Five Years at City on a Hill Church

Five years ago tomorrow, I first visited City on a Hill Church in Brookline, Massachusetts. Affectionately known as “CoaH” (koh-uh) by those of us who call it our spiritual home, it’s been my favorite part of living in the Boston area.

My First Visit

CoaH was actually the fourth church I was visiting that day, my second Sunday in Boston. Classes hadn’t started yet, and I wanted to both visit a lot of churches in the area and wrap up my church search quickly. I had assembled a list of churches from talking to the folks I had met in the Graduate Christian Fellowship, and had been mixing and matching to find the best combination of service times. With a 6pm evening service, I visited CoaH after a 9am service at Hope Fellowship, an 11:30 service at Vineyard Christian Fellowship (now Reservoir Church), and a 2pm service at CityLife Presbyterian Church.

Some people would see that schedule and feel exhausted, but I found it exhilarating. Each service was a chance to see a different congregation in the Boston area, interact with a few of the people, and be spiritually refreshed by the service itself, even if I heard a few too many three-point sermons and through various mishaps ended up at 11 different T stops that day alone.

It’s actually an interesting story how I even heard about CoaH in the first place. It wasn’t on my original list, but after visiting three churches the previous Sunday, I decided I wanted to expand my list further. I looked up the Acts 29 churches in the area; Acts 29 is a church planting movement that was founded by Mark Driscoll, a celebrity pastor whose sermons I listened to weekly for several years back in college, and my sister was also attending an Acts 29 church in Boulder that I had the privilege of visiting once. Today, there are several Acts 29 churches in the Boston area, but at that time, there were just two: CoaH and Mosaic, an even newer (one-year-old) church that I would visit the following week.

I took notes:

The auditorium had the typical stadium-type seating, like stairs that are twice the size, with bibles strewn about and some folding chairs in the front two rows. I want to emphasize how small the church was; I counted about 30 people at the entire service. Afterwards, I heard that this was more true of the 6pm service; about 100 people come to the 10am one, and they open up the entire auditorium.

There were some technical errors in the worship slides so they gave us about 10 more minutes to chat with the people near ourselves. The woman next to me was also a first-time visitor, and I also chatted with a woman in the row above/behind me and her husband Fletcher. On my way in, I had met two guys named Eric and Charlie, and Eric sat in front of me and we also started talking some more. So I actually appreciated the technical problems because it gave me a chance to talk to more people.

Fletcher, of course, is Fletcher Lang, now officially a pastor of the church. He’d been there less than a year at that point, though.

In between the first and second songs, there was a call-and-response reading of the very inspiring Psalm 139. I would say that out of all the things I saw that day, this was the most surprising. Well, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect at the Vineyard, but I thought I’d be able to guess what each church was like, and something liturgical like this was kind of surprising. But it was a very cool passage, as I said, and great to read aloud together.

We continue to do these responsive readings today, and it’s honestly something I’ve just gotten used to. I still appreciate it — spoken word can be a powerful medium to express the truths of the Christian faith just like worship music. It doesn’t feel stilted or repetitive, and it doesn’t last longer than a minute or two.

The pastor, Bland Mason, got up to speak. He had a few announcements; there would be no 6pm service because of Faith Day at the Red Sox next Sunday. He’s actually also the baseball chaplain to the Red Sox, so he’d be taking a flight up to Seattle with the team to bond better with them in preparation for Faith Day. Unfortunately, one of the ringleaders of the Christians on the team (and one of their best players as well), Adrian Gonzalez, was just traded to the Dodgers. But there’d still be four or five guys on the team sharing at the event, Bland told us.

