Written by Barb Powell
Extravagance UCC, the successful online ministry started more than two years ago under the visionary leadership of the Rev. Jo Hudson, is revamping its outreach as part of the United Church of Christ’s Faith Formation Ministry.
Originally conceived as a nongeographic local church start, Extravagance is evolving into a faith-formation tool where many online members take what they learn back to their local brick-and-mortar churches. That's just one of the findings of a two-year evaluation of Extravagance by the Social Research Lab at the University of Northern Colorado. Much of the online spiritual community's success is due to the leadership team of Hudson, the Rev. Kimberly Knight, minister of digital communities, and the Rev. Lawrence Richardson, minister of digital evangelism.
"Jo took the very esoteric idea of a 'geographically dispersed congregation,' wrestled with it alongside many others, and brought Extravagance UCC into being, with considerable success," said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, former executive minister of the UCC's Local Church Ministries. "Over the past two years, it has proven itself to be a vital and appreciated ministry."
The research report concluded that Extravagance UCC is more a program of the national setting than a stand-alone congregation. While many new people have been reached, said Guess, the most involved members are already part of physical local churches who draw upon "the many resources and online gatherings of Extravagance as a way of deepening their own faith –– practices they have experimented with through Extravagance and then brought to others in their congregations."
"We give great thanks for the leadership Jo has provided this ministry, and we know Extravagance continues to be in good hands, as now it becomes more integrated with the programmatic work of the UCC's Faith Formation Ministry Team under the leadership of the Rev. Ivy Beckwith and her staff," Guess added. As part of the Faith Formation Ministry, Extravagance will be overseen by the Rev. Nicole Havelka, curator of youth and young adult ministries, a position shared with the UCC's Ohio Conference. Havelka is the former minister of digital evangelism for Extravagance.
"I am very happy about the decision to move Extravagance into the national church setting with Faith Formation because I believe this is exactly what Extravagance is all about," said Hudson. "I believe that the internet is a place where great evangelism can take place, and there is a great need for a voice of progressive Christianity to be heard. So many people connect online, and are learning a damning and damaging faith. The United Church of Christ provides a view of a generous and gracious faith, and I believe that needs to be heard and shared now more than ever, and the internet is a place where that kind of conversation and faith growth can take place."
With Knight, Richardson and many others, Hudson and Extravagance launched "Dinner Church," where people gather with friends, family and/or those online and share a meal and livestream worship. "We include a liturgy with questions and the inclusion of Holy Communion," said Hudson. "What is exciting is that one church that ministers with college students had so much interest that they added another gathering."
Other innovations include a Sunday night bible study on zoom.us and a Wednesday night Lectio Divina gathering that is livestreamed.
"What an honor it has been to be the gathering pastor for this ministry," said Hudson, who currently is co-pastor of Chiesa Nuova UCC (The New Church) in Dallas. "When I first began ministry with Extravagance, I confess that I was a bit skeptical about the ability to create personal community online. I have discovered that it is possible to connect people in very personal ways through online ministry."
"There are really three ways of communicating online: sharing information, providing education, and creating community. Most people and churches are good at the first two, but creating community … is the most challenging and yet the most rewarding," Hudson added. "Creating faith community is what Extravagance is all about –– allowing people to connect in meaningful ways that grow their faith and relationships. I see this not as a replacement for the local church, but as an addition to it, especially for those who cannot or choose not to connect face-to-face."