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Urban Soul reaching new people, in new places, in new ways

Urban Soul reaching new people, in new places, in new ways

Fresh Expressions

When Derrick Scott III explains how Urban Soul—a Fresh Expression initiative of the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church—came to be, he can’t help but laugh.

At himself.

Exploring venues throughout Jacksonsville's urban core neighborhood, the Fresh Expression called Urban Soul meets away from traditional church settings. Shown here is a recent gathering at Vagabond Coffee.

“I actually started Urban Soul in a way that I figured it wouldn’t actually succeed,” Scott said, “so that I could just say to Jesus, ‘I tried it. Didn’t work. You want someone else anyway, because I’m already too busy, and you know that, Jesus!’”

It was the fall of 2014, and the last thing Scott was looking for was another commitment. As the executive director of Campus to City Wesley (CCW), he spent his days—and nights—ministering to dozens of college students across three different campuses in and around Jacksonville. He also juggled family, friends and his two Chihuahuas, Ralphie and Winston. Scott had declared his plate officially full. The Holy Spirit? Not so much.

“Because of my job, I was allowed to live in a church parsonage that’s located in Avondale, so I just moved in, not really thinking it was going to lead to anything,” he recalled. “And eventually, I started meeting people, and what the Holy Spirit kind of started doing with me was breaking my heart for these individuals here in the urban core.”

‘Prayer and guidance’

Most were millennials, some a bit older. He would see them around the neighborhood, sometimes at his favorite brewery, Intuition Ale Works, and they would be curious about his mission trips to Cuba and Romania, as well as his work on campus. Over time, in that funky neighborhood where you can find everything from tattoo parlors and artisan cupcake shops to riverside mansions and hookah lounges, Scott built deep relationships.

“I was developing trust with individuals,” he said. “People were coming to me for pastoral care—people who were not in churches or not even interested in Jesus at the moment. They were coming to me with their questions and coming to me asking for prayer and guidance.”

Derrick Scott III, also executive director of Campus to City Wesley, stated that young people offer "skepticism, diverse opinions and open hearts." Urban Soul brings a unique form of pastoral presence in Jacksonville's downtown area.

Those opportunities to share his faith left Scott—who was practically raised in church— thrilled and troubled at the same time because he was gradually reaching an uncomfortable conclusion: these young people—with their skepticism, diverse opinions, edgy lifestyles and open hearts—would not fit neatly into the churches he knew.

“No matter how great or flashy or relevant our churches are, those were spaces these individuals were not going to be walking into—at least anytime soon,” he said. “And I just could not shake that issue, that awareness.”

He tried. Pretty hard.

In what he now refers to as “the false start,” Scott launched Urban Soul as a monthly “house worship gathering” knowing full well most of the people he’d befriended—mostly millennials, some a bit older—wouldn’t go for it. He was right, but his connection to people in Avondale and other areas of the urban core only grew stronger.

Most importantly, Scott listened to his community. He listened to people share their frustrations with organized religion. He listened to their confusion over church membership, fears of being judged and doubts about faith in general. By the fall of 2015, he had regrouped with a new intent, and today Urban Soul is designed as a safe space where those very conversations can take place.

“A low-commitment, middle space for people who have a history with Jesus and or the church but aren’t completely sure what they are going to do with that,” Scott said. “If they’re going to continue with that.”

Back to the roots

Since then, he’s worked to hold Urban Soul events every one or two months. “Each event has been different, and it’s been just sort of an opportunity for people to come together,” he said. “For one, I brought in a good friend of mine, Justin McRoberts, who’s a singer-songwriter-pastor-storyteller kind of guy out of California…and I hosted that at the brewery.” Another event, a community night, included dinner followed by a short message—“How to stay in church when you don’t want to”—from Scott. Other gatherings have been held at coffee shops, featuring a wide range of topics.

“We’re trying to reach new people in new places in new ways,” Scott said. “We’ve had some flops, some big expensive failures, and then we’ve had some nights I really didn’t think were going to work at all and they were incredible!”

The Rev. Will Wold, associate pastor at Mandarin United Methodist Church, has enjoyed watching Derrick’s commitment to Urban Soul. “I think it’s awesome,” he said. “He’s a minister to the people of downtown Jacksonville, whether it’s Riverside or Avondale.” Wold, whose congregation hosts a monthly “Beer and Hymns” event at Veterans United Craft Brewery—as well as a bus stop ministry— said these unconventional efforts serve as a good reminder that God isn’t found only inside a church building.

“And our whole purpose is to help people see where God is already present,” he added. “It might be in a brewery. It might be in a conversation at a bus stop. It might be in a political conversation.”

Florida Conference Fresh Expressions Coordinator Matt Harrell agrees. “Derrick’s parish, if you will, is not within the four walls of CCW at one of their campus meetings. His parish is his life. It’s, like, revolutionary for our time, but it’s not revolutionary. He’s really going back to the roots.

“That’s what Jesus ministry was. Jesus could have just gone to the temple and preached, but he really spent his time with his community or the community he was in. He was on the streets,” Harrell said.

For Scott, the new year brings new hope. Though he still struggles with “not having enough bandwidth” to grow Urban Soul as fast as he’d like, he knows God has a plan. “This is my conviction, going into 2017,” he said. “I need a team—people who will help me plan but mostly people who will help be a pastoral presence in the urban core.”

He’s not entirely sure what this team will look like, but he envisions a team of people who are passionate about meeting people where they are in life and simply sharing Jesus with them.

“I am hopeful because, at this moment, we are asking the kinds of questions we probably should have asked 50 years ago,” Scott said. “And the reason we’re asking them is not because we need our churches to be bigger. I think we’re asking the question, ‘How do we really give Jesus what Jesus wants—disciples?’”

--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer who lives in Pensacola.

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