If you know how much of a baseball fan I am, you know that I had to comment on that connection. This wasn’t the reason I stayed at CoaH, but it didn’t hurt. 😉 In my notes, I went on to describe the whole sermon, from Ephesians 4 on unity. I then noticed what seemed to be unique among the churches that I had visited:

Sprinkled throughout the sermon, Bland also heavily emphasized the way that these things are lived out, in community. He said that living life together was key to doing that, even going so far as to say that you don’t experience the church if you just come on Sundays. Community groups (small groups) are a huge thing to this church, and they had sign-ups in the hallway. I ended up signing up for the one small group meeting on my side of the river, actually on campus at MIT. So I’ll definitely be checking them out.

After the service, Eric turned to me again and we talked a bunch more. I definitely got the vibe from that community that they wanted to get to know me. It definitely felt like the kind of real life-on-life community I’ve been searching for. I talked a bunch more with Charlie, another community group leader, and with Fletcher after the service. They had really yummy chocolate chip cookies and it was kind of hard to leave.

And I definitely liked to use the word “definitely,” even when it came to first impressions. 😛 Anyways, this degree of close-knit community was remarkable in a city like Boston. I felt like family immediately:

After the service, I was asking around for suggestions on how to get back, and the worship leader, Mike Hong, said he could give me a ride after they packed up the church. Great, I just sat back down and started writing down my notes from churches earlier that day.

And while I was waiting, they asked if I wanted to help out by counting up the offering with Fletcher. Turns out, just because I do math doesn’t mean I can count; I was off by $10. But anyways, they were excited that I was documenting all of my church visits. At one point, they were saying that it would be better to inventory all of the sound equipment, and someone said that they possibly shouldn’t talk about such plans with someone new around (as in, it would be a lot of work and they didn’t want to scare me off), and I said it was fine; that actually sounded pretty fun.

This is especially hilarious now that I’m the official church clerk and one of a team of offering counters. We’ve become a lot more… organized and disciplined since then, and would never ask a first-time visitor to count offering for us these days.

But look at that community. This wasn’t an isolated incident, either; my second Sunday, another stranger would also offer to drive me home to Cambridge even though they lived elsewhere. Figuring out transportation had been my biggest concern with the church, and it became a lot easier once I met others who were driving from Cambridge/Somerville, but it was amazing to me how out of his way Mike and others went to help someone they had just met, back in those days before Uber and Lyft.

City on a Hill was my top choice after that visit, and never fell from there. I visited two other churches for a second time (Hope Fellowship and Park Street) and waited to decide for sure until I’d visited the 10am service at CoaH, but it had been everything I was hoping for and more.

Community Group: The heart of the church

A week and a half later, I first visited the community group that I’ve been a part of for the last five years. I was still taking notes:

Thursday evening, I walked over to MacGregor and navigated my way to Fabrice’s apartment. Fabrice and Alyssa were there, but I was the first guest. I also met their cat named Fiona, who always tries to escape so they have to keep the door to their apartment closed. They shared with me how they kind of regret getting her now because of that, but she did solve a really bad mice problem they had a year ago. Later on, I also learned that they had actually also trained her to use the toilet, although she doesn’t flush. Woah, I didn’t know you could train a cat. That’s pretty cool.

Anyways, another married couple, Sean and Jenny, showed up soon after me, and we all ate the pasta dish Alyssa had cooked for us. We quickly started talking, which was such a trap. Sean and Jenny had also been to the Hillsong concert with me the night before, and they said it brought back memories of when they went to a Hillsong clone church in Australia. Hillsong isn’t a band so much as a church, and they conduct their church services a lot like they do their concerts, in fact. They’ve become one of the only successful churches in Australia, which means that a lot of other churches have tried to mimic their style, including the one that Sean and Jenny had attended when they lived in Sydney. As we thought about it, Fabrice remarked that the youth culture in Australia was much more secular than ours, and thus, that style was particularly suited to reach the culture they were in. By contrast, Boston is PhD central, and as such, CoaH’s style is much more intellectual.

Our conversation naturally flowed from there, and we went on to talk for over an hour about a range of topics like Christian orthodoxy and gay marriage. As I wrote afterwards:

It was really cool to have a community where I could ask the hardest questions I had been struggling with, and find people not only willing to search for the answers, but understanding of why I was seeking such answers.

