The Road to Recovery – Jen Jesse, “Recovery Worship” Founder

For the month of May, We Talk. We Listen. is presenting a special series on mission development, also known as “church-planting.” However the idea of simply planting churches doesn’t exactly fit with any of our authors – case in point, meet our first author – Jen Jesse, who describes herself as a church disruptor  – and share some of her thoughts about how the life of faith is a form of recovery, recovery from a world (and churches) that try to make people forget that they are loved by God – and that when it comes to creating community waiting for permission and sanction isn’t an option. Sometimes you just have to do it.

Read, comment, and share!

Francisco Herrera, Interim Blog Editor

questino mark

“All are welcome,” right?

There was a time when I was settled at a church here in Utah – active in various ministries and activities, including leading contemporary worship – and this idea came to me for a modern, inclusive, ecumenical worship service. Yeah, that’d be cool, I thought. Maybe with dinner. Sunday evenings, for people who can’t/don’t attend Sunday mornings. These thoughts trickled in over several months, as thoughts do.

Then one day, while I was working on something completely unrelated, this word appeared in my mind: Recovery.

I’d always hated when churches “name” a service – it usually just comes off as trying too hard to be relevant, and there’s almost never an explanation for the name, just a random word like “The Edge” or “Summit” or “The Point” or anything else that sounds fancy.

But “Recovery” was like the first spark of a lighter that catches a flame. It held firm.

So many of us are recovering from harm and abuse thrust upon us by society and by the church. So many of us are recovering from beliefs and traditions, man-made as a method of control, rather than living God’s liberation and love for all.

So many of us are recovering from our own sin, our own part in the kyriarchy, our own learned behaviors and attitudes that we inherited; trying to overcome these misconceptions so that we can practice love instead of exclusion.

Many of us also feel the need to recover, as in reclaim, what has been given to us by God and what man has threatened and attempted to steal away. Our rights, our freedoms, our liberation, our grace, our call.

And, as a friend in AA pointed out, recovery is also about coming together as a community, open and vulnerable.

praying hands

Is faith itself not exactly this – recovery?

My spouse and I have tried to attend various churches, but something had changed inside – whether something great had broken or whether something broken was healing is debatable, but I suspect it’s a looping cycle of both. As the song goes, “I once was blind, but now I see.” I couldn’t help noticing things that were exclusionary and limiting. And I couldn’t stand idly by.

Microaggressions and overt harm abound in churches as they do in society at large, and a single person cannot even perceive them all. The walls of the church do not block out the kyriarchy, the false lords of whiteness, male-ness, cis-ness, hetero-ness, rich-ness, Europeanness, English-speaking-ness, grad-school-educated-ness, able-bodied-ness, allistic-ness, elite-ness… Kyrie eleison.

One Tuesday morning in January 2018, I wrote the following intro/explanation into a Word document:

A new worship service with some liturgical structure and traditions at its foundation, but stripped of man-made exclusivity and kyriarchical influences as much as possible, leaving God-given grace and mercy given for all souls.

A space and time for progressive Christian worship where every individual is affirmed as inherently valuable to God, and our call to love God and love one another is kept a focal point.

A worship service for deprogramming; for unfundamentalists; for those pushed aside by historical man-made structures; for women; for people of color; for the LGBTQIA community; for people with disabilities; for immigrants; for indigenous peoples / first peoples; for families of one and families of many; for children and youth, the elderly, the young-ish, and the middle-aged; for the oppressed, the recovering oppressor, and those who are both; for the love of all humankind.

Our recovery.

Recovery - wide logo - transparent background

Whenever I briefly mentioned the idea, people perked up and asked for more details. They were all interested. Some even signed themselves up to help every week, not having attended yet but so drawn to the mission and vision. People said they needed it.

So in early 2019, after countless calls and emails and meetings and visits, I grew tired of waiting for existing churches and clergy to be on board. I grew tired of waiting – yet again – for “The Church (™)” to accept this community that was begging for space. God makes room. Where institutions do not, where individuals do not, where oppression reigns, God disrupts the status quo and makes room.

Some forces are too strong and inevitable for mere mortals to control. Can you keep a baby in the womb when the time has come for birth? Can you hold back floodwaters when the dam breaks? Can you withhold God-given grace and mercy and acceptance?

I acknowledged myself out loud as “dechurched” and set my mind: “f— it, I’m just gonna do it.”

the band.jpg
Me and the band.

It was time to light the match. This is literally a salvation issue.

There is simply no other way to explain it. When the church excludes people, regardless of the church’s intention, those people receive the message that they are excluded from God’s grace and mercy. This is a lie, but having been in that situation myself, I can testify that it feels like probably the deepest, most permanent wound.

We had to do an Easter service. Celebrating the resurrection, Easter is hope, new life, and promise. We’d sing praises from a random rooftop or parking lot if we had to, but people needed this.

I wasn’t sure how many people to expect – 10? 200? (With dinner planned, there were lots of loaves & fishes jokes.) I admit, I was worried – what if nobody attended? What if it was just the band and the readers and the preacher, and we were just presenting a service for ourselves? “It’s okay – it’d still be worth it,” said one of the guitarists.

So the day came. April 21, 2019. Easter Sunday. We had all sorts of people! From ages 4 to 70-something. LGBTQIA+ people and straight people. People of color and white people. People who speak Spanish and English and ASL. People who’d attended other Easter services earlier that day, and people who hadn’t been in years (or maybe at all). People who are part of a Christian denomination, people who are simply “Christian,” people who are Pagan, people who don’t really know what label to use. Autistic people and allistic people. People with disabilities, visible and hidden. Radical leftists and conservatives. Cat people and dog people and reptile people. All of them God’s people. We ate dinner together, and when we had all finished, we moved into the sanctuary together for the Gospel, a brief sermon, and prayers, interspersed with a variety of music.

Our first worship, Easter Sunday 2019.

And now the coals are smoldering.

We are trying to practice what Jesus preached. Open commensality, where everyone has a place at the table. Where space is held. Where room is made. Where we love God and love our neighbor (and everyone is our neighbor). We won’t be perfect, but we are going to continually try to be better. To love better.

The next immediate plans for Recovery are to participate in some local Pride services happening in May-June; do some fundraising (ahem); and line up resources so that we can finally start with weekly services!

Continually, constantly, I am trying to break out of the restraints of “tradition” and kyriarchy, to let God’s radical love make room. I am dechurched, but never de-faithed.

Holy Spirit, set our hearts ablaze.

Jen Jesse - photo (1)Jen Jesse is a church disrupter based in the Salt Lake City area. Her ministry is Recovery Worship, an ecumenical, radically inclusive worship space-time. Jen also runs Salty Consulting, focusing on small-to-medium businesses, churches and other houses of worship, and non-profits. Originally from the DC area, where she graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and George Mason University, she and her husband Josh moved to Utah in 2015. They have two little rescue pups, Jordy and Jackson (#SoManyJs).


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