“We’re on a mission from God” – “Joliet” Jake Blues
The 1980 film The Blues Brothers featured John Belushi and Dan Akroyd as an unlikely pair of missionaries who, upon seeing a vision, decide to get a band together to raise money for an orphanage. Karl Fisher and Spencer Sweeting were once in a band together, but there the similarities end. Their mission, however, is no less inspired than Jake and Elwood’s, and has led them to form a new church here in Williamsport called the City Alliance.
City Alliance Church began meeting in March on Wednesday nights at 7 at Alabaster Coffee Roaster (410 Pine Street), which is owned and operated by Karl Fisher. The vision in starting both Alabaster and City Alliance sprang from a love for the city of Williamsport and a desire to see the city transformed culturally, socially, and spiritually. The coffee shop was birthed first from this vision, and has been successful for the last two years in developing relationships within the community, along with serving fine coffee. For Karl and Spencer, the forming of the church was the natural next step.
In 2003 Williamsport had 130 churches within its city limits, according to research conducted by Spencer at that time. The rate of one church for every 236 people could rank Williamsport among the top cities in the U.S. in churches per capita. Forming another church in an area already saturated could be considered overly ambitious. Kurt and Spencer are a part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. One might expect to find missionaries in far-off lands immersing themselves in native cultures, but here in Williamsport? What natives weren’t being served by the current crop of churches? To answer that, Kurt had to look no farther than his own coffee shop, where he found people who would become part of the core team originating the church.
Who are these Williamsport residents who weren’t being served by the many churches already existing in Williamsport? The city has a love for the arts, as evidenced in their support of places like the Community Theater League, Uptown Music Collective, Billtown Burlesque, Grey Gallery, Community Arts Center and First Friday. Around this support has risen a growing artistic community, which has filled the studios of The Pajama Factory to capacity and has found places such as Alabaster to gather, converse, and form relationships. Alabaster, in particular, has been supportive of these artists by providing a venue for live music and for artists to sell their work. Some of these artists and lovers of art have formed the congregation thus far of City Alliance.
The theologian Alan Jones talks about how we need to rely upon secondhand information in order to survive. We need to accept the word of scientists, physicians and farmers on trust. He says, “But when it comes to questions of meaning, purpose, and death, secondhand information will not do. I cannot survive on a secondhand faith—in a secondhand God.” Some of those who have found their way into the doors of the City Alliance Church have been raised in one denomination or another. They each have found that they needed something more personal to them. City Alliance began with a Bible study, as opposed to a worship service, according to Spencer Sweeting, the church pastor, so as to offer something more personal, something involving interconnectedness between the church-goers, as opposed to individual one-way relationships between a preacher and a person sitting in a pew.
Spencer and Karl learned that in order to “reach people that no one is reaching, you have to do things that no one is doing,” and applied this to the formation of City Alliance. Jesus went to the well and spoke to the Samaritan woman, according to the New Testament, a woman with whom the Jews would not associate. The modern-day version of the well, the watering hole, in the form of a coffee shop, is where City Alliance decided to stop and speak to the Good Samaritans. Their “mission from God,” to “see lives change, culture redeemed and the city renewed by the Gospel,” has begun with the planting of a church in a coffee shop, and in caring for it they hope to see it grow.