We had instantly connected, and over the next few weeks, I would dive right into that community. In addition to Fabrice, Alyssa, Sean and Jenny, I’d soon meet Melissa, a speech pathologist living in Somerville, Jess, an MIT sophomore at the time, and Josh, a fellow MIT grad student, who would grow into good friends over the years.

Beyond the individuals in the group, I came to really appreciate a couple of the more structural aspects of CG. First, I loved how we would discuss the passage and message that had been preached that Sunday. I often leave a sermon with thoughts and additional questions on my mind, and I loved having this opportunity to discuss it. And second, I loved that this bible study, again uniquely in my experience, was completely flexible and open to whatever was on everyone’s mind at the time. I heard of another group dropping everything one week to comfort a woman whose fiance had just been deployed to Afghanistan.

As it turned out, that’s exactly what had happened the first week I visited. Fabrice actually had a bible study prepared based on the sermon that week from the book of Joshua, but when the conversation (probably mostly driven by me) was going strong, he decided not to interrupt it to start the study. Every other bible study I’ve been a part of would have wanted to get through the passage they planned to study that week, but this small group was flexible.

I think this is part of why more people attend CoaH community groups than attend the Sunday gathering. For a while this was reported as “over 100% of people in our church are part of a community group” — and there is the occasional person who just comes to community group without coming to church — but when we started taking surveys, we found that the number was closer to 80-90%. But still, most of those who haven’t found a group yet are new.

Community groups also form the basic unit of mobilization in the church. We meet in an elementary school gym, and take turns transforming it into a worship gathering and then back into a gym. I still remember the first time our group was on “setup” — I was in charge of making sure the chairs were perfectly aligned, using my OCD for God’s glory. 😛 But it also put me in a weird mindset, where I was no longer able to appreciate the service as a participant. Sean reassured me that this feeling would fade, and it has.

Church Planting: The mission of the church

City on a Hill was first planted around three years before I got to Boston; it’s still somewhat crazy to think that I’ve been a part of the church for the majority of its existence. Yet even in that first conversation with Eric, I heard of their big plans to plant churches all over Boston.

Charlie would be the first to leave. He planted Hub Church in South Boston in 2013, bringing with him a core group out of CoaH. I was heartbroken to learn that a majority of those who I had first connected with were joining him: Eric, Fabrice and Alyssa would all sign on to join the church, as well as two more friends I’d made, Jesse and Henry. In the end, the evening service whose intimacy I had initially appreciated effectively became the pilot for Hub Church; they stopped holding that service at the end of the year.

It wasn’t all sad, though. It was also inspiring to see Charlie’s heart for the church, and if I’m being honest, much of it was the heart for life-on-life community that attracted me to CoaH in the first place. The core group moved to Southie together, intentionally getting apartments near each other and reaching out to their neighbors. In many ways, it was exactly what I would have envisioned ideal church planting to be. I even vaguely considered joining myself, before feeling drawn to serve in the Graduate Christian Fellowship as well, which seemed more possible if I stayed in Cambridge.

And they wouldn’t be that far away. For the next couple years, we’d get together with them and another subsequent church plant for a joint Good Friday service. This blossomed into a massive event at Faneuil Hall bringing together a bunch of churches from the area, but I could always count on a chance to catch up with Eric. The rest of our CG would also make an effort to visit Fabrice, Alyssa, and now their daughter Madeline in Southie to catch up, until they eventually moved to San Diego a year and a half ago.

Since Charlie left, we’ve had three more church planters intern with us before planting churches in the greater Boston area some of which have gone on to grow even faster than us. We took a break last year, but I hear that we already have another church planter lined up for the next year. But none would take as big of a chunk of the church as Hub Church would.

