory to claim as my own. I really embrace that idea of the world as my parish. I come and work here at this space a couple of days a week, and it’s put me in connection with lots of folks.

I did a wedding for somebody who’s a part of this co-working space, and she and her now husband have come to church a couple of times. I don’t know whether they’ll come find a home with us, but they definitely have connected to our community.

I’m not trapped inside the stained-glass windows at all, because we don’t have any. We’ve only been in existence for a year, so I have no idea where this will lead, but we’re interested in finding ways to do ministry in creative, sustainable ways.

As someone who was a pastor who almost left church, I struggled to see where I fit in, the kind of ministry that I wanted to do, the kind of things I was feeling called to. I recognized I can’t be the only one that feels that way.

This wasn’t about planting the next megachurch. This wasn’t about planting the next greatest and coolest thing -- to be hip and awesome in town. This was really about creating space for folks who don’t fit elsewhere and need a space of hospitality and a place of healing. We’re attempting to be a faithful community as we grow in our connection to God.

Q: Where did the idea for your congregation come from?

I’d been an associate pastor. I arrived at a place where I was ready to do something different, and actually had thought of leaving ministry at that point. I basically took a sabbatical year and went and was on staff at Urban Village Church in Chicago.

Then I came back to the Dakotas Conference, back to Fargo, where I had seen in my previous ministry a whole population of folks that our churches weren’t reaching. As a pastor out in the community, being a young adult in the community, I would constantly encounter other young adults that were not churched or had left church.

I started to network with them, and from the ground up, starting with zero, people started to grow up a movement to start a different kind of church.

I was technically appointed to be a part of the historic downtown church, and we were going to originally be a ministry site of that congregation. Things took a different path as that evolved, in that it became obvious at some point that being attached to a historic congregation maybe wasn’t the best fit, and so we moved on into being an independent plant.

Q: What are the needs you want to address?

I met people regularly who would say to me, “Oh, you’re a pastor. I’ve never met a pastor like you. I would maybe come to your church.”

I was living with the reality that the particular individuals that I had these conversations with would not fit -- or would not be welcomed -- maybe in any congregation in town.

So it really was just realizing that church the way we do church doesn’t fit everybody, and that perhaps we need to come up with different ways of being church in order to connect with a variety of people’s lifestyles, people’s spiritual questions.

One of the things that I experienced was a lack of willingness to question in church. In this congregation we’ve started, I have this woman who’s one of the “spiritual but not religious.”

She says, “I get God, and I get the Spirit” -- she gets the divine stuff -- but she doesn’t know what to do with Jesus. God becomes human? That part still trips her up, and so she’s figuring out Jesus even though she’s very spiritual, and she very much gets two people of the Trinity. It’s the third that she is still trying to figure out.

We embrace that and say, “Hey, let’s figure that out together.” We are open to a variety of conversations that would be shut down in other places. And we’re also welcoming to the LGBT community, which was not prevalent in other churches here in town either.

Q: How does it function?

We gather once a week on a Sunday morning [at a community theater]. We have a very casual and informal service. We use a blend of sacred and what would be called secular music in different ways. We’re very careful about the sacred music that we select. It’s not just your average praise songs and hymns but things that definitely speak to our community more and nurture us and challenge us.

For instance, on Sunday I preached on the Lord’s Prayer, and we followed that with an old ’80s Bon Jovi song called “Livin’ on a Prayer” that everybody knows and sings at karaoke. We did a Johnny Cash song one time that worked really well in an unexpected way. We try to be creative.

The sermon time is very conversational. I don’t ask rhetorical questions. I ask actual questions, and we actually have conversation.

We have other activities, like a pub theology where we meet and have conversation in a restaurant somewhere where people can invite their friends and sit around and talk about a topic that we frame. Nothing new and innovative -- lots of churches are doing that kind of thing. But it’s very much at the core of who we are from the way we started. It’s not something we added on.

Instead, we’re saying if we’re going to be a congregation that’s about faith and doubt, a community that’s trying to follow Jesus, then we’re going to have these places where people can feel comfortable.

Q: Are you trying to bring them to a particular theology or discipline, or is the conversation enough?

We’re a Methodist church, but what we are is Jesus-centered -- following in the ways of Jesus. We recognize that that looks different for different people. The early church oftentimes was called the Way before the word “Christian” was invented, because it was about modeling oneself after the way that Jesus taught to be human.

So that is the most important part of who we are. From there, we are about the conversation and figuring that out together. What we’re trying to do is form community.

Q: And you are still part of the Methodist Church.

Yes, yes, yes.

Q: And in what ways is that important?

My preaching and my teaching as the pastor of this group is very Wesleyan. You know, prevenient grace, justifying grace -- that is there. That is present in what we do, very much so.

To say that God loved you before you knew it, and God is transforming you if you are open to that, and you have a choice to make about whether you want to accept and welcome God’s love into your life -- these are core Wesleyan tenets that are there.

As far as being United Methodist -- we’re living in a world where brand loyalty to the denomination just doesn’t exist anymore. The denomination that we’re affiliated with is not the first thing in their mind. It’s the relationships and the community that they’ve built, and so it’s just a different way of doing church.

I’m giving them options. I’m trying to shape and guide them and have them be a part of the conversation as well, but we’re never going to say, “You’re not welcome here if you don’t believe X.”

Q: So what’s next for your congregation?

We have about 50 in attendance. I would say that finances are one of the things that make some of our decisions for us. We get Conference support, and someday that won’t be there, and so I likely will become a bivocational pastor.

I think that church buildings and salaries eat up the majority of the budget [for most congregations], and we as a congregation have talked a lot about how we want to use our money to make a difference in the world. How do we share our resources, and what does that look like?

So those are the kinds of conversations and things that are happening outside the big questions about “What do I believe?” “What happens to us when we die?” and “Who is this Jesus guy?”

We’re trying to be a community, this eclectic group of people doing life together centered on Jesus.