Issue: Spring/Summer 2013
5 & 2
Danielle Brenon '12
Rosario Picardo '03
Heeding God’s call to feed a multitude of people, a young disciple dared to plant a church from the ground up. Driven by a heart for broken people, Rosario Picardo ’03 maximized the resources God provided to launch Embrace Church, a bold, authentic community of faith.
True as the title of his new book, Embrace: The Church Plant that Broke all the Rules, Embrace Church has shattered every principle of proper church planting.
“Some would have called it a suicide mission,” states Rosario, a Houghton grad who majored in religion. Whereas a traditional church plant has funds and folks lined up before the church doors open, Embrace was equipped with pennies, a few able bodies and many scattered ideas. The church plant was both risky and innovative, necessitating a nontraditional approach.
“We hardly knew what we were doing,” Rosario admits. “God used that to do so much.” Rosario heeded God’s call just as his own life was met with brokenness. Recently divorced and burned out by the “cookiecutter Christian” imprint, he decided to make ministry his life. Broken and called to rebuild, the young graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and newly appointed church planter set out to revitalize the Christian church community.
Rosario’s ministry began with a few disciples and a small donation from the United Methodist Church; together they formulated a carefully budgeted financial plan. As the gospel story goes, God allowed a small supply to surpass its measure.
Embrace Church opened its doors in downtown Lexington, Kentucky, just as a population decline plagued the area. Without a building, early gatherings were what Rosario calls “hanging out” in basements and public spaces. The church quickly grew to include house worship, community evangelism and outreach. Three challenging years later, Embrace Church has become a diverse and vibrant Christian faith community that reaches hundreds of people broken by poverty, burned out by religion and in need of healing grace.
Embrace has its home base at the Kentucky Theatre in downtown Lexington (Embrace Downtown), with two local campuses and three congregations. On Sunday mornings, dedicated volunteers set up Embrace Downtown from scratch, only to tear down a few hours later. Another congregation, simply called The Gathering, is a service that sounds just like its name: Christians enjoying fellowship and sharing life over a meal.
All of Embrace’s congregations follow an “ancient future” model, looking toward the future in terms of sustainability and relevance, while faithfully reverting to some of the oldest and greatest church traditions. Though the “typical” church service hardly exists, an Embrace service often features a benediction, the affirmation of creeds, responsive readings, testimonies and candlelight.
Embrace brings church to the people. Members regularly go out into the urban community to serve, interact, and get their hands dirty. Concerts and events are held in sports bars. According to Rosario, the church has found its niche in targeting twenty- and thirtysomethings, a generation they have found very concerned with living out their faith.
“We understand our calling to be primarily missional in nature,” he writes on the Embrace website. “Just as Christ left his place at the right hand of God to come to us, bringing the good news, offering himself up for us, so we wish to imitate Jesus by going out into the community in ways that allow us to serve different needs and different contexts. Our focus is much less on getting folks to come to us and much more on our going out to them.”
Rosario, who is now working on his Doctor of Ministry at United Theological Seminary, believes that his church-on-a-budget is a catalyst for innovation. American churchgoers are no longer a majority, according to a 2013 survey by Asbury Seminary, as about 17 percent of Americans attend church regularly and roughly 80 percent of American church givers are over 65 years of age. Embrace Church hopes to counteract the decline while being as self-sufficient as possible. “We are trying to get ahead of the curve by being a church that is low-maintenance, organized, structured and simple.”
Rosario’s approach is to rethink church, but not rethink the Gospel.
The church’s journey, from a basement gathering to a local park to the State Theater downtown, has not been easy. “I have had my car stolen and sold for twenty dollars, my tires slashed, my house vandalized and my life threatened for carrying out His call,” says an unapologetic Rosario. “God has called me to do this, and that is what keeps me going.”
Today, Embrace Church is a thriving spiritual community because of the prayer, presence, financial gifts and service of every willing member. Rosario can attest, however, that Embrace would not have survived without God’s unexplainable provisions, not unlike the gospel miracle of the feeding of the multitudes.
“We continue to make things work on five loaves and two fish.”