Part of the reason is that CoaH has continued growing, at a rate around 20% a year. That 10am gathering split into a 9am and an 11am, and we’re apparently reaching capacity in that gym. Unlike some churches, the constant churn of taking turns on setup and teardown means that I visit both and can’t really tell much of a difference between the communities at each service, apart from the fact that we’ve only had CoaH Kids at the 9am up until now.

Vintage CoaH isn’t coming back, but that’s okay

Like any church growing at that rate, though, CoaH has changed over the years. And like any relationship, the reasons I chose CoaH in the first place are still mostly present, although it honestly doesn’t have the exact same feeling that first attracted me.

For instance, I remember being struck in a new way by the worship experience when I first visited. I had been expecting a typical evangelical nondenominational contemporary Christian music vibe, and what I found was… different. There were new hymns set to modern instrumentation (a couple even by members of the church!), and a handful of sorrowful and repentant songs from Sojourn and Shane & Shane I hadn’t heard before. I started to compile a list of songs that I first heard through CoaH, which became a playlist that I would turn to when I needed to connect with God over the next few years. I appreciated the range of emotions that they expressed, something I wrote about in a previous blog post.

Our music has expanded, though, more accurately reflecting the worship experiences and preferences of others in the community. For instance, rather than just that white hipster music that first intrigued me, we now sing a lot more gospel. We still occasionally sing the songs I love, though, and the infrequency makes them all the sweeter.

As another example, take the closeness of the community. It’s famously hard to keep a community tight-knit beyond somewhere around 150 people, and I’m certainly not close with everyone. There are several different subcommunities I’ve gotten closer to, like the softball team or the CoaH Kids volunteers, but it’s not the same feeling as when less than 30 people were gathered in the evening service together, or even 100 in the morning.

We’ve also developed a lot more systems to handle responsibilities, so first-time visitors aren’t (mis)counting the offering. The Welcome Team has blossomed into formal responsibilities of greeters and connectors, not just having Eric, Charlie and Fletcher reaching out to those they don’t recognize. Setup and teardown, children’s ministry, and everything else has also gotten more systematized, as we’ve sought to standardize the responsibilities and share burdens across a wider group of volunteers. Okay, maybe the slides are the exception; difficulties with them still occasionally delay the start of the service, at least when I’m in charge of handling it…

And the kids — man, there are so many more kids now than when I started coming. Many of the couples I’ve known in the church have become new parents, which is an exciting transformation to witness. One reason that I was attracted to the church is that I felt like the core of the church was about 5 years ahead of me in life trajectory, if not necessarily in years, and that’s remained true as the church has multiplied “the old-fashioned way.”

Parenthood usually makes parents less accessible to their friends, and that’s true for some aspects; not many of them could make my birthday party each year. But at least in church, it’s also given us a new point of bonding, topic of conversation, a window into a big part of their life now. I’m thinking most prominently of one couple I met through the softball team, Chris and Grace-Ann, who were actually the first couple to meet at CoaH and get married there (although Eric and his wife Kait also have that claim to fame, but they didn’t get married until they joined Hub). We had connected immediately our softball and Grace-Ann’s job as a high school math teacher, but after their son Ezra was born, he became a lot of the focus of conversation.

Living by Faith Amid Transience

The bigger problem is when they move away, as unfortunately happened when Chris and Grace-Ann moved to Ohio this summer to be closer to family. They aren’t the only ones; three of our first four lay elders have already moved away. Our community group would similarly go through a series of leadership transitions, seemingly hanging on by a thread. After Fabrice and Alyssa joined Hub, Joe and Kayleen, another MIT grad student couple who had only started coming to CoaH that February, jumped into leading the group. Joe was in his final year of the PhD, though, and they would also move (to Maryland) and have a kid at the end of the year.

