For Alex Aguas, M.Div. ’12, and Matthew Veling, M.Div. ’11, the church experience comprises numerous possibilities. They were friends and fellow M.Div. students at Azusa Pacific Seminary who often wondered about their community, about ministry, about how they could “do church” in a way that broke down barriers and passed on the gift of Christian faith to other generations. After many conversations with each other, God, and friends, they founded Restoration Abbey—church in a pizza restaurant.
When Matthew and Alex began discussing a church plant, most of their conversations centered on various stories of restoration in the Bible. They also had a great appreciation for the traditional roles of the abbey—keeper of the Christian faith and tradition, sanctuary for the weary, and provider for those in need. So, what did they envision for a church? An abbey. That focuses on restoration.
Get to know Matthew and Alex a little better below.
What were you seeing within Christian culture that led you to do church differently?
Matthew: Fragmentation and segregation, and a consumeristic perspective running rampant, which leads to a what-do-I-get-out-of-this-church type of Christianity and fails to consider the needs of your neighbor. Diversity is the key to the full breadth of God’s kingdom.
Alex: Some parts of the Christian culture I’ve experienced aren’t sure how what we profess to believe on Sunday mornings connects with how we spend our time or money, or whom we ought to spend our time with. Our culture is adept at dividing us by age, interest, ethnicity, ability, appearance, etc. Too often these divisions are accommodated within the church. We can only imagine how much healthier our churches might be if we sought to bridge some of the fissures within our congregations.
What type of religious background did you come from, and how did that play into what God wanted you to do with the Abbey?
Alex: I grew up with one foot in a big, evangelical, younger, nondenominational church, and the other in a smaller, older, liturgical environment. In the nondenominational context, I experienced exciting, heartfelt change in people’s lives, but it happened within the context of the individual, and I wasn’t sure what my relationship was with the people I gathered with on Sundays. In the liturgical context, I grew close with people, but sometimes didn’t understand why we did what we did during worship, and I didn't see many people my age.
What obstacles did you encounter in creating the Abbey?
Matthew: We were concerned with developing our own language around what we wanted to do—redefining words and repurposing practices to aid in Christian formation. We found, however, that the historic church already wrestled with these ideas and came to beautiful conclusions. For example, we wrestled with our purpose statement, but then discovered in The Book of Common Prayer a concise statement that solidified what we’d already been leading toward: The purpose of the church is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
What is the difference between being for God and being with God, as you say on your website?
Matthew: “Doing for” implies an impoverished view of the other, and assumes that “haves” must always do for the “have nots,” when in reality God invites us into relationship, co-creation, and intimacy with Him. “Being with” is about listening, learning, and loving each other from a state of mutual respect, friendship, and commitment. If we seek to empower others for the sake of others, we take a step closer to the kingdom of heaven here on earth as it is in heaven.
Alex: At the end of our days, when we are in the presence of Jesus, and there’s nothing left for us to do for God or God to do for us, what then? There is time, simply, for us to be with God and to enjoy God. There is time, for us to be with others and enjoy others. We see this in the gift of the Sabbath—a time of ceasing to accomplish, that we may rest and enjoy. Jesus, before he was born, is named “Emmanuel, God with us.” The story of the incarnation is that “the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message). This is the promise of God: that we might be with Him. And that should transform how we are with others.
“There’s hundreds of meals eaten here every week, but the first meal . . . on Sunday mornings is communion. . . and how is that a blessing for all the other meals eaten here throughout the week?” – Alex
How do people at the Abbey demonstrate the love of Christ in your community?
Alex: As a nascent church, we are still a “mission” and some of our people have done a great job helping keep that image before us. For example, a couple of people developed a plan to change our offering plates to large offering baskets that could hold more than just money. We began receiving vegetables and fruits that people within the community were growing, and other gifts to be shared. It got to the point where we had to organize an offering basket that was just for blessing others outside the church, ranging from items to help people struggling with homelessness, to care packages for college students. Every time we do this, our people work hard to think through how these gifts enable us to “be with” others.
What kinds of interactions have you had with people in your community, particularly those who didn’t have a church background?
Matthew: The best experience we have is with the staff at Pizza Nova. When one of the staff members says to us, “I’ve never been to church in my life,” and yet you see them sitting in the back waiting for our service to end so they can finish opening the restaurant, you wonder if this is what it looks like to be within your community. The staff consider us friends.
Alex: My favorite reactions come from kids. We received an email from a parent whose child wrote in school that her family went to a church called Pizza Church. I think the idea that we can claim sacred space in a restaurant each Sunday and then have worship flow into lingering conversation around a meal after provides unique opportunities for interactions with people who may have no concept of church, or who have been Christians for years.
What do you envision or hope for concerning the future of the Abbey?
Matthew: We hope to live out our vision that all of God’s children will be engaged in God’s way of life, as we seek to live out our mission of restoring God’s peace to all people, relationships, and communities. We hope this could be as practical as “a community center in the center of God’s community” where we seek to establish collaborative relationships, be visible within our community, and cultivate our congregation’s imagination for practicing our faith in everyday life with unlikely friends.
Alex: I’m always interested in what kind of people we are forming through the way we worship God. Our dreams hinge upon our ability to learn habits of faithfulness within our own community. Do we listen well? Are we raising our children to be lifelong followers of Jesus? Is the Spirit moving in our midst? We just initiated the first members of the Abbey, and we consistently came back to the Prayer of St. Francis, which begins, “Lord, make us instruments of your peace.” Every time we pray this, I picture jazz musicians riffing and improvising, listening well to one another, and making beautiful, joyful music together. I hope we can say something similar about the instruments God has at the Abbey.