The pattern would continue. That winter, Sam and Becca, another MIT grad student couple living on the same floor as Joe and Kayleen, would start coming to our group, and then they stepped up to lead it at the end of the summer. Sam was in his second of two years of a Master’s and they would then move to LA and have a kid within a year. And once again, a couple who had only started coming to the group midway through that school year would step up to lead: Eduardo and Lisa came to Cambridge when Eduardo got a job at a start-up in November. He had actually been a part of our group the previous summer while working at a different startup that suddenly folded; I remember realizing with sadness I might not see him again. But the connections he’d made in Boston gave him an opportunity to come back, and after a short church search of their own, they were back in our group, hosting it by February and leading it by the summer. And just a year later, they’d both be in our wedding party.

Fortunately, they aren’t grad students and have been able to stick around to lead and host the group consistently, now about to start their third year of doing so. But at least for me, that consistency has also brought a degree of complacency. There’s just a sense of urgency with a friendship and a group that doesn’t know if it will continue to exist a year from now.

Of course, this is also true of the church at large. Fletcher told me during that first visit that they intentionally didn’t have a lot of programming (retreats, classes) because they wanted to allow their members opportunities to form friendships with and reach out to their neighbors and colleagues instead of immersing ourselves in constant church activities. For me, this meant the opportunity to get involved in graduate student life at MIT, through my department, dorm, and the Graduate Christian Fellowship, and I appreciated that CoaH wasn’t all-consuming the way other churches seemed to be. Like the responsive readings and hipster music, this was another surprising and positive way CoaH seemed to be deviating from the mainstream.

And yes, that has changed in the last five years. We now have annual retreats, leadership classes, book groups, workshops, volunteer opportunities, a kids summer camp, the whole gamut. All of these things are good; they certainly have given me more opportunities to meet others in the church and learn more about my faith. But I sometimes wonder if it’s slowly turned us into a more typically insular church, a community that exists for itself, away from our original ideal of a church that seeks to equip its members to love and serve the city as a whole without getting in their way.

One common complaint I’ve heard about the minimal approach is that it makes it difficult to meet people in the church, whether for romantic or friendship purposes. Chris and Grace-Ann are the exception that proves the rule; I don’t think there have been any such couples since then. And indeed, I never really saw CoaH as the place where I’d find my wife; sure enough, Grace and I met through GCF, as well as our dorm and board game group.

When we started dating, given how much I love CoaH and her minimal involvement in the short time she’d been attending Park Street, there was little question which church we’d attend. Fortunately, she loved it immediately as well, despite showing up for setup at 7am the first week she visited. She was also looking for a community-focused church, and as I had found in visiting churches, those are actually rarer than gospel-centered churches in Boston. Busyness and transience are much bigger issues here than any sort of intellectual or institutional opposition to Christianity.

Grace has also enthusiastically joined the softball team with me, despite not having played that sport before. These days, she often excitedly shares her newest thoughts on her batting stance with me. She’s influenced my involvement, too, encouraging me to help out with CoaH Kids and telling me all of the cute things the kids say and do there. When she got baptized, it was a chance to share the church with all of our GCF friends; some came away with the impression of it as a younger, hipper version of Hope, which makes sense, given that we’re a Hope church plant.

This reminds me of an anthropomorphic characterization I envisioned of some of the family of churches in the Boston area upon my first visits. Park Street was the grandparents (both the more traditional grandfather and the grandmother open to newer styles of worship), providing a hospitable downtown center to Christian life in the city; all Christian roads in Boston lead through Park Street. Hope could be the parents, but really felt more like a slightly more mature but also slightly more boring older sibling, while Mosaic was the younger brother who kept getting excited about different things. Other churches represented super successful cousins or aunts and uncles with interesting but slightly kooky ideas. And then there was CoaH, the protagonist of the story (from my perspective), the late 20-something with a stable job and, now, a family.

CoaH, it’s been a joy to grow up with you over the last five years. I’m looking forward to the next couple of years before Grace and I, too, inevitably leave, buy an apartment in Singapore, and start a family, in some order. But until then, this is home.

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One response to “Five Years at City on a Hill Church

  1. Pingback: What hangups do you have with Christianity? | The Christian Rationalist

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